Skip to content

Get the content and creative tools you need with an All-in-One plan and your first month free.

Try for free
Blog Home Business Lighting in Photography: A Guide for Great Stock Photos
Lighting in Photography: A Guide for Great Stock Photos

Lighting in Photography: A Guide for Great Stock Photos

Check out this guide on the basics of lighting in photography, and pick up tips for choosing stock photos based on lighting techniques.

With the name “photography” literally meaning “drawing with light,” it’s clear that lighting plays a huge role in creating fantastic photos. Photography wouldn’t exist without light. Skilled photographers manipulate lighting to create an unlimited range of outcomes. These vary from dark and moody candlelit shots to high-definition lighting that makes the most of natural daylight.

Read on to discover how photographers manipulate stock photo lighting to fantastic effect, and get advice on which ones work best for various needs. You’ll also learn about cutting-edge trends for stock photography that will literally light up your projects.  

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Stas Vulkanov, Linda Dufurrena, Tik.tak, PhotosByLarissaB, Lysenko Andrii, and Lens7.

What Are the Main Types of Lighting in Photography?

Are you looking to use incredible photography in design or marketing projects? These different lighting techniques create unique effects in stock images. We’ll walk you through which kinds you should choose depending on the results you’d like to achieve.

The main factors affecting photo lighting to know about are:

  1. Natural and artificial light
  2. Lighting position
  3. Soft and hard lighting
  4. Color temperature

License this image via Master1305.

Still life photography with oranges on rotten wood with artificial lighting

License this image via N_One.

1. Natural and Artificial Light

What makes the greatest impact in photography? Arguably this is down to whether an image is shot in natural or artificial light. Both types of lighting have their pros and cons, and create widely different resulting images. 

Portrait of a little girl playing outside backlit by the sun
Natural and artificial light lend very different qualities to stock photography. License this image via Gladskikh Tatiana.

Natural lighting is dependent on the sun and moon, as well as time of day and the seasons. It requires well-planned photo sessions and an accurate weather app.

Although natural lighting can be temperamental, images shot in natural light can produce mesmerisingly beautiful results, ranging from hazy and golden to stark and direct. 

Natural light is also particularly good at conveying mood and seasonality. Winter images look completely different from summer ones, for example.

Photos shot a couple of hours before sunset—termed golden hour or “magic hour”—are extremely flattering for portraits. These photos have warm, soft lighting that can make them feel ethereal and even nostalgic.

License these images via Linda Dufurrena and Kiselev Andrey Valerevich.

Compared to natural light, artificial light has the benefit of being completely controlled. These photos are taken within any setting, such as an indoor studio or outdoors to compensate for a lack of natural light.

Strong artificial light creates more contrast in photos. Dreamlike, soft lighting can be achieved in artificially lit shots. Color can also be introduced, thanks to the use of gel filters or colored LED lights. 

Sometimes, artificial lighting can mimic natural lighting. In these photos, subjects are shot in less temperamental conditions than we see outdoors.

At the other end of the scale, some photos truly maximize the artificiality of the lighting to create a particular effect. Think of neon strobe lighting that give portraits an urban, club-like feel.  

License these images via Nektarstock and NOFASHON.

2. Lighting Position

The direction and distance of light is all-important in photography. It can be used to reveal and conceal aspects of subjects to create contrast in photos.

Backlighting, in which the source of light is placed behind the subject in the foreground, creates a silhouette style in images. These fantastic photos have rockstar-style, though they don’t show a ton of fine detail within a scene.

Backlit bison in a field on a cloudy day
License this image via PhotosByLarissaB.

Forty five-degree angles are popular portrait styles, where the subject is lit at a typically flattering angle. This creates a Rembrandt lighting effect, named after the Dutch Master who often painted subjects with a triangle of light illuminating one half of the face.

This effect brings a big impact, despite requiring only one light source to achieve it.

Clockwise from top left: License these images via Groundrush, Kiselev Andrey Valerevich, and teatian.

