Image credit: Mitful Grover

How to Solve 12 of the Most Common Lighting Issues in Photography

Lighting has the power to transform any photograph, but the lighting you want often doesn’t come by chance. You don’t always get to choose where or when you shoot, and software will only help so much – and only in certain situations.

Getting the results you’re after, therefore, depends on you knowing how to work with natural light and use artificial light when needed.

The good news is it only takes a little practice and some simple gear to work light to your advantage.

Here we’ve compiled 12 of the most common photography lighting challenges—some basic, others more advanced—with simple tips and tricks on how to avoid or overcome each.

Need tips on aperture, shutter speed and ISO? Check out Playing with Light: Exposure 101.

Properties of Light

Mastering light in photography begins with understanding the properties of light:

Intensity – How strong is the light?

Direction – Where is the light coming from? Above, below or from the front, back or side?

Contrast – How much brighter than the shadows are the highlights?

Quality – Are the shadow edges defined or soft?

Colour – Is the light neutral or does it have an underlying colour?

Once you can define the light you’re dealing with, you can tweak one or more of its properties to create the effect you’re after.

INTENSITY

Photography Lighting Challenge #1: Not Enough Ambient Light 

Let’s say that your lens’ aperture is as wide as it will go. You can’t reduce your shutter speed any more without making your shot appear blurry. And you’ve maxed out your ISO or increased it to the highest level that you’re comfortable with.

When you’ve reached the limits of your camera’s exposure settings, the solution is to add more light to the scene.

Left: Shot with Canon 1DX II + Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens | f/4, 1/100 sec, ISO 200
Right: Shot with
Canon 1DX II + Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L II USM lens | f/2.8, 1/100 sec, ISO 200

Solution: User a Faster Lens

If possible, try using another lens that opens wider (i.e. has a lower f-stop number). This will let more light into the camera without you needing to change your shutter speed or ISO. (Bear in mind that a wider aperture will also reduce your depth of field.)

Need guidance on choosing a lens? Read Lenses 101: An Essential Guide

Solution: Add More Light

If there’s a strong light source around (like a window or street lamp), try using a reflector to reflect some of that light onto your subject.

If that’s not enough, use artificial light (preferably not pop-up flash) to add more light to the scene. Portable, off-camera flashes (speedlights) are lightweight, affordable and can be set to automatic (TTL) mode. Continuous LED lights are less powerful than flashes but stay on so you can see the light before taking the photo.

Learn more about different lighting types: Introductory Buyer’s Guide to Lighting

Photography Lighting Challenge #2: Sky Too Bright or Ground Too Dark

Ever shot a beautiful sunset or famous building, only for the sky to appear way too bright or the ground to appear way too dark? Landscape and architecture photographers are all too familiar with this issue, which happens when one part of the scene is dramatically brighter than another.

Solution: Use a Graduated ND Filter

Dark at one end and clear at the other, graduated neutral density filters are a simple way to balance exposure in a scene that’s split between very bright and very dark sections. ND filters with ‘hard’ gradations are ideal for obvious horizons. ‘Soft’ gradations work well for less defined borders between sky and ground, such as mountains or trees.

Learn more about ND filters: Filters Explained

Photography Lighting Challenge #3: Inconsistent Exposures

Shot with Sony a7 III + Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens | f/4, 1/200 sec, ISO 400
Image credit: Nik Jakobsen

Shot with Canon 1DX II + Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens | f/14, 1/100 sec ISO 100

Shooting under passing clouds or in high-speed burst mode can produce unwanted exposure variations within the same sequence of images. In other words, some shots taken in the same setting and conditions can appear darker or brighter than others.

Solution: Create Separate, Custom Modes for Sun & Cloud

A great tip for getting consistent exposures is to create separate, custom modes for sunny and cloudy conditions. Program these to your camera’s mode dial or custom function buttons for fast access. Then just switch from one setting to the other when the sun comes out or a cloud passes over.

