Confused by lighting terms? Here’s what they all mean

Nov 24, 2020

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Confused by lighting terms? Here’s what they all mean

Nov 24, 2020

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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If you’re new to working with flash, especially when shooting portraits, all of the different terms for different lights can be quite confusing. With no context whatsoever, “key”, “fill”, “rim”, “kicker”, etc. are all kind of vague and non-descript. Once you understand the purpose for each, though, the naming convention becomes quite obvious.

In this video, photographer John Gress walks us through each of the different terms used for different types of lighting position, as well as how and why each of them are used when shooting portraits. He also mentions some of the names different photographers seem to use for the same thing – often a big cause of confusion judging by some of the posts I see on social media.

Once you understand the terms for the different light placements and exactly what each one is doing and contributing to the overall image, it becomes much easier to understand how you might want to light your own portraits. If you don’t yet own any kit, understanding what they all do can also help you with your buying decisions, too. Maybe you don’t need the seventeen lights you thought you did and only need one or two. Even if you do already own one or two lights, it helps you to understand if and when you might need to buy another one or two… or eight.

It’s also worth remembering that not all light sources actually have to be lights themselves. You can use a reflector as a light source, bouncing excess light from your key back towards the other side of your subject for a fill light. There’s nothing wrong with having a light pulling double duty with the assistance of something like a reflector.

What lighting terms confuse you the most?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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