Good Lighting Vs. Bad Lighting

Many photographers believe that a more expensive camera will improve their images. This can be true to a degree, but often, the problem is not the equipment but a lack of knowledge on using light effectively. In essence, there is good light and bad light, or to be more specific, good and bad ways to use light. Before spending hard-earned cash on upgrading a camera, photographers should look at how they can use varying angles of light and differing styles of illumination to create better photos.

What is Good Lighting?

Good light is hard to define, so we refer to its effect. Good light creates an image that’s well-exposed in the important areas of a frame. When we asked photographers to explain ‘good’ light, they said they chased good lighting because…

  • Good light makes a subject clearly visible.
  • If you want impenetrable shadows, good light is strong light. If you want to see some details that are otherwise hidden in shadows, good light is gentle enough to allow that. It’s a matter of what you are trying to achieve…and good light brings out the result you are attempting to create.
  • When there’s good light, you can capture the scene with enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake.
  • Good light means you can use a low ISO for a crisp and detailed image.
  • Good lighting is having a balance between being too bright and too dark for the subject.

What is Bad Lighting?

In contrast, bad lighting turns a potentially great image into a missed opportunity. Bad light is when it’s too dark or too bright for the camera to handle. The result is that the subject is underexposed or overexposed. Even if an image is well-exposed, when bad light affects a photo, there can be unwanted camera shake, electronic noise, or, at the other extreme, the highlights could be blown out.

Harsh overhead light can cast unflattering shadows on faces, accentuating wrinkles and creating dark circles under a subject’s eyes. Flat lighting lacks contrast and dimension, making the scene dull and lifeless. Bad lighting doesn’t have to be about intensity; it can be the wrong color temperature. For example, fluorescent lights cast a sickly green hue, which is unappealing for portraits.

Lighting is also considered bad when it creates an unintended mood. Dark shadows might be perfect for a dramatic shot but not a birthday party photo. Overly bright light can make a happy event look sterile.

Natural Light or Artificial Light?

Photographers often prefer to shoot in natural light because it gives an image an authentic feel. Natural light, when there is enough of it, is considered to be good light for portraits. A portrait taken in a person’s home, with gentle light from a window illuminating their face, is endearing compared to the standard white background of a studio setting.

Taking photographs of people in nature also evokes a connection with the environment. Whether it’s dappled light filtering through trees or the soft, golden ambiance of afternoon light across a landscape, natural light adds atmosphere to a photograph.

However, don’t dismiss the option of artificial light. Working with this type of lighting offers greater consistency and control. Unlike natural light, which can vary dramatically depending on the time of day and weather conditions, artificial light provides a stable and predictable illumination source.

Photographers can shape and manipulate the light with modifiers such as softboxes and umbrellas to achieve their desired look. Unlike those who rely on natural light, with artificial light, photographers can vary the light’s direction, intensity, and quality. 

With a simple two-light setup using strobes or speedlights, a photographer eliminates shadows and hot spots and avoids making a subject’s face appear broader or longer than it is. Artificial lighting also offers unique creative opportunities that may not be possible with natural light alone. Using colored gels and multiple light sources, camera users can create visually striking and imaginative images that push the boundaries of traditional photography. When used well, artificial light is good light.

Front Light Vs. Back Light

Film manufacturers used to tell customers to have their subjects face the sun. This helped amateur photographers achieve an evenly exposed shot. Front lighting, with the sun directly behind the photographer, illuminated the subject, reducing the likelihood of faces being lost in shadows. 

However, this technique creates a flat and uninteresting look. This form of lighting, either from the sun or a speedlight attached to a camera’s hotshoe, also highlights every flaw, from wrinkles to blemishes. The other disadvantage of having a photographic subject face the sun is that they will squint against the brightness, which is an unappealing expression!

Using front light is not a good lighting technique for portraits. However, in other forms of photography, it can prove to be valuable.

Front lighting in landscape photography provides even illumination, allowing consistent exposure throughout the scene. When the sun is positioned behind the photographer, it brings out the natural hues of foliage, flowers, and other elements. However, front lighting can reduce the depth, dimensionality, and moodiness achieved with different lighting angles.

Without the interplay of light and shadow, landscapes may appear two-dimensional and lack visual interest.

Backlighting can produce stunning portraits. It creates a beautiful halo or rim of light around the subject. This rim lighting separates them from the background. Backlit images evoke a sense of warmth or romance, which is ideal for photos of couples. Backlighting increases the risk of lens flare, but sometimes, this effect adds an extra degree of novelty to an image.

In landscape photos, backlighting adds depth to an image and creates a dreamy atmosphere with emotional appeal. However, backlighting can be tricky to expose correctly.

The camera might prioritize the bright background, leaving the foreground underexposed and dark. This must be compensated with manual exposure adjustments or bracketing.

Flattering Angles

Portrait photographers pay attention to lighting angles because light shapes how we perceive a face. By controlling the angle, photographers can highlight certain facial features. This creates a sense of three-dimensionality, making the portrait more attractive. Placing lights at a 45-degree angle mimics natural light and creates subtle shadows that define the features of the face.

Broad lighting, where the light hits the subject’s side closest to the camera, bathes them in soft light. Short lighting, where the light illuminates the side of the face furthest from the camera, produces drama, intensity, and a touch of mystery to a portrait. Since one side of the face is in shadow, short lighting also visually slims rounder faces.

Light also powerfully affects the mood of a portrait. Dramatic lighting with strong shadows creates a more intense feeling, while even illumination produces a more natural and lighthearted image.

Unflattering Angles

When a low camera angle is used creatively for a powerful look, it will distort the face. Shooting from below makes noses appear larger and emphasizes bags under the eyes. Harsh light directly overhead casts shadows under the nose, eyes, and chin, creating an aged appearance. Having the camera directly facing the subject straight-on makes the face appear flat and wide.

The Time of Day

One advantage of using natural light is its versatility. Natural light takes many forms throughout the day, from the soft and diffused light of early morning or late afternoon to the harsh light of midday. Photographers can use the mood of each time of day to match their creative vision without additional equipment or setups.


Photographers and videographers benefit from an awareness of different types of light. Good lighting versus bad lighting is not a contest. Taking pictures without considering whether the light is bad is why people end up with disappointing images. Remembering to look for good light is how photographers produce compelling shots.