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How to Use or Avoid it!


Most beginner photographers feel confused about flat light because some people say that flat lighting is great while others say it’s bad.

If this is your case, don’t worry because this article will clear all your doubts about how and when to use flat lighting.

First, I’ll cover what flat light is and the pros and cons of it. Then, I’ll show you how to create flat light and some examples of using it to your advantage.

I’ll also tell you how to avoid it if you actually need stronger highlights and contrast to create more dynamic lighting. Each situation we show you will have an example photo to spark your inspiration.

Sound good? Let’s get started!

What is Flat Lighting?

 

Flat lighting is when the light source hardly casts any shadows. As you may know, shadows and contrast are what create the illusion of depth in a photo – which has only two dimensions.

Since you don’t have any shadows, the image loses the feeling of three-dimensionality and therefore looks flat – hence the name flat lighting.

You can create flat light with natural light and artificial light by using any type of equipment. As long as the subject is evenly lit, then it’s known as flat lighting.

Pros of Flat Light

It’s very flattering for portrait photography. Its main quality is that it flattens – that’s why it’s the best type of lighting for the skin as it makes it look very smooth.

It has an airy style – flat lighting is very soft, giving an ethereal flowy feel to your images. That’s why it makes excellent photos of newborns, weddings, etc.

Flat light is usually quite easy to find, especially indoors – this is one reason that makes it a popular photography lighting technique.

Cons of Flat Light

While flat lighting can be a great resource for portrait photographers, it’s not ideal when you want to do other types of photography – such as landscapes.

Because you have very little contrast when you use flat lighting, you’ll need to find other ways to draw the viewer’s attention into the photo.

With flat lighting, you eliminate shadows. Therefore, the resulting image will lack drama, and you may end up with very predictable results.

What is flat lighting used for?

Credit: Anna Shvets

Flat light is used when you don’t want to cast any shadows – at least, as few shadows as possible.

Usually, you’d want to have low contrast images when you’re doing portraits because it’s more flattering. This includes beauty photography, glamour photography and fashion photography.

Newborn photographers and wedding photographers also use flat light because it creates a soft atmosphere ideal for these situations that convey joy and innocence.

Another type of portrait photography that uses flat light is when shooting headshots for ID cards and documents. Look at the photo you have on your passport or driving license – they usually don’t have any shadows because that way, it’s easier to identify a person.

Of course, flat lighting can also help when photographing certain products depending on the material. Also, you can use it for creative purposes in other types of photography.

What causes flat light?

There are multiple situations where you end up with flat light, from the use of direct flash to midday sun on a cloudy day. Here are some concrete examples:

  • On-camera flash – As you now know, flat light occurs when the light is coming from the same direction as the camera. So, an on-camera flash pointed directly at the subject will result in a very two-dimensional look. To add depth when you’re using an on-camera flash, you can point it elsewhere and bounce the light towards the subject.
  • Overcast skies – A white cloud cover in the sky will diffuse light. When the light is too soft, it creates minimal contrast – resulting in flat lighting.
  • A 1:1 ratio in multiple light sources – Most people think that flat light is created only by single-light setups. Instead, you can get a flat light with any lighting pattern if there’s no difference between light sources.

Let’s say you’re shooting a portrait, and you place a light at a 45-degree angle to the subject’s left. Then the right side will be in the shadow.

If you place a second light on the right at a 45-degree angle with the same intensity as the other one, it will fill the shadow, causing a flat light.

How to Create & Use Flat Light for Flattering Portraits

Flat light is great for portraits because it makes the skin look smooth and flawless.

One of the most common ways to achieve it is to point the light source directly at your subject from the same position as the camera.

However, there are many ways to get a flat light. Here are some examples:

1. Use light modifiers

Credit: Mark Decile

There are two types of light – hard light and soft light – here’s the difference. Hard light creates deep and well-defined shadows; this will add drama to your photos.

If you want to create falt lighting conditions, you need to use soft light. To achieve this, you need to diffuse the light source – this is done with light modifiers.

Some of the most common accessories to create soft light with flashes or strobes are umbrellas and softboxes – a ring light is also popular because of its particular catchlight.

If you’re working with natural light, you can use diffuser panels. Of course, there are also some ‘natural diffusers’ such as clouds.

