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Learn Photography

Photo Tips > Artificial Light

Sensitivity to Light

Good light is an essential ingredient in a successful photograph.

To become more sensitive to light, play with an artificial light source.

Students have retorted:

"But I never want to do still lifes or studio portraiture."

This writer responds:

"Playing with artificial light will help you to use natural light better."


Let's say Laurel is photographing eggs in a bowl.

She's photographing the eggs using a Cheap, Bright Light.

UPS delivers a red sweater.

She reflects her light off of the red sweater.

The shadow side of the eggs are now reddish.

A few weeks later Xavier asks Laurel to do a portrait for his Facebook profile.

They're out on the street, and Laurel notices the sunlight reflecting off of a red-brick wall.

She says to Xavier:

"Let's go over there, the light is good."

Artificial Light Sources

The artificial light sources include:

• Candles

• Gas stovetop burners

• Flash lights

• Glow sticks

• Road flares

• Sparklers

Burning steel wool

Holiday lights 

• Neon signs

• Computer monitor and television

• Cell phone

• Florescent tubes

• Incandescent lamps (tungsten, halogen), such as the Cheap, Bright Light.

• Flash, especially a flash that can be used off of the camera

Attributes of Light

Explore the following attributes of light.

Direction of the Light

Where the light is located changes our perception of the shape and texture of the subject.


When online, two examples are seen.

Photograph #1 - Light from Camera Position

In the first photograph above, the light is coming from the camera position.

The pop-up flash was used.

Light from this direction flattens the subject.

The subject has little shape or texture because there are only minimal shadows.

Shadows cue our brains to shape and texture.

Photograph #2 - Light from the Side, Near Camera

In the second photograph, a separate flash was used.

The flash was to the side and slightly above the doll.

The doll is more three-dimensional because the shadows show shape.


Backlighting isn't depicted above.

When the light source is behind the subject, the subject is separated from the background because:

• The subject is darker.

• The edge of the subject may be brightly lighted.


Direction Effect on the Light Because . . .

From the camera, such as pop-up flash

Flattens the subject

. . . there are no shadows, so the viewer cannot see volume and texture very well.

From the side

Shows the texture & volume of the subject

. . . the shadows created by side lighting give the viewer a sense of texture and volume.

From behind

Separates the subject from the background & emphasizes the subject's shape

. . . the increased separation is due to the dark subject against a bright background, as well as the bright lighting on the edges of the subject.

Size of the Light Source

The size of the light source changes the shadows.

A small light source produces dark shadows with well-defined edges.

Large light sources produce bright shadows with fuzzy edges, if there any shadows.


When online, three examples are seen.

Photograph #1 - Contrasty: Flash

In the first photograph above, a separate flash was used.

It's a small light source, so the shadows are dark with sharp edges.

A small-sized light source is therefore, contrasty.

Photograph #2 - Less Contrast: Umbrella

In the second photograph, the flash was bounced off of an umbrella.

The umbrella, being larger than the flash, produced bright shadows with fuzzy edges.

A larger light source reduced the contrast somewhat.

Photograph #3 - No Contrast

In the third photograph, the flash was bounced off of the ceiling.

The huge size of this light source made the shadows almost non-existent.

An even larger light source reduced the contrast greatly.


Size of the Light Effect on the Scene


Darker shadows with sharper edges


Brighter shadows with fuzzy edges

Contrast Increase


When online, two examples are seen.

Photograph #1 - Contrast

In the first photograph above, the flash was directly to the left of the doll.

The shadows are dark.

However, when looking at the scene, the shadows were not as dark.

You have to train your eye.

When you see a faint shadow, it will be much darker in the photograph.

The increase in contrast can be good—or bad.

If you don't want dark shadows, read on.

Photograph #2 - Reflector on the Right Side

In the second photograph, a reflector (white notebook) was placed on the right side.

The light from the flash reached the doll:

• Directly from the flash.

• Bounced off of the reflector.

The reflector filled in the shadows.

You could also use fill flash.

Color of the Light Source

Set your white balance to match the color of the light source.

Automatic (AWB)

Measures the color of the light and attempts to correct it.


Removes excess orange of light bulbs


Removes the excess green of fluorescent tubes (except full-spectrum tubes)

Flash If your flash is consistently too blue, use this setting.
Custom/Preset See below

Custom (Preset) White Balance

A custom or preset white balance is one that you create with your camera.

Your camera measures the color of the light, and creates a corrective setting.

Do so in the following situations.

Different Colored Light Sources

If different colored light sources are illuminating the subject, such as a mixture of tungsten and fluorescent lighting in a kitchen, create a custom white balance setting.

More Precise Color

If you want more precise color than that provided by the above white balance icons, create a custom white balance setting.

For example, tungsten lighting varies according to the type of bulb and wattage.

The tungsten white balance icon uses an average tungsten setting.

You can get a more precise white balance setting by using the camera to measure the color of the light in the scene.