With the prevalence of cell phones, virtually everyone is carrying a high-quality camera around at all times. But a high-quality camera does not guarantee a high-quality image. Proper lighting can make the difference between mediocre cell phone snaps and professional photography. Here we’ll tell you how to light your shots to get the desired effect. After all, without light, there is no photography.
Different lighting techniques have different effects, so while there’s no right answer, you want to use the right light to capture the look you’re after. Soft lighting is more forgiving, so it’s often used for portraits. Harsh lighting gives more contrast and detail, which can be less flattering for portraits, but is generally more artistic and edgy.
Soft lighting. Commercial photography is often bright and soft-lit. A closer light source means fewer shadows, reduced contrast, and less texture—i.e., softer light. Lighting from the front also reduces texture and softens the subject. Sometimes when shooting food or products, soft lighting can eliminate too much shadow, and the objects appear to be floating. Changing the angle of the light can reveal some shadow, but it will also harshen the light somewhat, so if you still want a softer look, angle judiciously!
Natural lighting. Light is naturally softer in the morning and evening because it is more diffuse. Morning and evening light is warmer; midday light is cooler. Midday light can be challenging for portraits because when the light is overhead, it causes shadows over the eyes and under the nose, which is generally not very flattering. By contrast, evening light, especially during the ‘golden hour’ is an excellent time for portraits because the light is naturally warm, soft, and forgiving.
Harsh lighting. Kinder names for this style of lighting include 'directional lighting,' ‘moody lighting’ and ‘sexy lighting,’ but whatever you call it, harsher light is more intimate but also more revealing. Harsh lighting is generally more ‘artsy’ and gives more drama to the shot. To get a more severe, dramatic feel to your images, move the light source further away, and place it at an angle to the subject. More distance and a bigger angle make for harsher, more directional lighting, which will give your shots more contrast and definition.
So what’s the best lighting for your shot? That, of course, is an open question. I like incorporating more harsh, artistic lighting into my product shots to give them a little more drama and break the mold a little bit. But consistently, we see soft, bright, cheerful pictures perform better on social media. So it’s best to test, and I always like to push the boundaries to see what works best for the shot and for the brand.