How to Make Effective Use of Light in Photography

At the end of the day, there is just one reason why people like looking at beautiful photographs. The premise is straightforward, yet it serves as the foundation for all photographic endeavors, including portraiture. Emotion. For a photograph to be successful, it must strike a chord with the spectator. A variety of factors, ranging from your topic matter to your composition, might contribute to this outcome. While that may be true, the most powerful instrument for capturing emotion is considerably more fundamental than that – it is simple, and quite simply, your light.

Light has an exceptional ability to elicit emotional responses in a photograph. Although most photographers are aware of the importance of light, it is still something that everyone should aim to learn about and improve upon. Mastering light is essential to being a successful photographer. Photography is a kind of light. Taking images would have been impossible without it in the first place.

Different properties of light — brightness, contrast, direction, and so on — all elicit different emotional responses from the viewer. In contrast to the bright, airy woodland in the morning, a dark, backlit photograph with great contrast gives a radically different impression. In addition, when photographing, your light should match your subject’s appearance. If you’re attempting to capture the ambiance of a powerful and dramatic waterfall, your lighting should enhance rather than distract from the message you’re trying to convey to the viewer. The same is true if you’re capturing a cheerful, happy portrait – the lighting should mirror the feelings captured in the shot.

I’ll go into more detail on the various emotional effects that different forms of light have on people later on. Despite the fact that certain aspects of this are subjective, others are almost universal. I have a feeling that many of these concepts will ring true in your own creative endeavors.

1. Dark light

Dark Light Photography

Dark, strong lighting is one of the most emotionally evocative kinds of illumination. Photographers of many types may use this technique to create melancholy portraits, stunning landscapes, and sad documentary photography. It’s no surprise that dark lighting is popular everywhere, and for good reason.

Simply put, it is one-of-a-kind. As a result of the lack of information available to viewers, a photograph appears enigmatic and — depending on the topic — either scary or polished. Because it does such an excellent job of portraying emotions, you’ll see many product photographers shoot gloomy shots for high-end commercials.

The emotions of dark light:

  • Powerful
  • Ominous
  • Refined
  • Intense
  • Somber

Bright light

Bright Light Landscape Photograpjy
Bright Light Landscape Sunset

The apparent counterpoint is that brilliant light exists as well, and it carries with it a unique set of significant feelings of its own. Consider the following scenario: you want to capture an ethereal, airy shot. Would you prefer to capture photos during a spectacular storm or amid sunny, hazy, late-afternoon sunlight, if you had to choose? This shouldn’t be a difficult issue to answer because the afternoon sunshine will give your shot a lot softer and airier appearance.

In other instances, the same is true. For example, you could wish to capture a picture that is both pleasant and positive. If that is your aim, it is unlikely that you will go out looking for shadowy street corners at night to achieve it. However, a brighter scene could be more appropriate for the setting.

Despite the fact that bright light is so prevalent, it is nonetheless worth searching out in many situations. If you’re looking to create a specific atmosphere — airy, hopeful, or etherial, for example — brilliant light will be your go-to source of illumination.

The emotions of bright light:

  • Optimistic
  • Airy
  • Light (the adjective)
  • Gentle

High Contrast

High Contrast Landscape Photography

Numerous excellent photographs make extensive use of high contrast, which is achieved by juxtaposing highly bright and dark sections of the image directly close to each other. It is called contrast when a black mountain is silhouetted in front of a bright background. It is called contrast when a bright pond is set against a dark beach.

Many people believe that contrast is the difference between the brightest and darkest regions of a picture. However, this is not the case. Although this is true to some extent, it is not the essential definition of the term. For example, this gradient has both white and black, although the contrast between them is quite low:

As an alternative, contrast occurs when bright and dark components are placed exactly close to each other (or when elements of different hues are placed near to each other, but that’s a topic for another article). A photograph’s contrast may be increased by using the “contrast” slider, which can be found in most editing software programs. However, it also enhances the punchiness of smaller, side-by-side contrast zones.

The word “punchy” is one of the most important terms in comparison. In terms of evoking emotional responses, it’s no surprise that images with strong contrast attract a lot of attention. They’re theatrical, and they make a statement in a crowded room. However, depending on the image, this is not necessarily a good thing. This is also one of the reasons why high-contrast photographs are becoming increasingly popular on social media and photography websites right now. Simply said, it is an effective method of getting your photograph noticed.

Searching for non-diffused light is a good way to discover contrast. In other words, a bright sunny afternoon or a camera flash that has not been changed would most likely result in photographs with great contrast (although this does depend upon your subject). When it comes to landscape photography, I personally search for contrast when attempting to make a shot stand out – situations when the terrain itself is extremely dramatic and vivid.

