5 Ways Photographic Lighting Tells A Story


5 Ways Photographic Lighting Tells A Story

Our natural reaction to any photograph is a direct response to the artist's use of light in photography, which is controlled to tell an intentional story. Some photographs are tranquil and relaxing to look at, while others are jarring and emotionally charged. 

All art can be analyzed according to the key elements of design; line, shape, space, form, color and texture. The elements of design are a set of visual storytelling tools that control how a viewer looks at an image, and how they will react to it.

Lighting in photography is the process of illuminating details in a scene. Lighting shows the viewer which areas of the image to look at first and dictates how the eye should travel through the image to knit the details of the photograph together with a strong visual story.

Light and photography work together, however in photography, light is wholly responsible for every element of design. Without light, photography would not exist, and the image would be pure black. Lighting sets the mood, defines which components appear in the photograph, and tells the story as the photographer wants it to be seen.

1.     Composition Lines are Created by Your Light Source

Line is the strongest of the visual elements, because lines establish boundaries. Light in photography creates the lines in your composition. In studio and natural photography, lines will always fall in the same direction as the light source. 

Greg Becker, Unsplash


Chase Wilson via Unsplash


When harsh light is used, lines will appear hard, strong and well defined. Soft light has a diffusing effect, which makes the lines in your composition feel gentle on the eye. 

Natural lighting in photography creates composition lines. These may be horizontal and relaxing to look at, vertical for a restricted and confined look, or diagonal to add a sense of dynamic energy to your frame.  

2.     How Does Light in Photography Create Shapes?

Sunflowers in Metal Coffee Pot, Carolyn V, via Unsplash

In photography, shapes are created by the juxtaposition of positive and negative space. Objects are placed under direct or broad light to bring shapes into the foreground. This leaves some parts of your photograph dark. 

The dark areas of the photo, where light does not fall, will also have a defined shape. Take a look at this photograph of a jug of sunflowers. 

The jug is an oblong, connected to a series of yellow circles. The table is a collection of rectangles, defined by diagonal lines. These diagonal lines only exist because light does not fall between the gaps in the timber.

Together, the rectangles make a square in the bottom half of the photograph. As viewers, we know the table ends because the light falls away at the far edge.

In the background, two irregular shapes imply undefined trees, and hint at the sky in a distant part of the frame. The shapes in this photograph are formed by the relationship between the ambient light in the background, which is natural and soft, the direct light on the table and jug, which is broad, directional and well-defined.

The shapes in this image tell the story of an unseen location, even though the main subject in this photograph is a jug of sunflowers on a table.

In portraiture, photographers use directional studio lighting to create shadow shapes on the face, which has the effect of altering a person's overall appearance and perceived personality. There are four main lighting styles in portrait photography as seen in this series by photographer Alexander Krivitskiy: 


Broad Light example, Alexander Krivitskiy, Unsplash 

Broad Light

Broad Light emphasizes the wide side of the face. This creates an open mood, with a positive approach. In broad lighting, the face can appear wider and fuller. 

Broad light causes the portrait to move forward, out of the frame and towards the viewer. The overall effect implies the subject is interested in the viewer.

Short Light Example, Alexander Krivitskiy, via Unsplash 


Short Light

Short Light emphasizes the narrow side of the face. This creates a sense of mystery and intrigue, and can make the face appear thinner. 

Short lighting pulls the viewer into the frame, and closer to the subject. The overall effect implies the viewer is curious about the subject.

Butterfly Light, Alexander Krivitskiy, via Unsplash

Butterfly Light

Butterfly Light is placed above the face. This defines a butterfly shape under the nose, and darkens the cheekbones. In butterfly light, the face appears more defined. 

Butterfly lighting has the effect of lifting the cheekbones, lengthening the nose, and making the face appear more structured. This is common in fashion and beauty photography.

Rembrandt Light, Alexander Krivitskiy, via Unsplash.

Rembrandt Light

Rembrandt Light is widely considered to be the perfect portraiture lighting in photography. In Rembrandt lighting, both sides of the face are lit, and the shadows on the narrow side connect to form a perfect teardrop shape beneath the eye.

Rembrandt light in photography creates a sense of honesty and trust. The overall effect is a perception that the viewer and subject are equal, and balanced.

Hard light creates harsh shadows in portrait photography. Diffused light can be added by using a fill light, a studio reflector, or a bounced flash light to add a little extra light into shadow areas for a softer, more natural look.

If you are shooting portraits in natural lighting, and the bright sun is creating harsh shadows, you can expose for the background and use your camera flash to add a fill light to the face.

3.     Lighting in Photography Defines Tone, Space and Form

Space is a two-dimensional element in a photograph. When shadow and highlight areas are added to a space in the frame, it starts to take on a three-dimensional form. 

Photographers add a three-dimensional effect to flat photographs by manipulating the amount of contrast between the lightest areas of the photograph, and the darkest areas. Photographic lighting generates a continuous flow of shades of grey. Together, these grey tones make up the tonal values of a photograph. Light areas move forward, and dark areas recede.

