light in photography

Understanding light in photography is a crucial part of your role as a wedding photographer. The types of lighting in photography will differ from every location and subjects you work with. Light in photography is one of the elements can cause the most challenges during your shoots since it often can be unpredictable. Without the ability to accurately identify and use proper lighting in your shoots, you risk the overall quality of your imagery. What can you do to simplify lighting to create the images you desire?

Light in Photography

In our Online Training: The Keys to Lighting in Any Situation, lighting expert Roberto Valenzuela shared the keys to lighting in any situation. He offered tips to help you gain confidence with lighting and use it to your advantage. These are tips he teaches fellow photographers in his workshops, and he writes about in his #1 bestselling book with Rocky Nook, Picture Perfect Lighting: An Innovative Lighting System for Photographing People. Below, we share the top 5 tips from Roberto’s Online Training to help you get a better understanding of light, identify lighting in any scenario and how to get good lighting for photos.

“I believe photographers should shoot what they want, not shoot what they get.” – Roberto Valenzuela


black and white rainy wedding photo

Image by ShootDotEdit Wedding Pro, Roberto Valenzuela

Tip: In addition to your properly lit photos, maintain consistency from every shoot when you send your photos to a photo editing outsourcing company, like ShootDotEdit.

1. Learn Circumstantial Light Elements

A simple way for you to use light in any situation is to have the ability to identify the best light wherever you shoot. Everything in your environment changes how the light behaves. If you put your subject anywhere, everything around it (the buildings, floor, cars driving by or parked) affects the quality of the natural light the subject receives. Because of this, the light is circumstantial. To simplify light, Roberto created the 10 circumstantial light elements. These focus on the most important elements to see during your shoots. The 10 circumstantial light elements are as follows:

  • Source and Direction of Light: This describes where the light is coming from. If you know the source of the main light and the direction it comes from, it can help you understand the characteristics of the fill light. It can also allow you to determine the root of the source versus the actual main light source. An example of this is if you are in a parking lot, it likely has black tar on the ground. When the sun comes down and hits the ground, it is going to absorb a lot of the light because it is black. If you are in the park, and the sun comes down and hits the grass, the light is absorbed and becomes green. Your eye may not see that, but your camera does.
  • Flat Surfaces: Is there a flat object that is illuminated by your main light source, such as a wall or shrubbery? These can act as reflectors in your image and help to produce flattering light. An example of this is when you work with walls and buildings. If the sun hits a light colored building, it is going to be a reflector for beautiful natural light. If it is hitting a building that is dark or red and is not smooth, it will subtract light. The color could create too much red on your subject, which alters the look of your photos.
  • Shadows on the Ground and Walls: Can you identify where the shadow line is, and if it is coming from the ground or the wall? When looking at the shadows, are they dark with harsh edges, or are they lighter with soft edges? How long are the shadows? You can set up the shot more easily when you identify these items.
  • Circumstantial Light Modifiers: What is the texture, color, shape, material, and size of the objects in your location? You can use those objects to reflect light onto your subject. Keep in mind, these elements can make a large effect on your images. If you shoot your couple in the grass, you will receive light that is slightly green. When you shoot your couple on smooth and light ground, you will receive soft and smooth light.
  • Backgrounds: Is there a background that has minimal distractions or will help to draw more attention to your subject? This helps you make the image more powerful and less cluttered. When you are faced with a background that causes distractions, move your subjects to an area that still has the best lighting, but will not provide any background issues.
  • Ground Characteristics: What is the color, material, and texture of the ground? This knowledge allows you to change positions of your subject if necessary, and gives you an idea of where the light will bounce. During your shoots, always look around and take note of what are the color, size, material of the objects in your locations.
  • Pockets of Clean Light: If the area you want to shoot in includes shadows scattered on the walls or ground, can you find any pockets of clean light? You can use the shadow shapes for framing or to increase interest in the photo.
  • Open Structures Outdoors: Is there a ceiling that casts open shade? This can help you when the light changes directions from a vertical path to a horizontal path, which affects where you position your subject.
  • Intensity of Light Differences: Can you find a location where the intensity of light can create separation between the background and the subject? This technique helps draw the eye to the subject, and avoid distractions in the image.
  • Reference Point of Light: Where is your lighting reference point coming from, and does the lighting on your subject complement this reference point or contradict it? This can be done by finding the reference point from which you based your subject’s lighting on.

“Circumstantial light considers not only all the properties and behaviors of natural light, but also how that light interacts with the objects around , so that can transform those objects into light-shaping tools.” – Roberto Valenzuela

Related: Are you using these 4 tips for shooting with backlight?

2. Shoot Toward the Shadow

When you are shooting on a clear, sunny day, one of the most effective ways to take a clean photo of your subjects without harsh shadows and highlights on their faces is to shoot towards the shadow. To navigate where you position yourself, look at your subjects and see where their shadows land. The great thing about this technique is it will work throughout the day until the sun no longer casts a shadow.

3. Understand Window Light

When you are shooting in a room, how often do you go directly to the window? Windows can provide you with light, but not all of the light is created equally. Because of this, it is important to understand the difference between fill and direct window light. If you stand where your subject will stand by the window, and if you see the sun outside, that is direct window light. If you do not see the sun, that is fill window light. Most of the time, windows will act as a fill light, which will not be powerful enough to create much contrast in your images. With fill window light, you have to use a flash and create the sun in front of the window. Without a flash to assist the fill window light, you risk having unflattering light for your subjects.

In the photo below, the shadow of the girl is on the wall, so this means the sun is directly in front of her. Roberto intentionally posed her so the light reflected to her back. There is direct window light coming in and a large white wall behind her.


bridal portraits window light

Image by ShootDotEdit Wedding Pro, Roberto Valenzuela

4. Add Helper Light

How can you fix indirect or fill window light? You can do this by implementing helper light. When you use helper light, it gives you a painting-like feel to your images. Helper light can be flashes, diffusers, reflectors, or video lights (anything that can assist the fill window light). If you have window light and you use it, and you add helper light, you are going to get a painting effect. It also helps you bring up the shadow detail in your camera, which will give you a stronger photo for your clients.

When you know you are working with fill window light, have your second shooter hold the diffuser near the window facing toward the light. The window light is weak, so putting the flash in the same direction of the window light enhances the amount of light hitting the subject. If you use a large diffuser when the flash fires it is going to illuminate the entire diffuser’s diameter. It will give you a large window light effect because it is bigger than her face. This creates natural window light, even though you used helper light.

Tip: When dealing with weak light, avoid using a high ISO. Instead, add more light with flashes. Be sure to keep a few flashes readily available for moments where you need to use them to help the light.

5. Assist the Ambient Light

For situations where you are working in a dark room without a lot of window light, assist the ambient light with a diffuser. To do this, have your second shooter point the flash toward a wall behind you. The flash will hit the wall behind you, the wall will become a reflector, and will bounce light across the room. This action will equalize the light between your subject’s face and the light in the background. If your flash is too powerful, turn it down to avoid overexposing the shot. Take a look at additional ways to shoot in dark conditions (without a flash!) here.

“When acquire an understanding of the science behind light and what governs it, then can predict its behavior and control the lighting in photographs.” – Roberto Valenzuela

Light in photography can be a challenging subject to master, but when you understand it, you can use the same principles for every shoot. Take these tips and implement them into your upcoming shoots. Learn how to identify and manipulate light, so you have the ability to use it to your advantage and create photos your clients will love. To discover additional wedding photography lighting techniques from Roberto’s #1 bestselling book, Picture Perfect Lighting, click the banner below to download our Lighting Guide for Wedding Photographers!



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