Beauty Retouching & Photography Education

8 Tips On How To “Read” Light in Photography

One of the first and very important skills we acquired in our Australian Photography course was the ability to breakdown lighting in images taken by other photographers. Why is it important, you ask? Because it will take your understanding of light behavior to a whole new level, allow you to “read” lighting in photos in magazines, on billboards, in your favorite photographers’ portfolios and you will never wonder “how was this photographed” anymore. Or in most cases anyway. It’s like speaking a foreign language and not being able to read it or understand other people speaking it to you, if you can’t breakdown lighting in photographs you see.

You can also experiment and re-create the lighting setups that you see in photos you like, but first, of course, you need to learn to “read” it correctly. It is actually very easy if you understand the main principles of light behavior, and the more you challenge yourself and practice “reading” it, the easier it will become. Simply be observant. Although, if something really falls out of your understanding of lighting there’s always a chance that you’re looking at a photo-montage or the lighting was significantly altered in post-production. Again, it will be easier for you to identify such things the more you shoot and analyze your own pictures and lighting.

Here are a few rules that help me to breakdown lighting in photos:

1. Look at the catchlights in the eyes. Their size, shape and intensity will tell you what light source was used in front of the model, how large or small it was and how close to the face it was placed. Also, if the model’s pupils are very dilated it means that the photo was taken in a very dark studio/room or at night outdoors (the speed of the strobe lights is too fast for the pupils to contract before the picture is captured). However, this will be untrue if the model was on drugs 🙂

How to identify what light is being reflected in the eyes? Study light behavior (direction of light and its degree of diffusion: from hard to soft light). Check out 03-Photography-Photoshop-Glossary.pdf in my “Creative Retouching Essentials in a Day” interactive eBook package.

2. How blurred is the background? This will help you to identify how wide the aperture was open when the photo was taken, which in turn will affect the next point. The focal length and the distance between the camera and the focus plane, and the focus plane and the background will also affect the blurriness/sharpness of the background, so don’t forget to take these details into account.

3. How dark are the shadows in the shot? If the shadows are very dark it may suggest that there was no fill light (reflector or any additional lighting) used, and no bright walls or other reflective surfaces near (in front of) the subject in the shot. If the image is also very sharp throughout the frame it may also suggest that the Aperture number was very high (from about F9.0 up, but depending on the location and the amount of ambient light it could also be anywhere from F4.0 up, for example if shooting in the early evening or at night).

The opposite lighting conditions and camera settings will cause the opposite outcome.

4. Is there any rim light, how strong and wide is it? If the rim light is very visible and strong (even overexposed) it means that the light source was stronger than the main light in front of the model and the aperture is too wide open for the level of that light source. The wider the rim light is, the closer it is to the camera and more on the side of the model, rather than behind her.


5. Judge the placement of the lights by the direction and length of the shadows in the photos. Always start with assessing the shadows under the model’s nose and her or his chin. If the shadow is sitting right under the nose and is short – it means the light source is right in front of the model’s face and it’s placed a little higher than the model’s eye level.

If the shadows are long and going down on the model’s face (her eyes even may be hidden in the shadows, creating the so-called “raccoon eyes”, not good) – the light source is placed way higher than the model’s eye level. This is something you can see in family pictures taken on a sunny day (given there’s no educated photographer in that family).

If the shadows are going up – the light source was lower then the model’s eye level (this type of lighting doesn’t work well for portraits and people photography in general, unless the idea is to create lighting which is unpleasant to a human eye).

If the shadows are too soft to identify their direction – it means the photo was shot in a very diffused light situation (for example on a cloudy day or in a bright shadow).

"Read" Light in Photography

"Read" Light in Photography

In the next photo you can see that the shadows on the model’s face, under the chin and on the shoulders are very soft, yet the catchlights in the model’s eyes and the blown-out background (plus the model’s outfit and wet hair) suggest that the photo was taken on a very sunny day. So there are two possible scenarios – the model was placed in the shadow filled in with the light reflected of the surrounding walls and objects (although the direction of the shadows in this image is a little too pronounced for that) or a diffuser was placed between the light source (the sun) and the model.

The closer the diffuser is to the model, the softer the shadows are. Thus, the diffuser was placed very close to the model’s face in this picture, just right outside of the frame.

