What is Flat Light?

The Lighting Looks so Flat!!!

What is Flat Light?

Photographers love using language which is alien to the rest of the normal world.  It's our secret code that only we know in order to make sure the ‘outsiders' really don't know what going on.  Ok, so we are not really that bad, and its probably not deliberate, but it is fair to say that there is a lot of terminology thrown around in photography that is not always well explained to the mere mortal!!  It's the one thing that made me stick with Improve Photography for so long, there was always an effort made to explain things in words that would be understood by photographers of all levels.  Hopefully this article will help to do that too.

Flat Light is one of those terms readily used in Photography.  We all hear photographers using it,  ‘that's a great photo but the light is a bit flat' or ‘never shoot at midday, the light is just horribly flat'.  But what does the term ‘flat light' actually mean?  ‘Flat light' is quite misunderstood, both in its definition as well as the benefits and detriments for working in it.  Flat light can be great in certain situations, and there will be times when it should be avoided.  This article will explain what flat light is, when it can be used as an advantage and when photographers should steer clear.  There are some really subtle aspects to understand about flat light, and there really isn't a ‘one size fits all' definition and rule book, but this article will try to explain all of these subtleties in more detail.

The Definition of Flat Light

So what is flat light, and why do we care so much?

Flat light is defined as lighting that produces minimal contrast in the scene, which means there is no, or very little, contrast between the highlights and shadows.  It's as simple as that!!

In fact, it's not the light that is flat at all but the resulting image captured when the light source is creating very little contrast in the photo.  It is the image that indeed looks ‘flat' which means there is a very two-dimensional look to the image due to the lack of contrast.  Photos with flat light can often lack depth and interest that can take the edge away from a good photo with technical good compositional elements to it.  It can take away any intrigue or character in the photo which can detract from the story telling and the impact of the image.  Photos with high contrast between the highlights and the shadows create an illusion of height and depth in a photo and, generally speaking give the photo an ‘edge'.  This is explored in more detail later in the article.

Flat Light is different from Hard and Soft Light

To be clear, the term ‘flat light' has absolutely nothing to do with hard and soft lighting, or whether light is ‘harsh', which is altogether a different subject.  You should check out Improve Photography's Lighting in a Flash video which gives a great definition of hard and soft light, the intention is not to fully discuss the subject of hard and soft light in this article.  In brief hard light is light that produces very harsh contrast, where the transition of light from highlight to shadow is sudden and severe leaving a very clear and prominent line between the highlights and shadows.  Soft light is where the transition from highlight to shadow is very gradual and is generally considered more pleasing to the eye for certain types of photography.   Having said that there are loads of examples where very creative and dramatic effects have been achieved using hard light, and it is sometimes essential for creating impactful imagery.

Flat lighting is often considered a ‘rookie mistake' but this is a subtle misconception.  Whether  flat lighting is considered effective or not is entirely dependent on the intent of the photo and the context of the shoot.  Flat lighting can be deliberately deployed to great effect, as can lighting which creates more contrast and each type has its rightful place in photography.

Photo of Buachaille Etive Mòr in Glen Coe, Scotland in somewhat ‘Flat Light' conditions.

Causes of Flat Light?

There are many misconceptions and misunderstanding about flat light and what can cause it.  This is understandable as there is a lot of conflicting information out there and, as mentioned previously, there are some subtleties that need to be recognised.  The truth of the matter is that flat light is more likely to occur in certain situations but this is not always the case and every scene and lighting scenario presents its own unique challenges.  Flat light occurs due to the image being very evenly lit and can occur in the following situations but it should be noted there will be instances when shooting in these conditions do not give you flat light so it needs to be assessed on each individual case.

Overcast Skys

It is true that on days when there is a lot of blanket cloud cover the lighting can appear to be flat, but this is not always the case.  This again shouldn't be confused for soft light.  Blanket cloud cover acts as a giant soft box in the sky, which turns the relatively small light source, the sun, into a massive light source when diffused through all that cloud.  However,  cloudy days can still produce light that is not flat if there is still direction of the light i.e parts of the cloud are brighter than other parts or if there is patchy cloud cover, there may still be an element of contrast between highlights and shadow.  Shooting on overcast days will have its advantages and disadvantages and often portrait work is made easier if there is cloud cover due to the light being soft, and potentially flat meaning more flattering, but can come at a cost with a less dramatic and intriguing photography.  More on this later.