Solution: Use a Camera that Offers AE (Auto Exposure) in Continuous Shooting Mode

If you often in high-speed burst mode, it’s worth considering a camera that offers AE (auto exposure) in high-speed continuous shooting mode. Available with numerous recent, higher-end cameras, this is designed to ensure consistency in exposure throughout action sequences such as sports or wildlife series.

DIRECTION

Photography Lighting Challenge #4: Flat or Unflattering Lighting

Different types of lighting will work for different subjects and appeal to different photographers. However, some lighting styles make it easier to get pleasing results than others.

In most cases hard, front-on lighting—like that from a pop-up or front-facing on-camera flash—is best avoided if you want to flatter your subject. Hard, frontal light tends to make features look one-dimensional, skin look shiny and people or animals like deer in headlights.

Left: On-camera flash | Right: Bounced flash
All taken using
Canon EOS R, Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens + Canon Speedlite 430EX III RT Flash
Image credit: Jackson Seebohm

Solution: Soften & Reposition the Light Relative to Your Subject

Often you can improve ‘ugly’-looking lighting simply by softening and/or repositioning it relative to your subject.

If you’re using the pop-up flash on your camera, turn it off. Instead try using an off-camera flash (speedlight) aimed at a white wall beside your subject or ceiling 45° behind/beside you. Great for candid portraits at events or weddings, this creates natural-looking, slightly side-on lighting that will flatter most subjects.

If your light source is fixed, try repositioning your subject or your camera so the light shines on the subject more from an angle than directly front-on.

Photography Lighting Challenge #5: Backlight 

Lighting your subject from behind can look really effective. At the right angle it can create a romantic glow around your subject that’s great for portrait, lifestyle and editorial images.

On the downside, unless you intend to completely silhouette your subject for dramatic effect, back lighting can make your subject look overly dark and flat. This is because cameras tend to underexpose backlit subjects in favour of correctly exposing the brighter light behind.

Left: Backlight only
Centre: Backlight with bounce fill from
Lastolite Reflector Bottletop 5 in 1 - 75cm
Right: Backlight with fill flash from Canon Speedlite 430EX III RT Flash

All taken using Canon EOS R + Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens | Image credit: Jackson Seebohm

Solution: Bounce Light Towards the Subject

The easiest way to brighten backlit subjects is to reflect the light back towards the subject. Try photographing your subject with a white wall behind you or getting an assistant to hold a reflector in front of the subject.

Solution: Brighten (‘Fill’) Your Subject with Flash

Sometimes a reflector doesn’t bounce enough light to sufficiently brighten a backlit subject. This is common when the light source is extremely bright – e.g. direct sun. The solution? Use off-camera flash to ‘fill’ the shadows on your subject. Speedlights are ideal flash solutions because they’re portable and can be programmed to auto (TTL, or ‘Through the Lens’) mode.

Learn more about different flash types: Introductory Buyer’s Guide to Lighting

Photography Lighting Challenge #6: Glare, Reflections

Photographing towards bright light or shiny surfaces tends to come with unwanted glare or reflections. This can occur with a wide range of subjects, from sunlit water to an indoor portrait sitter wearing glasses.

Top: Without polarising filter

Bottom: With polarising filter

Solution: Use a Polariser

You can overcome glare and reflections using polarising (or polarizing) filters, a.k.a. polarisers. Polarisers make it possible to block out just the light that causes glare, helping you to capture bluer skies and clear, reflection-free water and glass.

Learn more about how polarising filters work: Filters Explained

Photography Lighting Challenge #7: Subject Blends into Background 

Photographing your subject against a dark background may cause the outlines of your subject to get lost. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you or your client may prefer to emphasise your subject.

Solution: Add an Edge Light (a.k.a. Hair Light or Rim Light)

Shot with Canon 5D Mark IV + Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM lens | f/5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO 200
Image credit: Jay Young

Adding an edge light (a.k.a. a hair light or rim light) will emphasise the form of your subject and prevent it from disappearing into the background.

