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What Is Pictorial Lighting?

Pictorial lighting is used to create dramatic photographs.
portrait 2 image by Diorgi from Fotolia.com

Pictorial lighting is used in portrait photography in a controlled environment to capture subjects in an appealing way. In addition to lighting, all elements in the photograph are manipulated, including hair, makeup, clothing, accessories, background and props to achieve a stylized image. This is very much opposed to documentary photography, which has a more straight, natural and realistic style.


Pictorial lighting has been utilized since the invention of the camera. It has been widely used since the middle of the 19th century when photo studios started printing glittery, mirror-like images using a viable commercial process called daguerreotype. The late William Mortensen is a popular American pictorial photographer who has authored books on the subject

Lighting Equipment

Professional photographers use hot lights or strobe lights in taking pictures. Some use hot lights, such as photo floodlights, because it provides continuous lighting that lets them see how the light will fall on the subject. Others prefer the flash bursts in strobes, because they don't emit excessive heat that can cause discomfort to a model.

Studio Setup

In a studio, pictorial lighting is accomplished using a basic three-lighting setup: a key light, fill-in light and back light. The main light is usually placed in a 45-degree position facing the subject. The fill-in light softens the shadow cast from the main light, while the back light separates the background from the subject. Modern studios add additional lights to achieve their desired effects.

Outdoor Setup

In outdoor settings, natural or existing light from the sun is the primary lighting source. Photographers prefer diffused light over direct harsh sunlight. Reflectors and additional strobes are also used to enhance lighting.

Digital Revolution

Advancements in digital photography have contributed greatly to pictorial lighting. Photographers have instant preview on their cameras on every picture they take. The cost of film and processing has been eliminated, too. In addition, photo editing software such as Photoshop has been widely used by professionals to enhance images and create digital manipulations.

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