Understanding Light and Using it to Your Advantage

Of course, it is through light that all digital photography is created. An image cannot form without light. Light can be used to an advantage in many ways. In addition, light can be in forms that create disadvantages and those disadvantages must be overcome. In order to move your digital photography to the next level, you will need to learn how to use light to your advantage and you will need to understand how to overcome lighting problems. There is a great deal to understand about light, but it is truly vital information for any photographer.

Light Categories

In a very general sense, there are two types of lighting. These two types can further be broken down into different categories. However, you need to understand the two main types before you can delve more into lighting for the best digital photography. Here are the two main types of light.


Lighting that is constantly available throughout the photography session. Sources for continuous lighting can include the following:

– Artificial lighting indoors
– Artificial outdoor lighting
– Sunlight
– Moonlight

Electronic Flash

This would be lighting supplied specifically for the image to be taken. There are a few different types of electronic flash as well.

– On camera built in flash
– Hot shoe mounted camera flashes
– Separate flash units working on a camera trigger mechanism

A Comparison of Categories

In order to truly make use of light to your best advantage in digital photography, you must understand the way different types of light affect photography so that you can learn how to use them. The best way to do this is to compare the two in a list of attributes that you will need to work within each lighting situation.


– This has to do with how rich and deep the image will be based on the light, its constant intensity and its ability to enhance color.

In continuous lighting, the intensity will be strong and ongoing. However, in the case of daylight, the intensity will lessen in the evening hours.

For electronic flash lighting, the intensity will be much stronger and will be enhanced with multiple sources. This means you will need to compensate for the intensity through exposure.


For continuous lighting, the light will be throughout the image, but can be less noticeable in shadows. However, this shadow effect is generally used by photographers to create drama.

For flash lighting, range can be a problem in some situations. If the flash is taken farther away from the subject, the flash will slowly lose its range until it is completely useless for the image.


For continuous lighting, the camera will be able to use built in sensors to automatically handle the exposure.

For flash lighting, the camera’s ability will depend. With a flash that is built into the camera or that is mounted on the camera and completely compatible, the camera will be able to handle exposure. However, for external flash units, you will find that you need to use a light meter to handle exposure.


For continuous lighting, you must remember that action is affected by shutter speed. Lower amounts of light will make it harder to capture action since the shutter speed will need to be slower.

The flash lighting will actually stop the action instead of the shutter, making it easier to capture action with flash.


For the most part, continuous lighting is free. The only thing that may cost would be the electric bill for artificial continuous lighting.

Built in flashes are free with the camera. External flashes and hot shoe flashes can cost anywhere from $200 all the way into the thousands of dollars.

Understanding Color Temperature

When it comes to compensating for different light sources, you will need to understand lighting temperatures. Lighting temperature can be a little confusing to someone just learning digital photography, but they are absolutely vital to creating a realistic and rich color image.

Color temperature is actually quite easy to understand if you break it down into very simple terms. When you think of reddish or orangish, you most likely think of something hot like fire. These would be warm colors. If you think of the color blue, you may think of something cold, like ice or cold skin. These would be cool color temperatures. In the world of digital photography, color temperature depends greatly on the type of light source and will need to be compensated for in the image. Here are some of the most common light sources and how they will affect the temperature of the image.

Sunlight and Moonlight
Probably the most varying of color temperatures, the natural light outside will change through the day and night. In the mornings and evenings, daylight will be warm. At noon when the sun is highest in the sky, daylight will be cooler since there is nothing to filter the sunlight. At night, moonlight is very cold.

Incandescent Light or Tungsten Light

These two light sources are the most common indoors and they are very warm. You can choose to compensate for the warmth, that will make images look orangish, or you can use the warmth to your advantage for a moody image.

Fluorescent Light

Used in many indoor situations, fluorescent lighting can be very frustrating for photographers. In the digital photography world, fluorescent light can be frustrating simply because it is so variant in color warmth. Fluorescent lights may not even have all of the colors of the spectrum, making them vary from extremely warm to extremely cold.

When it comes to you digital photography, lighting is your best friend or can be your biggest frustration. You will need to learn how to work with light. When you do, you will be able to use almost any lighting situation to your advantage and you will learn how to overcome difficult lighting situations with very little work.

Top image by
{Flixelpix} David

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  1. says

    Awesome article. I find as photographers we discuss light all too little, which is incredibly odd since it’s the basis of our craft.

    A note on Light temperature: You talk about light being warm or cold, which is fine, but it’s backward from what you describe. Typically, a light source of 6000K will be whiter or even ‘bluer’ than a similar source of 3000K. (think about hot metal: It gets whiter as it burns hotter) Our camera’s compensate for this with White Balance. In order to make the 6000K source look white, we set the white balance to 6000K on the camera. Similarly, when setting the white balance for a 3500K rated tungsten light, we set the white balance to 3500K.

    The unfortunate truth is that Light and color temperatures are much more complicated than camera manufacturers would have us believe. It can be important to make this distinction between light temperature and white balance so that you’re prepared for any given environment.


  2. says

    Anyone who would cal themselves a “photographer” should have these very, very basic ideas so ingrained in their workflow they are as automatic as breathing.

    In fact, if it weren’t for digital, anyone who didn’t understand these principles would not be able to capture anything relative to professional level photography.

    It amazes me how many people have fallen for the ‘photographer’s eye’ myth, go to Costco, buy a camera–and boy oh boy, their in BUSINESS! They’re PHOTOGRAPHERS!. Horseshit.

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