Today I want to discuss some of my favorite photography lighting rules and tips. I’ll explain some key rules that will help you think about how light works. Then I’ll share some tips based on those rules that you can use to improve your own photography. I guarantee you will see a dramatic difference in your images after practicing with these key lighting concepts.

As camera technology advances, it is easy to become more and more dependent on the camera’s auto settings. These settings—presumably—do all the heavy lifting for us. They prevent red eye, recognize people’s faces, and compensate for lighting extremes. But the moment those easy-click settings fail you, you will realize you can’t always rely on them.

You have a choice though. You can either take charge of the situation and learn some basic lighting skills or miss capturing another priceless moment. Understanding photography lighting may seem intimidating, but by incorporating some simple photography lighting concepts, you can break free from your camera’s auto settings.

Rule #1: Light travels in a straight path.

In every image below, see if you can identify the direction of the light source. You can usually tell where the light is coming from by observing the direction the shadow is cast. Try this little game: look closely at a photograph in which you there are people whose eyes are visible. Observe how the light is reflected in their eyes and try to identify the source and direction of the light. You will begin to notice this detail and become an expert on the light sources used in well-executed photographs.

In the photo below, notice the bright spot in the lower right side of each of the baby’s eyes. This bright spot is called a “catch light.” Based on the position of the catch light, you can tell that the light is coming from lower right side of the photo. Now look at the shadow. The baby’s body blocks the light, casting a shadow in a straight line in the exact the opposite direction.

natural light photography tips from best Northern Virginia baby photographer

Rule #2: A subject receives less light as the light source is moved farther away.

A subject receives less light as the light source is moved farther away. Seems like common sense, right? Fewer light rays are on a direct path to the subject. Keep in mind—doubling the distance between light source and subject reduces the amount of light the subject receives by 25%!

Below is one of my favorite photos of all time. This cherubic baby is my very own son at the age of 5 months. The only illumination is a very narrow and diffused stream of light coming through a distant skylight.

photo of baby boy lying on his back on the floor is an example of low light photography tips from Washington DC baby photographer Julie Kubal

Rule #3: The larger (wider) the light source (relative to your subject) the softer the light.

Smaller light sources (relative to your subject) produce more contrast and harder light. Think about a flashlight with an adjustable beam. If you twist the head one way you can make the beam of light narrower (i.e., smaller), more like a harsh spot light. Twist the head in the other direction and the light beam becomes a wider flood light that wraps around the subject.

In the below example, the little boy is sitting directly in front of a large, wide picture window. The light wraps around him and fills in all of the creases and crevices, eliminating any harsh shadows.

photography lighting rules from Washington DC and Northern Virginia child photographer Julie Kubal

Photography Lighting Tips

Now moving on to some simple tips. These are just general tips. There are, of course, times and places, in which these don’t apply. Once you understand the rules and are comfortable using the tips, experiment with breaking the rules and ignoring the tips!

Tip #1: Be wary of clear skies.

Bright, cloudless days are not a photographer’s friend! Strong, uninterrupted light—like the light we have on a clear, sunny day—causes harsh shadows and cause people to squint into the camera. Clouds diffuse the light, filtering it down while still preserving that warm, rich light that only natural lighting can provide. Now that’s a silver lining on a cloudy day, isn’t it? 

photography lighting tips from Washington DC family photographer Julie Kubal

Tip #2: Keep the light source on the sidelines.

Direct lighting (or flat lighting, as it’s sometimes called) can be harsh and unnatural looking. Think about your last ID card photo shoot—it probably felt like more of a mugshot than anything else. Try positioning your subject so that the light source is slightly off to the side. For example, an easy way to achieve side lighting is to place your subject next to a window, just as I did with this little girl in the image below.

soft window light illuminates a little girl lying on a window seat by Washington DC child photographer Julie Kubal in Chevy Chase, MD.

Tip #3: Avoid being lit from behind (most of the time).

When the light source is placed behind the subject, detail on the front side of the subject becomes less visible and less defined. All that remains is a silhouette cloaked in shadow. This can be a fun effect to play with, but most of the time backlighting is something to avoid, if possible. In this photo, I intentionally used the silhouette effect to show off the shape of the mother’s pregnant belly.

silhouette photo of pregnant woman by Silver Spring maternity photographer Julie Kubal as an example of backlit photo for photography lighting tips.

Tip #4: Only use the flash to fill.

Most people think there is no need to use a flash on a bright, sunny day, but that’s not necessarily the case. If your subject is lit from behind (standing in front of a window, for example), then you can use a flash to fill in frontal details that back lighting doesn’t provide.

example of fill flash for article about photography lighting tips by Washington DC family photographer Julie Kubal

Tip #5: Use a steady hand in dim light.

Low light scenarios require your camera to have a longer shutter speed and wider aperture, so that more light can reach the camera’s sensor. There are many low light photography tips, but most importantly, you’ll need to remain as still as possible. Because your camera’s shutter must stay open longer, you risk producing a blurry image if there is any movement. Steady your arm on a fixed object or use a tripod. This doesn’t work very well on a moving subject like an active toddler, but it’s a great technique to use on a sleeping baby. 😉

self-portrait of Washington DC photographer Julie Kubal taken carrying newborn in a sling.


Tip #6: Become an obsessive observer.

Light behaves in predictable ways, yet still can be quite surprising. Pay attention to how light interacts with water, smoke, fog, and snow. Observe how it changes throughout the year and throughout the day. You’ll begin to recognize different lighting scenarios and will be able to use them in your own photography to stunning effect.

Now it’s time to go out and practice these photography lighting tips! I’d love to see what you create. Share your photos, as well as any questions about photography lighting, in the comments section below.


Blog Circle Fun

(or Let’s Check Out More Gorgeous Photography)

On another note, this month I’m participating in a blog circle with some other amazing photographers. I’m pleased to highlight the work of a talented photographer in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alison “Ali” Nicole. If you happen to be located in that neck of the woods and are in need of eye-catching headshots and personal branding imagery, she’s your gal! Click here to check out her awesome personal branding photography: Mooresville Branding Lifestyle Photographer.

Julie Kubal family portraits Washington D.C.About the Photographer and Author:

Julie Kubal is a child and family portrait artist and photographer serving Washington DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. She is passionate about creating warm and meaningful artwork through modern portraits and lifestyle photography at a location of your choice!