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We’ve been discussing the effect of light in the past two posts (Light Direction and Hard Lighting vs Soft Lighting), so in this post, I want to walk through a few things to consider when assessing the light in your photos.



A catchlight is caused by light reflecting onto the eye of the subject. Both natural light and studio lighting will create catchlights.

Catchlights have a way of making your subjects look more alive and engaging. No matter what kind of lighting you choose to use there will usually be some kind of catchlight (unless the light is coming from behind the subject).

In studio lighting, the closer the light is to the subject, the larger the catchlight will appear. To easily capture a catchlight without much fuss, place your light source in front of and slightly to the side of your camera. This will ensure that the eyes will reflect whatever light you choose to use (hard or soft).


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In this photo, taken by Cecil Beaton, you can see a couple of catchlights reflected in Marilyn Monroe’s eyes. It is possible that both studio and natural light from a window source were used. The light reflected at the top of her eyes is quite large, so we can assume that there is a large light being used overhead. The catchlight on the bottom of her eye is likely a reflected light.

In natural lighting, it is much harder to control the size and shape of the catchlight. Inevitably, the catchlight will be created by the sun. In order to capture an effective catchlight, you will need to face your subject toward the sun (or they can face some kind of reflected light like a mirror or a window).


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Dorthea Lange was known for her work done with the extreme poor in America in the 1930s and 40s. In this photo, the subject is looking directly towards the sun. This results in not only a rather small catchlight in the middle of the subject’s eye, but also some very harsh shadows around the face.


Aperture size (depth):

Aperture is one of the three controls that you have on your camera that controls light (for a unit on exposure, click here). Specifically, aperture size controls how wide the camera lens opens and the amount of depth in the photo:

  • High aperture number = deep of field and a small lens opening (thus, less light let into the camera)
  • Low aperture number = shallow of field and a large lens opening (thus, more light let into the camera)


The other two settings on your camera that control light are shutter speed and ISO. So, if you increase the aperture number (making it so that there is less light getting in), you may also need to increase the ISO number and/or make your shutter speed slower (in order to create more light)

A shallow depth of field may also indicate that the subject was close to the camera when the shot was taken. Use the chart below to help you understand the way these three settings work together:  

exposure chart


Ambient and Fill Light:

Ambient light refers to additional and perhaps unplanned light sources. Fill lights are created by smaller light sources or reflectors. If a photo has numerous shadows, this indicates that there was no ambient light or fill light used for the image and only one light source.

When there is less shadow on the subject and bright surroundings, you can assume that multiple lights or at least one light and fill light was used (perhaps a reflector like one of theses). You often see lots of ambient light when photos are taken outside since the sunlight will reflect on multiple surfaces in the surrounding area.


Lange Migrant
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In her iconic “Migrant Mother” shot, Dorthea Lange takes advantage of the ambient light. The light from the sun is reflecting off the dirty canvas around the subject. This softens the shadows on the face and add definition to the clothing.

This finishes our little series on the types of lighting that you should consider when learning photography. There is so much more that you can explore as you learn, but hopefully this gives you a good starting point.


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