The emotions of high contrast:

  • Dramatic
  • Loud
  • Vibrant
  • Punchy
  • Sharp

Low Contrast

low contrast photography

Don’t dismiss photographs with low contrast, despite the fact that they are less popular than photographs with great contrast. Images with low contrast are more muted and subdued in appearance. The majority of the time, they happen when your light source is substantially dispersed (such as an overcast day). It also aids in the capturing of things that are rather consistent in appearance, such as the shot above of a lupine field.

Low-contrast photographs, for example, may not appear to be as striking at first sight. When they want someone’s attention, they don’t yell. When it comes to a more subtle aesthetic, they do a good job at achieving that goal. The reason for this is that excellent lighting does not necessarily need to draw instant notice; rather, it is lighting that complements the characteristics of your topic. Low-contrast light is the best choice if you’re capturing peaceful, soothing countryside or creating an intimate atmosphere for a portrait.

Does it seem like something you’d be interested in learning more about? If this is the case, consider using a diffuser with your flash or moving your subject into the shadow. To shoot landscapes, wait until the weather is gloomy or until the sun has dropped below the horizon before setting out. This will work well for many photographs because it will serve to enhance the subject’s appearance.

The emotions of low contrast:

  • Subdued
  • Gentle
  • Soft
  • Quiet
  • Muted

Direction of light

Direction of light Photography

The final technique, under-lighting, is somewhat uncommon, unless you’re trying for a Halloween-inspired appearance. The others, on the other hand, are quite prevalent in various forms of photography, from street photography to nature photography. On top of that, you could have various light sources, which is common for studio-based projects. It’s true that high-end product photography setups may include more than a dozen distinct lighting sources. Aside from the constraints of practicalities, there are no actual restrictions.

However, does the direction of the light have an affect on the mood of your photograph?

Yes, it is correct. However, because it is dependent on the situation, it is difficult to generalize about the exact way it influences emotion. In certain cases, the illumination will be extremely high-contrast and dramatic in nature. Sometimes, such as on a cloudy day, it can cause the atmosphere to be illuminated by vivid, etherial sunbeams. There is no such thing as intrinsic consistency.

There are five primary directions of light:

  1. Backlighting
  2. Frontlighting
  3. Sidelighting (left or right)
  4. Overhead lighting
  5. Under-lighting

This is true even if you’re taking a photograph in a controlled environment like a studio. It is possible to experience a wide range of emotions from a single light direction. Changing the dispersal of your flash, for example, is something you should consider. What about the color of the backdrop, or even the mood that your subject is portraying, is important to consider? All of these considerations indicate that backlighting or sidelighting, to mention a couple of examples, may not necessarily elicit the same emotional response from the viewer from one photograph to the next.

As a result, you’ll have to address this on a case-by-case basis as you go along. Analyze the scene, including the direction of the light, and determine which components of your photograph it draws attention to. Usually, that’s a good indicator of the feelings it’s most likely to elicit in the viewer.

Most importantly, the direction of light does have an affect on how a photograph makes you feel, but not consistently in one direction or another; this is vital to remember. You must experiment in the field and consider carefully the mood that the light is generating for the subject matter.


Is it likely that you will seek for any certain looks in your own photos now that you have witnessed how light can convey emotion? Do you find yourself drawn to the dark side?

The good news is that you can (and should) shoot photographs in a variety of lighting conditions. Unless you’re working on a specific photo series, there’s no need to limit yourself to a single camera. The sort of light you capture in a specific shot, on the other hand, should not be overlooked, as you want to ensure that it compliments your subject and conveys your message as clearly and powerfully as possible.

We also have an article on how to get good light for landscape photography, which you can read here. If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, have a look at it. I’ve also created a video in which I go into further detail about some of these issues, which you might find interesting:

Aside from that, all I have to say is best of luck and best of light to you. Perhaps more than any other aspect of photography, this one has the potential to elevate your images to a higher degree of quality.



Joseph is a talented photographer and videographer based in the USA, with a thriving career as a freelance creative. Over the past several years, he has had the privilege of working with renowned brands, capturing captivating images and videos. His portfolio encompasses a diverse range of subjects, specializing in fashion, portrait, and lifestyle content creation. From editorial shoots to engaging social media videos, Joseph's versatile skills ensure exceptional visual storytelling in every project. Beyond his professional endeavors, he nurtures a personal passion for travel and nature photography, channeling his deep appreciation for the environment into a commitment to sustainability and environmental causes.

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