Space and form can be manipulated by the use of light in photography in three ways:

  • Warm Light vs Cool Light: warm light moves forward to reduce the feeling of space, cool light recedes to enhance space.
  • Natural Light vs Artificial Light: natural light disperses more easily, which creates a softer atmosphere with more space. Artificial light comes from a defined source, which is often more focused with reduced space.
  • Direct Light vs Reflected Light: direct light enhances defined areas of the photograph, which reduces space. Reflected light bounces light back into shadowy areas, which can add a sense of more space.
Autumn Forest Vol I, Richard Hodonicky, via Unsplash. 

Ansel Adams was a pioneer in developing tone and contrast in photography. His studies in lighting remain a major influence in photography, and the zone system is just as relevant to lighting in photography today as it was in 1940.

According to Ansel Adams, photographs should have nine distinct shades of grey ranging from near pure white to near pure black. This optimizes the contrast in the image. 

To get the perfect tone in photography, it's best to use always light meter to read the correct exposure in the lightest and darkest areas of the photograph.

Illuminated Woods, Steven Kamenar, via Unsplash.

4.  Enhancing Your Color Use with Light in Photography

All light in photography is made up of light waves, each with a unique color temperature, which will throw a unique color cast. Hot light waves cast a cool or bluish tint. Cold light waves found in tungsten lighting cast a warm, orange glow. Studio flash lights are designed to match the temperature of natural day light.

The white balance setting on your SLR camera adds a contrasting color filter to counteract the warm or cool hues in the light source. If you forget to correct this, photos taken inside near a tungsten light bulb will look orange, while those taken under a neon sign will look green.


Colors can be artificially changed using warm or cool reflectors, as well as specially designed photographic gels or filters. A gold reflector will warm a scene, and bring a softer look, while a silver reflector will cool a scene for a stark look.

Tungsten Light Bulb, Anthony Indraus, via Unsplash.

Color can also be controlled with the ISO setting on your camera. Low ISO settings, ranging from 100 to 400, will produce low color saturation. High ISO settings, from 800 and above, will enhance the colors for a richer, more saturated finish, and can brighten things up when shooting in low-light conditions.

When using ISO to boost color saturation, it's important to remember the noise-color compromise. The higher the ISO setting, the brighter the colors, but the higher the ISO setting, the grainier the overall effect will be.

5. Lighting for Texture in Photography

Texture in photography is a trick of the eye. We use skimmed artificial light to define tiny contrasts on a surface, which creates the illusion of texture on a two-dimensional plane.

To create texture, light needs to flow horizontally across the surface. Harsh light will create a sharp texture, whereas soft light will create a velvety texture. Lighting in photography can be softened by moving the subject further away from the light source.

Lighting for texture is particularly useful in portrait photography. 

Good studio photographers use gentle directional light, with a subtle reflected light in the opposite direction, to create an even skin texture. This provides natural retouching, and softens the skin to make people in photo portraits appear younger, and less wrinkled.

Texture is also a key player in landscape photography. 

Los Angeles Sunset Field, Sapan Patel, via Unsplash

During the first hour of the day, and the last hour of the evening, landscapes fall into the period known as the golden hour. As the sunlight moves closer to the horizon, it rakes across the surface of the earth, defining each blade of grass with soft contrast and warm hues. 

In landscapes, the individual details defined by the textured natural lighting create interest. As viewers, we perceive these subtle details as evidence for perfection, which is why we view landscapes shot during the golden hour as the pinnacle of great lighting in photography.

Using Light to Tell a Story in Photography

Photographers have the ability to manipulate how the viewer looks at an image. This allows photographers to decide how the visual story is told. Light is fundamental to creating stories in photography because light dictates the key elements of design. Film lights have the same effect when the movie is black and white.

Lines in a photograph create boundaries, define frames, and set the overall mood. 

Shapes are added by intentionally lighting parts of the image, and actively allowing some areas to become dark or undefined. Using shapes creates context, and tells the story of what's happening around the subject of the photograph.

Space and form are represented by contrasts in the tonal values. The difference in tone between the lightest and the darkest part of the photograph guides our feeling of space or claustrophobia.

Photos with high contrasted lighting feel three-dimensional, while photographs with low light contrasts feel flat and stark.

Color temperature influences whether an image moves towards the viewer or recedes into the frame. Warm hues move forward. Cool hues recede. 

Texture in photography is controlled with horizontal lighting. Presenting a soft, detailed texture suggests warmth and perfection, which leads to high engagement and creates a photograph that's pleasing on the eye. By the way, there are special techniques for Light Painting.

Controlling Your Light in Photography

Once you have created your visual story, it's best to use the right equipment to measure and control the light in your photography. Use a light meter to read the correct exposure. Place directional light to build the right composition, emphasize your subject with mood lighting, and soften the contrasts with bounced fill flash and reflected light to balance the texture and tone.


Natalie Dent is a former professional photographer turned full-time copywriter. She has worked with big brands and small companies to bring the value of storytelling into the customer experience. Natalie is passionate about the relationship between words and images, and how they relate to brands. She holds a degree in visual communication, and a diploma in freelance journalism and travel writing. Her courses in photographic storytelling have been adapted for cruise ship enrichment programs all over the world.