Even as a little girl, long before I had an interest in photography, I enjoyed watching the sunlight fall on the earth and the structures inhabiting it.

My favorite was the light after a thunderstorm and how it illuminated the freshly watered grass with those deep blue-gray storm clouds in the background. To this day, I still love that light.

So it comes as no surprise to myself that strong, dynamic light has found its way into my photography 30 something years later. But there’s many types of light. Some I don’t use as often as others but knowing their purpose is important.

I’d like to take a moment to dive into some of the most commonly referenced types of lighting, all of which can be achieved with natural light or flash photography.

1. Flat light

When you have your light source facing directly at the front of your subject, this is flat lighting. Flat lighting on a face will mean that your subject is well lit and you are unable to see any shadows along their face.

This is not a heavily desired look in portraits as you need shadows to draw your subject to life. However, there are circumstances where it’s beneficial. Since shadows can draw out imperfections and textures, flat lighting is beneficial when photographing babies in their acne skin weeks, teens with heavy blemishes, and elderly people feeling insecure about their wrinkles. If you have a photo that is oozing character and personality, you can also get away with flat light on your subject.

photo of two kids dressed like superheros by April Nienhuis

2. Broad light

With broad light (a type of side lighting), the face of your subject is at an angle and the most well-lit side of the face is closest to the camera and the shadow falls on the back side of the face. This type of light can make a face look fuller so it’s ideal for those with very narrow faces.

broad light photo of girl laying on her bedroom floor by April Nienhuis

3. Short light

Another type of side lighting, short light is the opposite of broad light in that the face is at an angle and the shadow falls on the side of the face closest to the camera. This type of light works well to thin a face and is flattering on most people. One thing to keep in mind is that shadows draw out textures and imperfections. While broad light is a wonderful way to emphasize freckles, it will also draw out imperfections like acne and scars. Knowing how your subject feels about those imperfections is important so you know if you should hide them with another type of lighting or if they’re okay with you showcasing them with short light.

short lighting example by April Nienhuis

4. Split light

Split lighting is another type of side lighting but it is defined as light that hits your subject from the side at a 90 degree angle. You can easily recognize split lighting in an image by half of the subject being lit and the other half in the shadows. With a face specifically, you’ll see the shadow line straight down the middle of the forehead, nose, and chin.

Split lighting tends to make your subject look tough and masculine so you want to really consider your subject when choosing this type of lighting.

split light black and white photo of boy holding a football by April Nienhuis

5. Backlight

Backlight is just that, light that comes from behind your subject. This is commonly seen in photos from the beloved golden hour, when the sun is low in the horizon and starting to set, but can be done at all hours of the day. Sources of backlight can include a window behind your subject in the middle of the day to a flash placed behind with a colorful gel for something fun.

As beautiful as backlight is, it comes with its own challenges which can include a look of haziness and lack of clarity in your subject. Because of this, I like to do a few things…

Semi-silhouette: One of my favorite ways to use backlight is to let the light just barely creep into the frame. When doing this, there’s a pretty glow that creates a welcome contrast to a dark background. In this situation, I often expose my subject darker than usual to further that contrast and create a warm and relaxing feel to an image.

underexposed semi-silhouette backlight picture of girl with a braid by April Nienhuis

Reflector: Sometimes I want the strong haze that comes with the sun warmly filling the frame but losing clarity in my subject’s face is no good. To combat the loss of clarity I use a reflector to pop some of that sunlight back onto my subject. When using a reflector, place it opposite the light source and then adjust the angle to direct the light exactly where you want it. You’ll also want to move the reflector closer to your subject for stronger light and further away from for softer light.

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hazy backlit picture by April Nienhuis

without a reflector

photo of boy smiling with a reflector by April Nienhuis

with a reflector

Off camera flash: Similar to a reflector, off camera flash combats the lack of clarity that comes with lots of backlight. Off camera flash is used just the same as a reflector, to light the face. While a reflector is cheaper and easier to carry around, off camera flash has more power (aka light) and won’t encourage squinting (very important to consider if your subject is extra sensitive to light like my son).

backlit photo of girl outdoors with the Profoto B1 off camera flash by April Nienhuis

6. Rim light

Rim light falls under the backlight category but deserves a spot of its own. With backlight you often see the hazy or airiness from the light in the background resulting in highlights but you don’t have that with rim light. With rim light, you’ll see the light from behind only highlight the edges of your subject (there’s a little haze falling into the top right of the frame below but you can see how the rim light separates the subject from the background). This is great to use when you need to separate your subject from the background.

rim light picture of girl listening to her headphones by April Nienhuis

7. Butterfly light

With butterfly light, the light is placed above and in front of your subject to create a small shadow under the nose resembling a butterfly (hence the name). This type of light beautifully highlights prominent cheekbones which is why you most often see it used on women. However, it emphasizes the shadows from deep set eyes. Again, know your subject’s face and how the light will affect their features. Butterfly light is also commonly referenced as paramount light.

butterfly light portrait of tween by April Nienhuis

8. Loop light

Loop lighting is pretty much my go-to when creating light. With loop lighting, the light is about 45 degrees to the side and slightly above eye level. This position of the light creates a shadow just under and to the side of one nostril and the nose. This is a flattering type of light on most everyone.

portrait of girl with loop lighting by April Nienhuis

There’s many types of light. I’d like to take a moment to dive into the commonly referenced types, all of which can be achieved with natural light or flash.

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