2. Put sheer curtains on the window

 

When you use natural light indoors, you’re typically referring to window light. In this case, it’s important that you control the light direction.

Ideally, you should organize the photoshoot when the sun is illuminating the opposite side of the building or during an overcast day for great natural flat light.

If you shoot when direct sunlight is hitting the window, you’ll have dramatic light.

However, if you can’t do it another time, you can diffuse light with sheer curtains. This will be like putting a softbox to a strobe.

3. Use a large light source

Credit: Shiny Diamond

To quote the authors of Light – Science and Magic, “The effective size of the light source is the single most important decision in lighting a photograph”.

When the key light is the only source, its size is the most important factor in determining how hard the shadow is going to be.

Small lights are hard, while larger sources are softer. As you now know, flat lighting means having very little contrast – which is why you need a large light source.

4. Try high key photography

Credit: Fanny Gustafsson

High key lighting creates bright and airy images that have a majority of white and light-colored tones. Because of this, to do a high key portrait, you need flat lighting conditions.

The easiest way to do a high key photo is to use a single light source coming from the front to light the face evenly. The background and wardrobe should be white, too.

Avoid using rim lighting because the subject would blend with the background.

This is one of the easiest studio lighting setups you can do, and it’s incredibly flattering. It’s a popular portrait lighting technique that creates a youthful, light and ethereal atmosphere.

How to Avoid Flat Lighting in your Photography

So far, we’ve seen how to produce flat lighting and why you would want it. However, we’ve also established that it’s not suited for all types of photography.

So, if you want to add dramatic lighting to your photography – here are some tips to avoid flat light.

1. Avoid cloudy days

Credit: Ron Lach

Direct sunlight creates high contrast because the sun is far enough away to act as a small light source. This way, the light comes from the same angle and create hard shadows.

However, when there’s overcast, the light source isn’t the sun anymore – it’s the cloudy sky acting like a giant softbox that scatters the light.

That’s why you should always check the weather forecast before you plan an outdoor photoshoot to avoid having flat lighting.

2. Shoot at blue and golden hours

Credit: Kat Smith

Blue hour happens before sunrise and after sunset, while the golden hour refers to the time after sunrise and before sunset.

To do any type of photography with natural light – whether a landscape or a portrait, everybody tells you to do it early in the morning or late in the evening.

That’s because the sun is close to the horizon. Therefore light hits the subject from an angle, creating shadows.

Instead, if you wait for the midday sun, you’ll risk having images with flat light, especially if there are clouds.

3. Use multiple-lights patterns when shooting in the studio

Credit: Ron Lach

You’ve probably seen flash photography kits that come in sets of three. This is because one of the most common lighting patterns in portrait work is the three-light setup.

The way to arrange this would be to set up a key light, usually at a 45-degree angle and a fill light at a 45-degree angle on the other side.

The important thing is to determine the correct ratio between these lights because the more difference between them, the more shadows you’ll have on the subject’s face. If you have a 1:1 balance, you’ll hardly have any shades, and you’ll end up with flat lighting.

The third flash is meant to be direct lighting hitting your subject from the back for creating highlights. This is also known as hair light or rim light.

Of course, this is just a basic light pattern – some portrait photographers work with five or more flashes.

Here’s a guide to three point lighting so you can learn a few more tips to create some interesting portaits.

4. Use dappled light 

Credit: Andre Moura

Dappled lighting means that the light hits the scene or the subject in patches. This is, obviously, the opposite of having even lighting that would create a two-dimensional image.

To achieve dappled light with artificial light, you can buy sheets with different patterns cut into them – you can also DIY them if you want to have some unique shapes.

Ideally, you should use strobes but if you’re going to use a speed light – make sure it focuses. Otherwise, you can still do it but the only difference is that the shadows won’t have defined edges, and the effect won’t be as effective.

If you’re working with natural light, you can place your subject under a tree where there’s direct sunlight hitting it – this way, the light passes through the leaves, creating the effect.

Final Words

As you can see, photographers that say flat light is good are right – but so are the ones that try to avoid flat lighting at all costs! It all depends on the effect that you want to achieve.

In any case, know that flat light is only one of the multiple lighting setups you can utilise to your advantage in photography.

I hope this article helped you to clear your doubts – if not, feel free to share your questions in the comments section.

Also, if you have any more tips on creating or avoiding flat light to create great photos, please share them with us below.


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