"Read" Light in Photography

6. You can figure out what lights and light modifiers were used in the lighting setup by the softness and size of the shadows, existing highlights on the face, hair and body and catchlights in the eyes. For example, in this photo a small reflector was used in front of the model. Here’s how you could “read” that:

  1. the softness of the shadows on the model’s face suggests diffused light
  2. directions of the shadows in the background suggest that the photo was taken in the late afternoon or early summer evening, thus the sunlight is not very intense and the reflected light is pretty weak, so the reflector must have been brought closer to the face
  3. the catchlights in the eyes are pretty small, so considering the reflector was placed close to the face, small reflections suggest that it was a small reflector
  4. the way the model’s hands and legs are not lit as well as the face confirms our guess about the size of the reflector and the intensity of the reflected sunlight.
  5. I am showing you both the before and after pictures, so you can see, that the lighting in the retouched images can be a little deceiving and harder to read correctly.



7. Tricky lighting techniques. There are many interesting and tricky lighting techniques out there and I won’t be able to explain or even mention all of them in this blog post. Here is a couple that comes to mind right now:

Combining continuous and impulse lighting.  There’s a red/orange color gel on the light source, which is creating the rim light. The orange light that is highlighting the model’s neck, right arm and reflects in the models dress is very soft and not at all intense (you can tell that by the weak reflection in the dress mainly). It is also pretty large because you can see how this light is touching the model’s body and face through out the frame. You can also make the same conclusion by judging the size of its reflection in the model’s eyes. Therefore, it is most likely a large reflector, and it must be reflecting the red/orange light that comes from behind the model (the same light source that is creating the rim light).

The modeling lamp on the main light turns off right after the flashed fire, but the modeling lamp on the light source behind the model doesn’t. That’s why when you shoot with longer shutter speed (in this case 0.6 sec) and jerk your camera slightly right after the flashes go off – the front of the model falls into complete darkness and stay “frozen”, and the areas highlighted by the modeling lamp of the light source behind the model, and its reflection create that smudged light effect in the photo. In order to use this technique you need to shoot in a completely dark studio.


Shooting with Neutral Density filters (when buying one, make sure you get the correct diameter for the lens you are going to shoot with). I use ND filters when I want to open up the aperture and get “softer” pictures whether I’m shooting in studio or outside on a sunny day.

So, whenever the foreground and the background (everything beyond the focus plane) in an image are suspiciously too soft for a studio shot or a very bright day, it’s safe to assume that the photographer used a ND filter to subtract a couple of stops of light form the scene and be able to open up the aperture.

You can see I used 4 light sources in this photo – background light for the nice gradient behind the model, a beauty dish in front of the model on my left above the model’s eye level, but not too high (you can still see the catchlights, raise the light a little higher and the catchlights will disappear). One light source for the rim light behind the model, and a large reflector on my right to fill the shadows on the model’s face and under her chin.

"Read" Light in Photography

8. Be a grown-up and go do your research on lights, lighting modifiers and what they will do for you in your photos. Everything can be found on the internet these days. I want to help you by giving the right direction for your self-education in this post, but if you still don’t know what rim light, fill light or any other terms are search for educational websites on the internet, get a good book on photography and lighting, or if you want to save time and learn only what’s important, get my “Essentials” ebook.

From now on pay attention to the lighting in the photos you see and like in magazines, online and anywhere you find your inspiration. The more you train your eye and breakdown lighting in other photographers’ photos, the easier it will be for you to understand how to light your photos well.

I’m going to start a little game on my Beauty Retouching & Photography Education page and create a new album “Breakdown lighting in these photos” in which I will post photos for the fellow-photographers and followers to breakdown the lighting in.

Join us!


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  • Julia you are so awesome! A photographing genius and a generous teacher!

  • Greate!

  • jose luis duran

    Me gusataria enterder todo muy bien, pero el texto en ingles las imagenes escritas en ingles se me atragantan. Lo tienes en castellano. Aun asi me gusta lo que nos enseñas, y encima me quejo de que no lo entiendo. Te mando un abrazo. Continua aunque sea en chino.

  • Hey Bruno! Yeah, I agree it’s fun! Finding clues and solving lighting puzzles. It also makes you feel good when you can “read” lighting with no problem. Although, I know what you mean about deceiving and misleading post-production in most magazines’ photos 🙂

  • Awesome Amazing Fantastic! I am now and forever will be a loyal follower.

    • Thank you! I will do my best to keep adding more valuable posts to my blog 🙂

  • Enrique Alfredo Fuentes

    Este es un artículo más que básico y esencial para la comprender la iluminación en fotografía.


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