Basic Lighting for Photography

Woman photographing nature
Tom Merton / Getty Images

Understanding lighting is the foundation of taking beautiful photographs. Even the most exquisite of subjects can appear lackluster in a photo if there are dark shadows, overexposed backgrounds, or weird lighting tones.

If you're struggling with taking photos at the level that you desire, take some time to learn about how your camera takes in light, how to adjust settings, and how to position the photo's subject in the best possible light.

  • 01 of 04

    Understanding Your Camera's Light Meter

    © Liz Masoner licensed to, Inc.

    The light meter is an internal function of the camera that gives you a visual indication of how dark or light the image is according to the camera. Although most new cameras have a built-in light meter, it wasn't always a staple, which is why you can also purchase handheld light meters. The first step to understanding photography lighting is to understand this tool for measuring light. Your camera's light meter is your link to understanding how your camera sees light.

    This device takes into account all of the settings on your camera, such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and tells you what type of exposure that combination, plus the available light, will create on film/sensor.

  • 02 of 04

    Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

    shutter speed
    By Kyle Schurman for About Cameras

    The settings on your camera's light meter are the aperture, also known as the f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO.

    • Aperture: The diameter of the hole inside the lens. When the aperture widens by decreasing the f/stop, this lets more light into the camera and, therefore, more light to be captured in the image. The widest aperture is f/1.4; the narrowest is 4/22. This can also affect the depth of field in the image.
    • Shutter speed: The longer the shutter is open, the more light that is let in. A slow shutter speed—1 is the slowest setting—allows more light and captures motion but could also end up in a blurry photo. A fast shutter speed—1/1000 is the fastest—allows in less light and freezes motion but could result in a dark image.
    • ISO: A sensor that captures light. A low ISO, which goes down to 100, is less sensitive to light, which results in a dark image. A high ISO of up to 6400 is more sensitive to light but captures more digital noise.
  • 03 of 04

    Exposure Basics

    © Liz Masoner licensed to, Inc.

    When a photo is overexposed, it is too bright. You won't be able to see the details of the image because of all those excessively bright highlights. A photo that's underexposed is too dark. Again, you will lose the details in the shadows. The camera's light meter can help you avoid over- or underexposing photographs.

    To avoid underexposing an image, add another light to the scene through another flash or a light reflector. You can also change the f/stop to allow the camera to let in more light or slow down your shutter speed, which keeps the shutter open for longer, letting in more light.

    If you're overexposing the image, then you can fix it by doing the opposite—take away a lighting source, decrease the f/stop by moving the meter reading down (say, from f/8 to f/11) or increasing the shutter speed.

  • 04 of 04

    Adding Light

    © Liz Masoner licensed to, Inc.

    When there is not enough light available to record the desired image, photographers often use a flash to add light to a subject. A fill flash is used when there is actually enough light in a scene, but it is in the wrong place in relation to the subject.

    Sometimes a flash is not the best way to add light to a subject. Reflectors are often used to create dramatic lighting effects outdoors or in situations when flash can not be used. Reflectors can be professionally made or can be simple items such as aluminum foil-covered cardboard. As long as the object will reliably reflect light back towards a subject, it is a reflector.