3. Soft and Hard Lighting

What does contrast mean? In photography, contrast refers to a scale of difference between light and dark areas of an image. This is achieved almost exclusively by soft and hard lighting.

Lighting in Photography: A Guide for Great Stock Photos

License this image via K-Angle.

Hard lighting creates a higher level of contrast in photography, by starkly illuminating aspects of a subject, and creating sharper and darker shadows as a result.

Imagine the light cast by a very bright midday sun, with sharp graduations between light and shadow. Hard lighting creates a dramatic, serious mood in images, making it perfect for gritty or edgy imagery

License these images via Kseniya Ivanova and Lizzy Komen.

Soft lighting softens the graduation between light and shadow, creating a diffused effect that produces less contrast and more evenness throughout the image.

Think of an overcast day, in which light is diffused through cloud cover and is less direct and bright. Soft lighting creates flattering, friendly photography, from warm portraits to delectable food photography.

It helps images to feel instantly more inviting, open, and attractive, and can conceal “flaws” such as wrinkles.

License these images via Viktoriia Hnatiuk and Ksenia Ershova.

Three snowy mountain peaks in the Alps

License this image via Ko Zatu.

4. Color Temperature

Color temperature refers to the level of warmth in photographs. The color temperature of images is measured in Kelvin (K), with a higher Kelvin number indicating a cooler color, edging towards white and even colder blue, and a lower number graduating from yellow to very warm red.

Daylight, for example, has around a 5000 K temperature, sitting towards the middle of the scale. Meanwhile, candlelight is very warm at 1850 K, and artificial white lights have a super-cool count of 6500 K.

Woman dancing on neon background
License this image via Master1305.

What does this mean for selecting stock photos to use in your campaigns and designs? At a more obvious level, color temperature can be seen as a way to situate your design in a particular season, climate, or time of day.

For example, cooler images are more likely to evoke the stark winter light reflected on snow and ice. Meanwhile, a warmer color temperature can make an image feel more tropical and temperate.

On an emotive level, however, color temperature is intrinsic to curating a specific mood and atmosphere for an image. You can see this color casting technique in use in television and film. In these mediums, color temperature is used to create an immediate emotional reaction within the viewer.

As an example, gritty Scandi Noir shows use a very high Kelvin temperature. This situates the crime drama within far northern regions, but also heightens the morbidity of the subject matter.

In other words, in extreme contexts, we associate a cool color temperature with death, and directors can increase cool color temperatures to further enhance the ominous feeling of cold and bleakness that we have when watching our favorite Scandinavian thriller.

Ironically, this can have the effect of making viewers feel even more cozy and comforted when watching a show, by drawing a strong contrast between the neutral color temperatures of everyday life and the especially cool ones of Scandi Noir.

A cooler color temperature further heightens the morbid mood of Scandinavian crime thrillers. As you can see, the right image has been altered for that cool noir look. License this image via czechexplorerphotography.

When selecting stock photography, you can cleverly use color temperature to direct the emotional reaction of your audience, in the same way that directors do for TV and movies.

Many brands specifically tailor color temperature in their communications in order to make viewers feel more receptive to a product (warm), more likely to perceive an offer as good value (very warm), or to make a consumer feel more cool and edgy (cool). The latter is a technique that’s often used for photography by alternative and independent brands.

In other words, color temperature is your secret weapon for making customers feel something in a stronger way, without perhaps knowing exactly why they have an emotional association with an image.

A good rule of thumb is to select a stock photo that has a color temperature that’s not far from the emotional temperature you’d like to achieve, so as not to force the image into a color temperature that is going to look artificial.

Let’s say you’re creating a social media campaign for a budget airline. This is going to benefit from particularly warm imagery. We can start with a relatively warm photo and reduce the K temperature to create an even warmer effect.

This has the double effect of associating the image with a warm, temperate location, as well as building an emotional association with openness, friendliness, and transparency—a winning formula for convincing viewers that this brand is budget-friendly.

