There are a few tenants of professional photography that every expert knows are non-negotiable. Subject, for example, is a crucial element of photography, as is composition.

But there’s one critical element of photography that may matter the most: lighting. There’s a reason why every photographer takes lighting so seriously.

Whether you’re new to photography and plan to be a professional, or you simply want to level up your smartphone photography, there are some basics you should know about photography lighting, which can help you take the most incredible photos possible.

Lighting impacts the mood

Lighting is one of the key elements of photography because it can greatly impact the mood and atmosphere of a photo. As a professional photographer, I make sure that the lighting of my photos is very intentional, and in alignment with the work I’m trying to produce.

At the very basic, happy or positive photos will have brighter lighting, while moody or emotional work might have lower or softer lighting. But the way lighting impacts the mood of a photograph goes much deeper than that.

The array of human emotions can be expressed in the lighting of a photograph, and subtle shifts in the lighting can drastically impact the mood of the photo.

Lighting can be easily manipulated

Every photographer takes lighting so seriously, because they know it plays a huge role in their photographs, but that it can also be easily manipulated. To start with, the time of day and location of a photograph will drastically impact the lighting.

An early morning photograph will be soft and sleepy, but an hour later, the bright sun will have changed things. Artificial lighting sources are also easy and affordable, and can be easily manipulated to impact a photo.

Flash is the most basic kind of artificial lighting which most photographers use, but there are also studio lights and other forms of external lighting.

Lighting can impact the quality of your photos

This might be more relevant for smartphone photography, but yes, lighting can impact the quality of your photos. You may notice on your smartphone that photos in low lighting are of a lesser quality than photos in excellent natural lighting.

With a DSLR camera, you can change the ISO of your camera to take brighter photos in lower lighting, but this requires manipulation, as well as trial and error. Shutter speed can also impact the lighting in your photos, and a slower shutter speed can be helpful in lower lighting, but also requires a steady hand or a tripod.

Lighting impacts the aesthetics of a body of work

If you’re a photographer looking to display your portfolio, whether that’s on a website or a social media feed like Instagram, it’s important that your body of work reflect a certain aesthetic. It doesn’t have to be as oversimplified as a “dark” aesthetic or a “light” aesthetic, but there should be a cohesive nature to the body of work, and lighting will play a big role in that.

Small lighting changes can make a big difference

As I’ve been mentioning, it can be very easy to alter the lighting of a photo. Elements like time and place, external lighting sources, ISO, and shutter speed all impact the lighting of a photo, and tiny tweaks can go a long way. Expert photographers know that understanding these dynamics can greatly impact their photos, and spend time getting well-versed in these techniques, to take the best photos possible.

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Being a professional photographer in today’s day and age means wearing many different hats. Just ask professional Canadian photographer David Koonar.