Photo of same subject, Buachaille Etive Mòr in Glen Coe, Scotland where lighting conditions are less flat and produced more contrast, despite them both being captured around midday.

Direct Flash

On camera flash, when pointed directly at a subject can produce flat lighting which is why this is not the recommended technique for using flash and why off camera flash is much more preferred among established photographers.  This is the same for hot shoe speed lights or the built in flash in the camera body.  However, direct flash can cause quite harsh contrast if there are shadows cast in the scene and the transition between the highlights and shadows are hard if the flash in not modified, with an umbrella, soft box or other light modifier.  When the subject is directly facing the camera with on camera flash (or built in flash), the flash has the ability to light the subject very evenly, if there is no off axis angle to the light source, which can create flat light.   Angling the light source to the subject will create light that would not be considered flat and if the subject turns their face away from the camera, you will get part of the face is highlight and part of the face in deep shadow meaning the light, by definition, is not flat in these situations and setups.

The same affect is observed when light painting, and using your light source directly behind your camera to paint the subject.  This is a common mistake (and a mistake I have made many times before) and there is a great tutorial on light painting through Improve Photography where this can be explored further by following the link, with great tips on how to avoid flat light when light painting and create more drama in a light painted image.

Shooting in Midday Sun

This is a common misconception, midday sun can produce direct lighting on a subject which could be flat, but the lighting from midday sun is very harsh light.  When shooting in midday sun the contrast between highlight and shadow can be huge, the shadows are almost black and the highlights almost white.  This is not flat lighting and is generally considered very ‘un-flat'.  If a subject is looking directly into the sun, then the sun has the potential to light the face evenly and produce limited contrast on the face, but there will be contrast in the scene.  As with on camera flash, any angle between the subject and the sun will produce light that creates huge contrast and so by definition is not flat.

The Benefits of Flat Light

As mentioned already in this article, flat lighting can be used to great effect and produce professional results and quality in photography.  In fashion or beauty photography for example, flat lighting styles are often use.  Flat lighting often helps to hide imperfections in the skin, because the skin will exhibit very low contrast between highlight and shadow which will smooth the surface of the skin, warts and all.  This can lead to a much more flattering lighting style than more contrasting lighting which would highlight the fine details of a person's face.  Many beauty photographers deliberately use flat lighting to get that ‘perfect' look and later add contrast in post-processing using techniques such as dodge and burn.

It is accepted that flat lighting is also advantageous when shooting models against a white, or light colored, backdrop as this results in greater contrast between the background and the persons face.

The Detriments of Flat Light

Flat light is often considered a safe lighting method for beauty and fashion photography and it is the style of lighting many immature photographers learn first.  It can be considered boring, dull and lifeless when compared to some of the dramatic effects that can be achieve using less flat lighting, such as side light that exentuates the contrast in an image for creative purposes.

Flat light does not bring out the depth in a photo and doesn't add any level of intrigue to the image.  It is as it says on the tin, flat and creates a two-dimensional image that does little to draw the eye into the photo and keep the view captivated and engaged for longer.  It is not considered the lighting to bring out the best in landscape photography for the reasons already mentioned.  Landscape photographs benefit for dramatic contrast between highlight and shadow and so landscapes are generally lit using un-flat light and times of the day where light is not flat, sunset and sunrise for example.

5 Tips for Combating Flat Light

Here are 5 tips to help combat flat light if you want to, remember flat light can be used deliberately and to great effect.  However if you are trying to create some depth in your images and conditions are ‘flat' these tips will help you make the best of the situation.

