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Flat lighting in photography: causes, when to use, and how to avoid

Photographers will often throw around rather weird terms in everyday conversation, like “the lighting looks flat”. Flat lighting is in fact a common issue with many photographs and it can either be deliberate or accidental.

Interestingly enough, there will be some situations where you’ll want to avoid flat lighting like the flu, and other situations where you’ll actively set up the shot so that the lighting is flat. It all depends on the kind of results you want.

What is flat lighting

Before digging any deeper, it is useful to see what flat lighting actually is. Flat lighting is when the subject or scene is very directly and broadly lit. While this makes for a bright photograph, direct, intense lighting does a poor job of accentuating depth, detail, highlights, shadows, and contrasts.

The result is a dull(in the sense of colors) and sometimes boring photograph.

Highlights and shadows help give depth to a photograph and can help in really making the scene or subject pop out. With no highlights or shadows, the scene or subject will look very 2 dimensional, hence the term flat.

If you’re into sketching or painting, you’ll know how important shadows are for adding a 3D effect to images. Without shadows, a mountain is just a big triangular shape. But with shadows, the same triangle is turned into a multi-faceted, complex mountain with snow and rocks and ravines.

flat lighting
This is an example of a portrait using flat lighting. Notice how there are very few shadows on the face. Here, the light was probably hitting the face directly and evenly.
This is an example of the opposite. Notice how the light is coming from one side, really bringing out the shadows around the nose and neck.

Causes of flat lighting

There are many reasons you may experience flat lighting in your photography. Often, amateur photographers will make the mistake of not timing their shots or setting up lighting correctly, and that’s why they end up with flatly lit shots.

It is worth mentioning here that the reasons below are not absolutes. Since photography is as much art as it is a science, you’ll realize that there are many nuances and subtleties in each situation and the best way to recognize them and get better is to just practice, practice, practice, and analyze, analyze, analyze.

1. Direct flash

Have you ever noticed that professional photographers often point their flash upwards when taking photos? In other situations, the flash is usually somewhere separate from the camera. Normally(especially with point and shoot cameras) the flash is pointing towards the subject.

When the flash is aimed directly at the subject, the result is the flash throwing an even blanket of light on the subject, eliminating most shadows and contrasts, and resulting in flat lighting.

However, you can use a flash(even an in-built one) to bring out shadows and highlights as well. To do this, you simply need to shoot from an angle, or have your subject turn their face a little.

When the light comes from an angle(the same thing essentially happens if the subject turns their face), the flash will illuminate part of the subject and create shadows on the other side.

This is why passport photos and drivers license photos are usually so unflattering, but natural, candid photos are a lot nicer!

2. Overcast sky

In some situations, very overcast skies where clouds are mostly covering the entire sky result in flat lighting. However, in other cases, the clouds actually improve the photograph by softening the light.

When the sun is out, there’s one concentrated light source that is slowly spreading out, and it will be more intense directly below the sun and less intense at other angles.

When there is cloud cover, the white clouds are essentially diffusing all that light evenly, so you essentially have a much bigger(albeit less bright) light source.

3. Shooting around noon

The noon sun is very bright, and the light is very harsh. Because the angle of the sun is minimal around noon time(though this will greatly vary depending on where you are in the world), when the subject is directly in front of the sun, it will produce a similar effect to what I described above with direct flashes.

The photograph will appear flat because the light will be very even and direct, and there won’t be many shadows or highlights.

However, if you set up your shot correctly, you can actually bring out a lot more shadows and highlights and this will result in a photograph that’s the complete opposite of flat!

There’s no one way to get this kind of result, and again, the best suggestion here is to practice in the midday sun with different angles.

You can actually experiment with a stationary object like a fountain or a statue and change the angle of your photograph around midday to see the varying results it produces.

Flat light vs hard or soft light

Since we’re talking about light, it’s easy to confuse flat light with hard or soft light, or even harsh light.

Hard, soft, and harsh light are all completely different concepts from flat light.

Hard light means light which results in a very steep contrast, where the highlights and light areas are very starkly contrasted.

In soft light, the transition is gradual and looks more natural.

That’s not to say that hard light is bad, as it can actually be very effective for achieving certain kinds of effects.

Finally, flat lighting is not always bad! Sometimes it is done deliberately. Again, it all depends on what effect you want to achieve with the photograph and how it is going to be used!

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Pros of flat light

In some cases, professionals will utilize flat lighting for a particular effect. This is especially so in fashion and beauty photography.

Minimizing shadows and highlights is a great way to mask skin imperfections. The minimal highlights creates a uniformity all over the skin.

Beauty and fashion photos are heavily edited anyway and the highlights and shadows are added in later on.

Flat lighting is also useful when shooting a subject in front of a white background. This helps to accentuate the model’s face in front of the background.

Cons of flat lighting

While fashion and beauty photographers may be fans of flat lighting, nature photographers consider it their bane as it really detracts from what the photograph could be.

As discussed above, flat light does not accentuate any highlights or shadows, and without highlights or shadows, scenery can seem really lifeless.

That’s why the best times to take photos of natural scenes is often golden hour or sunrise and sunset.

How to avoid flat light

Choose the time of day

Depending on what you want to photograph, you should choose the right time of day. Midday will not be a good time for sweeping landscapes, so if that’s your plan, try to get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Research your shot

Instead of looking for things to shoot and click willy nilly, research your subject matter in advance.

Scout out the location, check it out at a few different times of day and varied angles to see which combination of time and angle will give you the result that you’re looking for.

It doesn’t hurt to have your camera with you, of course. If you happen to find the perfect combination of time and angle, you’ll just need to whip out your camera and take the shot.

Create your own lighting conditions

The best way to create your own lighting conditions – at least when shooting subjects that are up close – is to use an off-camera flash.

Position the flash or indeed light source wherever you feel you’ll get the best angle from and work from there.

If an off camera flash is not an option, use an on-camera flash but get creative with your shooting angles.

Follow the weather report

For outdoor photography, you’ll be heavily reliant on weather conditions for your lighting.

Clear skies will be conducive to bright photos, but if the sun is at an angle, as we saw above.

Cloudy skies will result in flat pictures mostly throughout the day since clouds dissipate the light evenly all over the sky.

Most of the time, you can get away with the results you want on slightly cloudy days, but when the cloud cover is like a blanket is when you may want to reconsider.

Try another time

Finally, if all else fails, just come back another time! Your scenery is (hopefully) not going anywhere anytime soon, so if you can’t get a shot of the mountain today, go shoot it tomorrow or next week.

The one time this will be an issue is if you’ve traveled a long distance to get the shot. In this case, I hope you checked the weather before buying your tickets, or at least booked enough days to account for the occasional hiccup in your plan!

Conclusion

As you can see, flat lighting is not always all bad. There are some conditions where flat lighting will be an advantage, and others where it will work against you.

The more practice you get and the more photographs you take and analyze, the better you’ll get at utilizing the light available to get the results you want.