A-Z glossary of photographic lighting terms

First published:
February 27, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Contents:

- Jargon-buster overview
-
A-Z glossary of general photographic terms
-
A-Z glossary of lighting terms
-
A-Z glossary of miscellaneous photographic terms

An extensive glossary of the terms you're likely to come across related to photographic lighting.

These terms are listed in alphabetical order for ease of viewing or locating a particular term.

A-Z glossary of photographic lighting terms

A

Ambient light is natural or artificial light that’s already present in a scene or location.

Artificial light is light that’s produced by a manmade light source such as a candle, bulb, street lights or flashgun etc.

C

Continuous light is light from an artificial source such as an LED light that is always on, as opposed to flash which produces a short burst of light.

F

Fill light is used to lighten or remove shadows and can be created using a reflector to direct natural light, with a continuous light source or with flash.

Flags are black sheets of card or material like a reflector. But rather than bouncing light onto the subject like a reflector, flags stop light spill from light sources and can be used to add definition to subjects.

Flash simply refers to a light source that produces a bright flash or burst of light to illuminate the subject. Flashes come in all shapes and sizes with different power outputs, from the small built-in flash on some cameras to flashguns that attach to the camera hotshoe to studio and portable flash heads. 

Flash sync speed is the maximum shutter speed your camera can use to sync to flash without capturing the shutter curtain. On most cameras, this is around 1/200 sec, and you can use slower shutter speeds, too. For cameras with a leaf shutter in the lens, you can sync to flash at any shutter speed the camera offers.

Flare is light that enters the lens at oblique angles and can cause halos, circles and haze in parts of the image. Some photographers use this creatively, while others seek to avoid it by shooting with a lens hood attached to the front of their lenses.

Front curtain/rear curtain sync are two different options when shooting with a flashgun/speedlight. With front curtain sync the flash is triggered when the shutter opens, and with rear curtain sync it’s fired just before the shutter closes. Rear curtain sync is used creatively to add blur behind a moving subject, while front curtain sync is often best used for static subjects.

Q

Quality of light is all about whether the light is hard or soft. Hard light comes from ‘naked’ light sources, including the midday sun, creating harsh shadows and bleached-out details. Soft light is light where a diffuser such as a softbox has been placed onto the front of the flash or continuous light to create a softer and more pleasing result with more detail. Both options can be used creatively.

R

Reflectors are typically circular foldable devices made of material with a supporting edge used to reflect natural or artificial light onto a subject. You can also use white paper, white card, aluminium foil or polystyrene board as a reflector.

Remote triggers are used to fire studio flash and flashguns wirelessly without the need to use a sync cable.

S

Shutter drag is when you shoot with flash and move the camera during the exposure or ask the model to move to create blur. You will need to experiment with shutter speeds to see what works best for you, but start at one second and shoot in a dark location.

Softboxes are a type of light modifier used to soften and shape light. They come in a range of shapes and sizes and you can buy softboxes designed for flashguns and studio flash.

Speedlight is another name for flashgun.

W

White balance is a setting that controls how your camera represents white objects under different light sources and conditions eg. Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Kelvin and Auto. Using the wrong setting for a given light source creates a colour cast across images, which isn’t a problem when shooting Raw because you can change white balance during editing, but it’s more problematic when shooting in JPEG.