1.  Make your own ‘un-flat' light

If lighting conditions are not giving you the dramatic light you want, make your own light.  Speed-lights offer great versatility in the field and combined with some relatively inexpensive modifiers can start to add drama to your photography and give that professional feel.  You can add dramatic lighting in flat lighting conditions by positioning a speed-light off camera and creating highlights and shadows within the image to add depth and interest.  This article is not intended to go into the specifics about flash photography, there are plenty of resources on Improve Photography to help with that but it is worth noting that utilising off camera flash can really enhance your photography and give you flexibility to create great photos despite the lighting conditions you are given from natural light.

2.  Optimise your shooting time

There is always going to be an advantage of shooting any kind of photography during certain times of the day.  There are times when the light is warmer, more dramatic and reduces the likelihood of flat light.  Sunrise and sunset and their corresponding golden hours are great times to shoot and minimise the chance of getting flat light.  Any time of the day when the sun is at more of an angle will be advantageous.  That being said, great photographs can be created in flat light, as mentioned in this article, some subjects and photos lend themselves better to flat light and can be advantageous in certain scenarios, which leads nicely into the next tip.

3.  Research you location

Whatever the lighting situation, and whatever the shoot, be it portrait of landscape photography, you should research the location you are going to be shooting in.  This up front planning will give you a better staring point if the light is flat and it is beneficial to make a plan B if this is the case.  Knowing the location can really help here.  This research may also give you an idea of what would and wouldn't work in flat light and would also give you an opportunity to discuss this with your client.  If the client insists of shooting at a time that is likely to produce more flat light, or if conditions on the day are such that this would occur, you can use your research to direct the client and potentially change the shoot time or location to more favourable ones.  That being said, sometimes you will just have to suck it up because you are met with flat lighting conditions and in this case, it is always better to have an idea of your surroundings before the shoot.

4.  Check the Weather

The weather can plan a part in giving a photographer an indication of the light that will greet them as they arrive for the shoot.  White cloud cover will not be the best for landscape photography and will more than likely produce flat results.  As would shooting on cloudless days when the sun is at its highest, although as mentioned previously, this is not a guarantee for flat light.

5. Come back another day

When the lighting is flat and there is no salvaging it to get good results for the photography you want (remember, flat light is not always bad), walk away.  There is nothing wrong with giving up on bad lighting conditions as the epic photographs just are not available on that given day in those situations.  Obviously if you are travelling and not close to home you want to make the most of the bad situation as you may not have the opportunity to return to the location freely but there is a time to call it a day.  Return when conditions are more favourable and less flat.

Go for it anyway!!

This subject will always divide opinion with some photographers avoiding flat light, whilst others embrace the advantages it brings.  Whatever the lighting conditions, you always need to try and make the best of the situation, either for your clients, or for yourself.   If you love photography as much as me, you will be happy just being out shooting and the lighting, be it flat or not, will do nothing to take the fun away.  Just get out and shoot!!



4 thoughts on “What is Flat Light?”

  1. Great article. It’s nice to see others have a day job, but dabble in Photography on the side as well. I plan on “officially” creating a side gig sooner or later since I’ve been getting better at taking photos in manual mode. I ran into lighting issues a lot in Europe not too long ago, but it’s not like traveling allows a person to get unlimited time at shooting areas. Good explanations on harsh vs flat, as I may interchange those a bit.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I am glad that you liked the article. Yes i think there are a lot of us who have a passion for photography and a day job to contend with. My advice is just go for the side gig. Launch it now, what’s stopping you. I took the plunge without knowing what I was doing and I am still learning. Its fun to go on the journey and you learn a lot from doing it. Good luck!!!

  2. Forgot to ask, if it’s flat light we are dealing with, do you ever recommend using some graduated neutral density filters such as the sunset and twilight filters from Tiffen?

    1. I personally don’t use graduated ND filters. I find that I can blend two exposures to meet the dynamic range that is needed. Graduate filters are a bit of a faff for me and prefer not to use them, I do know people who use them to great effect though. I do use ND filters though to enable longer exposures etc. My thought is this wouldn’t help in a flat light situation as you would just be reducing the amount of light that goes to the sensor but it would still be flat. It would be like reducing the shutter speed, that wouldn’t give you more contrast in the scene. I use B+W ND filters and PL filters and they do a great job.

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