While the white balance added to the image on the right is subtle, it adds a bit of pop. License this image via PixelShot.

Related to color temperature is white balance (WB). This refers to color corrected images’ level of whiteness. Many of the white tones we see in real life are actually not white at all, but the human eye automatically color corrects to assess a color as white.

Photos can replicate the way that the human eye sees white by not including unsightly blue, yellow, or pink color casts from images, creating a brighter white result. 

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Puspok, Alena Spasskaya, and Dolores M. Harvey.

Closeup portrait of a female model with freckles holding a red rose

License this image via Yuliia Bezuglaya.

Must-Know Lighting Trends in Stock Photography

Now that you know the basics of photo lighting in photography, it’s much easier to see these different types of lighting in action in stock photos.

Photographers skillfully manipulate light to create a multitude of different effects and moods. Some of these lighting trends are making a particular mark on marketing campaigns and design projects. 

Read on to discover four photography lighting trends that are currently bringing impact and interest to contemporary campaigns for marketing and design.

1. Soft Neon Lighting

Neon lighting has been a macro-trend for photography over the last few years, making online imagery really pop from the screen. This year, we’re seeing a softer take on neon lighting bringing gentle, pastel neon colors to ethereal stock photos.

Perfect for bringing a dreamlike, urban style to portraits and fashion photography, soft neon lighting uses strobe lights and diffused, soft light to create a balance between vivid color and soft-focus gradients.

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Alones, Jaroslav Monchak, Tik.tak, and Zamurovic Brothers.

2. Natural Outdoor Lighting

Take advantage of golden hour with this photography trend for natural outdoor lighting, which makes use of the fascinating and ever-changing beauty of sunlight.

Perhaps because we’re becoming more used to seeing images that are heavily filtered on social media, images that use natural light—even the harshest of daylight—suddenly seem incredibly refreshing and authentic.

Stock photos that make creative use of outdoor lighting will bring a welcome naturalism to lifestyle portraits, animal photography, and food photography

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via M.Nergiz, Stas Vulkanov, AnastasiaDudka, and Lens7.

3. High-Resolution ’90s Lighting

For this photography trend, we’re looking to the high-resolution, unfiltered style of imagery that was particularly popular in fashion photography during the 1990s.

Inspired by the gritty realism of the grunge movement, this studio lighting style is about heightening the realism of subjects, showing real skin—freckles and all—and teaming this with bold color backdrops.  

For inspiration, look to the work of British fashion photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, who achieves this hyper-real, stark style of portraiture through natural light alone.

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via NOFASHION, Anton Vierietin, Alex Butko, and SeventyFour.

4. Candlelight

The final photography lighting trend to know is the resurgence of candlelight for creating cozy, intimate imagery.

Partly inspired by the Dark Academia trend in fashion and on social media, this style of lighting is all about creating pockets of soft, warm light in otherwise dark and moody images. 

The results of candlelit photos can be beautifully cinematic. Use this style of stock photo to bring Hygge warmth to seasonal campaigns, or use candlelit stock photos to make group shots or event photography feel more comfortable and intimate. 

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Lysenko Andrii, weilfernweh, and CsaboPhoto.

Conclusion: Light Up Your Projects with Stock Photography

In photography, lighting is (almost) everything! The endless variations of light characterizes photographs in different ways, revealing and concealing subjects to create interest and depth. 

Now that you know more about lighting in photography, you can choose stock photos with more confidence. Go forth and select beautifully lit images that will illuminate your campaigns.   

In the Shutterstock library, you have access to millions of beautifully lit, colored, and composed photos. And with Shutterstock FLEX, you’ll have all-in-one access to this massive library, plus the FLEXibility you need to select the perfect mix of assets every time.

Bring your beautiful ideas to life with the best stock content!

Want to see which plan is best for your unique creative needs?

License this cover image via K-Angle.

Recently viewed

Share this post

Recently viewed