To create an edge light, you essentially need to place a light (hidden from your camera’s frame) between your subject and background and aim it at the back of your subject. For best results the edge light should be far enough from the background to not spill light onto it.

You can create edge lighting using artificial light (like a speedlight, studio strobe or continuous LED on a light stand) or available light such as a rising or setting sun, car headlights, or a distant lamp post.

Learn more about flash and continuous lighting: Introductory Buyer’s Guide to Lighting

QUALITY

Photography Lighting Challenge #8: Harsh Lighting, Hard Shadows

Hard lighting from a bare strobe or midday sun can look great for certain styles of photography. Used effectively it produces angular, high-contrast shadows that inject drama into subjects ranging from architecture and street scenes to landscape, advertising and portrait images.

Hard lighting is, however, unforgiving and will emphasise every detail. It also doesn’t typically convey the right mood for, say, an upbeat family portrait or relaxed show home interior.

Left: Direct sunlight
Centre: Sunlight softened with reflector from
Lastolite Reflector Bottletop 5 in 1 - 75cm
Right: Sunlight diffused with scrim from Lastolite Reflector Bottletop 5 in 1 - 75cm

All taken using
Canon EOS R + Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens | Image credit: Jackson Seebohm

Solution: Soften the Main Light Source

Shooting with daylight? Try shooting on a cloudy day, when the light is soft and even. If that’s not an option, try moving to an area of open shade, such as a balcony, or shooting at a different time of day when the sun is less intense. Alternatively, try diffusing the sunlight with a diffuser/scrim or (if you’re indoors) a sheer curtain.

Shooting with off-camera flash or continuous light? Try softening the light with a softbox, umbrella or diffuser/scrim, or bouncing it towards your subject off a reflective surface (such as a reflector or white wall or ceiling).

Solution: Brighten the Shadows

Brighten or ‘fill’ shadows using a second light (maybe a speedlight, studio strobe or continuous LED on a light stand) or light reflected from the main light. (Photographic reflectors are ideal for this purpose as they are lightweight, fold up for easy transport and storage, and won’t introduce unwanted colour casts.)

CONTRAST

Photography Lighting Challenge #9: Shadows Too Dark (Too Much Contrast) 

Dark shadows can create a powerful, moody or mysterious look. But they can also obscure valuable detail and create a gloomier tone than you might perhaps intend.

Without (left) and with (right) fill light | Image credit: Jay Young
Both photos taken using
Canon 5D Mark IV + Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L II USM lens | f/8, 1/200 sec, ISO 200

Solution: Brighten the Shadows

Brighten or ‘fill’ shadows using a second light (maybe a speedlight, studio strobe or continuous LED on a light stand) or light reflected from the main light. (Photographic reflectors are ideal for this purpose as they are lightweight, fold up for easy transport and storage, and won’t introduce unwanted colour casts.)

Photography Lighting Challenge #10: Dull Lighting (Not Enough Contrast)

Does your image or subject have a dull sort of appearance? Maybe the lighting could do with more contrast – i.e. a greater variation between light and shade.

Left: Low contrast between highlights and shadows
Centre: Higher contrast created using a harder light source
Right: Higher contrast created using a
black reflector

All taken using Canon EOS R, Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens + Canon Speedlite 430EX III RT Flash
Image credit: Shannon Tathem

Solution: ‘Harden’ the Main Light Source

A ‘harder’ light source will produce more distinction between bright and shadow areas. If using natural light, try shooting in more direct light (e.g. closer to midday or without filtering curtains).

If using flash or continuous LED light, try reducing the size of your key (main) light or moving the key light close to the subject. This will steepen the amount of light fall-off, making the transition from light to shadow less gradual. Alternatively, try modifying your light differently. If you’re using a softbox, for example, you could pop a grid over it to channel the light in

Solution: Darken the Shadows

Darker shadows will also increase contrast. Try using a black reflector to ‘subtract’ light from your subject’s shadow side.

