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What is Flat Light in Photography? (And How to Use It!)

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Today, we are going to answer the question, what is flat light photography? I will talk you through what it means and times when you should look for or stay away from flat light.

The key to being a confident photographer is understanding the many ways that light will act. To use light correctly, you must understand what causes different lighting situations.

Being a good photographer is all about identifying different lighting situations. Being a great photographer is then using them to your advantage. After reading this article, you will be able to decide whether shooting with flat light is ideal for you!

Flower in vase with flat lighting

What is Flat Light In Photography?

It is simply light that produces minimal contrast. Flat light occurs in bright light where there are no shadows. Or it happens in shadows where there is no direct bright light.

Flat light is not the same as soft light or harsh light. These two terms refer to how light disperses onto our subject or scene, and flat lighting is achievable with both types of lighting. Flat light depends on how the camera is recording the light.

For instance, if you take pictures in an evenly lit shadow, there will not be too many highlights bouncing around your image. And, if you have a harsh light source above your camera, it will wash over the subject with a bright light that matches the camera’s perspective.

In both instances, you won’t see many shadows. You will get an even, flat light in your photograph.

Natural light on a coffee flat lay

What Flat Lighting Does to Photographs

There are a few effects flat lighting has on photos. It can be good or bad, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

1. Flattens the Image

Using this method of lighting will make your photograph a two-dimensional image. This is because having very little contrast in a photo affects the depth in your shot.

We have a flat light situation if there is a lack of shadows to differentiate what objects come in front or behind the main subject. This relationship between depth and contrast is the key to flat lighting.

2. Produces Even Lighting

As we can imagine, if there are no highlights or shadows in your image, the whole photograph will have even, flat lighting throughout. This can be helpful for many styles of photographs, particularly product photography and fashion photoshoots.

Soft light on a white Christmas ornament against a white background

What Causes Flat Light?

Many situations produce flat lighting. Here are a few common ones.

1. Overcast or Snowy Skies Outdoors

One of the most common causes of natural, flat light is an overcast day. Going out to shoot under cloud cover or snowy skies is almost like photographing with a giant softbox. You get brilliant, soft light, but it causes your contrast to decline rapidly.

When clouds cover the skies like a blanket, they take the single light source—the sun—and disperse a diffusing light below. Watch how shadows disappear from your subject when clouds roll in.

This does not mean that an overcast sky will provide even light. There are often denser parts of clouds that produce a dappled light.

Natural light in a snowy scene

2. Indirect and Diffused Indoor Light

Photographing in a room that doesn’t have direct sunlight, or has a diffuser over the window (like a see-through curtain), can produce flat light. This is because the light has the same consistent intensity. It’s more apparent with white walls and more achievable with multiple windows in a room.

Like an overcast sky, light is spread out around the room rather than intense sun rays beaming down on your subject. The more even the light is in the room, the flatter the light will be.

In the same way, if you have a prominent diffuse light source inside the room, it will be easy to get even, flat light conditions.

an image of an open doorway with flat light

3. Direct Flash or Direct Lighting

If you are photographing with the on-camera flash that comes with most DSLRs, be aware that it causes flat light! As the light comes from the same perspective as the camera, you can easily lose your scene’s shadows.

There aren’t many ways to combat this while using the on-camera flash. I suggest using a secondary light source pointing at a different angle than your main perspective. If not, your images could look like paparazzi photos.

Flat lighting caused by a flash in portrait photography

Photos That Benefit From Flat Light

So when do photographers want to use flat light? Here are a few instances where it benefits the photography style or situation.

1. Fashion and Beauty Photography

Flat lighting is often used for fashion photography, particularly in situations where there is a close-up portrait. Using flat lighting takes the viewers’ attention away from imperfections. This is because flat light can reduce the visibility of bumps or blemishes. And people also use flat lighting to reduce the visibility of wrinkles.

Of course, if there is no contrast, there is no way for the viewer to tell the depth of particular features. It all directs attention to features the photographer or stylist wants to highlight, such as makeup or the clothes.

Flat lighting on a models face

2. Group Pictures

I’m sure there’s been a situation where we’ve all disappeared into the background in a group picture. This is commonly from standing in someone’s or something’s shadow. Flat light ensures each person is lit the same way and with a similar intensity.

Situations like this are when your built-in flash shines. If you don’t have a built-in flash, make sure you stand directly in front of the primary source of light in that room. Or, if you’re outside, stand with the sun directly behind you.

Flat lighting on an outdoor group photoshoot

3. Passport Photos or Professional Headshots

Passport photos have stringent rules. That’s because they may interfere with your identifying features.

Most of these rules concern how light falls on your face. You are not allowed to have any shadows at all. A decent passport photo should have even light from your ears to your nose.

Photobooths give perfect flat lighting. They use an intense flash and encase you in white walls. Light bounces off of the walls, so you hardly get any shadows on your face.

You can achieve the same setup with studio lighting for professional headshots or profile photos.

Flat lighting passport style photo

Landscape Photography Suffers From Flat Light

One genre of photography that doesn’t benefit from flat light is landscape photography. It relies on depth to present a three-dimensional image to the viewer.

Flat light on an overcast day can suck the depth out of even the most exciting locations. You want to make sure to check the weather before you go on extended road trips for an ideal shot.

Of course, not all overcast skies will provide truly flat light. Clouds will often have different densities and therefore create different intensities of light.

These different intensities will be minimal when looking at a grand landscape, and the image will still look flat. You will have to wait for breaks in the clouds or stormy skies to form before you have a dramatic landscape shot.

Natural flat light on a cloudy landscape
Landscapes become dull when the light is too flat

How to Get Rid of Flat Light

There are many ways to fix or avoid flat light as a photographer. It involves dealing with your light source or lighting conditions. Here are a few solutions.

1. Use an Off-Camera, External Flash

An external flash has the potential to add dramatic lighting to any environment you use it in. Make sure it’s not on-camera to avoid flat light.

You have complete control of where the highlights and shadows sit on your subject. You don’t even have to light your subject! You could light anything in the background or the foreground to add a sense of depth to a flat image.

2. Use a Reflector or a Flag

A reflector is great for bouncing light into flat lighting situations. Use a reflector to add more light to a particular part of your subject to make it stand out. This only works if you direct a strong light source onto the subject.

A flag is the opposite of a reflector. It’s photography equipment that blocks the light.

If you need to separate a subject from the background and foreground, why not take light away from these places? You will have great lighting on your subject, and the background and foreground will fade away.

3. Check the Weather and Location

Planning before your photoshoot can save you from unfortunate circumstances. For instance, if you plan to do portrait work on location, flat natural light can make your images look very dull. This is especially relevant for portrait photography in nature rather than in a city.

Make sure you plan the type of photos you need. For instance, you need sun if you’re shooting a summer-style lookbook. If you can schedule the shoot on a sunny day, you will capture interesting, dramatic photographs.

Tress and grass in dramatic light

Conclusion

After reading this article, we can see that all photographers have to deal with this issue of flat light. The critical problem is identifying when it is happening and then using methods against it if needed.

We also see that there are particular instances where flat light is beneficial. Like everything in photography, it is a matter of style. What may be considered a dull, flat image may perfectly represent your subject.

There’s one point I know for sure—you will be a better photographer if you understand flat light. So get your camera, go out, and try to solve those tricky lighting situations. See what you can make from it!

Try out our Flat Lay Fever e-book, where flat light photography skills shine!

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