5 Lighting Tips for Beginners

7 min read

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Gejda's avatar
Photomanipulation Weekend

1. Remember the occlusion shadow

Forgetting about the occlusion shadow is usually one of the most often made mistakes - that small area of very dark, very narrow shadow right below the object you're trying to place is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. Without it, your object is very likely to be seen as floating. Remember to pay attention to the light direction, too - the occlusion shadow should follow the same rules as the rest of the shaded area.

Occlusion by Gejda

2. Think of objects in 3D

Another common mistake is shading your object with one big brush, not recognizing any of the sides, planes and edges. Remember that every single thing is three-dimensional; your model is not a paper cut-out. If you're struggling with shading faces, Google "planes of the face" - it will help you understand where the are shadows most likely to fall. Whatever is the object that you're trying to light, try to simplify it into basic geometric shapes - cubes, cones and spheres. You can even place a layer over your object and try to draw them with a small brush in a contrasting, highly visible colour - for example a bright red - to help yourself with seeing what should be lighter and what should be darker.

Here's a cool video where you can see planes of the head!

3. Colour and light go together

Colour and light are tightly intertwined - the only time you can stop thinking about colour when you're dealing with lighting is a fully b&w palette. Whenever an object gets close to the ground, or another object, it begins to interact with it - shadows begin to "seep" into each other, and lighting takes on a different hue. This is why you should never try and shade things with just black or just white, and why using Dodge and Burn tools is a bad idea - this way, you will never get the full spectrum of the hues you'd get while painting in shadows and lights with colours.

Here's an example of colour interaction - this lipstick container has a pink hue on the edges because it's surrounded by pink background, and the coffee cup's shadows are tinted with brown because it's standing on a brown surface.

Pexels-photo-988863 by GejdaPexels-photo-1008239 by Gejda

4. Hard and soft

Many beginners often use only big, soft brushes to paint in shadows, which can also result in floating objects.  That's not to say that soft shadows don't exist in nature - sure they do! The trick is to know when to use which type. Soft shadows generally tend to come from larger light sources - for example, the sun (unless it's direct sunlight on a sunny day); natural lighting in general is more likely to give you softer edges.

Hard edges are more likely to appear when lighting comes from a small, concentrated light source, for example a light bulb, or a spotlight on a circus performer. Remember not to make the edges 100% sharp and crisp, though -  that's going too far into the opposite direction!

Another thing to remember is proximity - the farther the shadow is from the object casting it, the softer it will be (for example, a ball held a meter above the ground will cast a softer shadow than a ball laying on the ground). Basically,
things closer to the ground have sharper edged shadows. Here's a link to an article that explains it really well: Click here!.

Pexels-photo-327070 by Gejda

You can also use these rules a bit more consciously - hard-edged, stark shadows can help create an ominous, menacing atmosphere, while soft shadows will be more inviting.

5. Think about materials

An important, and a bit more advanced, thing when creating a realistic scene are the properties of materials you're using. Firstly, some objects reflect light, some refract it. Reflection is what happens when the light bounces back from the surface of the object in a symmetrical direction. Refraction occurs when light passes from one transparent material to another - for example, from air to water. When it happens, the light changes direction - which is why if you put a spoon into a glass of water, you will experience an optical illusion - the part of the spoon in the air won't seem to align with the part that's in the water.

Also consider whether things are transparent, translucent or opaque. When things are transparent (like clear glass) they let light all the way through. When they're translucent (like seawater, or dirty glass),  they allow light through only partially. When they're opaque (like wood, or cement) they don't allow like through at all.

Why am I talking about this? Because these are things that you should  take into account when you're thinking about lighting. For example, let's say you have a medieval helmet laying on a table in direct sunlight. If it's a brand-new helmet, it's likely to be polished metal, so it will reflect its surroundings to a high degree and have prominent highlights. If it's old and battered, the metal probably won't show any visible reflections, but since it's technically still a reflective surface, it's likely to visibly take on colours from the environment. It the table's placed in a home of a respected, affluent noble, it's probably going to be made of polished, lacquered wood, so it'll be highly reflective as well; if it's standing in a run-down tavern, it's probably going to be rough, coarse and not reflective at all.  

Another example - if you're shading a character, take a look at their clothes. Materials that bounce off light and are more likely to have visible highlights are for example leather, silk or satin, while on clothes made of cotton or linen there will be little to no visible highlights.

Pexels-photo-745761 by Gejda
Yarn doesn't reflect or let through light.

Mirroring-ball-reflection-mirror by Gejda
This polished metal ball reflects everything around it.

Pexels-photo-698874 by Gejda
This woman's smooth leather jacket has visible highlights.

That's all from me for now - I hope you enjoyed the article. Is there anything you'd like to ask? Anything you disagree with? Anything you'd like to see explained in more depth? Let us know in the comments below!

*All the photos in this article come from pexels.com.

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VilmaMonster's avatar

Thanks for the article.

Branka-Artz's avatar
Thank you for this valuable tutorial :hug:
Gejda's avatar
My pleasure! :) 
aaTmaHira's avatar
THANK YOU!!! i was hoping Project Educate would add a tutorial on this and here it is!! Thank you so much!! :happybounce:
Gejda's avatar
My pleasure! Hopefully it was helpful :D 
aaTmaHira's avatar
It was tremendously helpful, thanks again! :heart:
BannerGraphics's avatar
What a fantastic article!!
Gejda's avatar
Glad you think so! :) 
SoyUnPeredor's avatar
This was an awesome read, thank you for sharing!!
Gejda's avatar
My pleasure! :) 
deskridge's avatar
Gejda's avatar
Thank you! :) 
Gejda's avatar
Thanks so much! I like your mink colour comparison, though, it makes the whole thing a lot easier to visualise  :) 
Lora-Vysotskaya's avatar
Good work Marta!👍
Gejda's avatar
Thank you! :) 
pearwood's avatar
And good reminders for those of us who have been at it a long time. Lighting is especially critical in black and white.
Gejda's avatar
It definitely is! :) 
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