COLOUR

Photography Lighting Challenge #11: Inaccurate or Inconsistent Colours 

Do the colours in your image not match the colours as they appear in reality? Or are you getting variations in colour temperature within the same sequence of images?

Colour management is an important consideration for nearly all photographers, and it starts with getting your white balance (WB) correct.

What is White Balance?

White balance is the process by which cameras neutralise or ‘balance’ colour casts caused by non-white light, e.g. the warm orange glow from candlelight or the cool bluish tinge of daylight before dawn. White balance can be done automatically or manually.

The basic aim of white balance is to make white objects—which may look a different colour in reality, depending on the light—appear white in photos. This enables all colours lit by the same light source to be photographed accurately.

By default, most cameras are set to AWB (auto white balance). This works well enough for a lot of situations but doesn’t necessarily reproduce colours with 100% accuracy. It can also get confused by changing or mixed lighting sources (see ‘Mixed Lighting’, below).

Left: Auto white balance | Right: Custom white balance using a grey card
Image credit: Belinda Crossman

Solution: Use a Grey Card

For most accurate results, it’s best to set your camera’s white balance using a grey card. To do this, photograph the grey card in the same lighting and position as your intended subject. (You may need to pre-set your autofocus or manually focus to do so.) Then create a custom white balance setting in your camera using that photograph as your white balance reference.

Solution: Keep Your Lighting & WB Mode Consistent
Don’t have time to use a grey card? Set your camera’s white balance to one setting other than auto (e.g. daylight) and try to keep the temperature of your light source consistent. This should produce more consistent results, which—as a bonus—can be batch edited (i.e. edited using the same settings) when you process your images in Lightroom or other software.

Solution: Create Separate, Custom Modes for Sun & Cloud

Passing clouds can require wildly different exposure and white balance settings at unpredictable times, making fast-paced outdoor shoots like portrait sessions tricky.

A quick solution is to create separate, custom modes for sunny and cloudy conditions. Program these to your camera’s mode dial or custom function buttons for fast access. Then just switch from one setting to the other when the sun comes out or a cloud passes over.

Solution: Shoot in Black & White

Shooting in black and white is an easy fix if you don’t need to shoot in colour. Simply set your camera to a monochrome setting.

Mixed Lighting: Shot with Canon 5D Mark IV + Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Lens | f/11, 3.2 sec, ISO 100
Image credit: Belinda Crossman

Photography Lighting Challenge #12: Mixed Lighting 

When different light sources with different colour temperatures merge in the same scene, you get what’s called mixed lighting. Mixed lighting is common in indoor settings such as offices, homes, and wedding receptions, where you might have sunlight mixed with fluorescents or tungsten mixed with candlelight.

While it can be used to creative effect, mixed lighting generally makes it hard to get colour accuracy and consistency in your photos. Bad news if you want a bride’s wedding dress to appear white and have hundreds of photos of said dress to edit.

Solution: Remove or Block One of the Light Sources

For example, turn off the interior light and just use window light, or close the blinds to block out the sun and just use tungsten/fluoro lights.

Solution: Neutralise One or More Lights

Neutralised Lighting: Shot with Canon 5D Mark IV + Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Lens | f/11, 3.2 sec, ISO 100
Image credit: Belinda Crossman

‘Neutralising’ essentially means changing the colour temperature of one or more lights to match the colour temperature of your preferred light (perhaps the main light). So if you’d like the yellowish glow from a lightbulb to match the whiter light coming in from a window, you could neutralise the light bulb by covering it with a contrasting (blue-toned) gel.

Solution: Shoot in Black & White

Again, shooting in black and white is an easy fix if you don’t need to shoot in colour. Simply set your camera to a monochrome setting.

Want more lighting tips for photography?

Ask one of our staff photographers 

in storeonline or over the phone.