Step into the fascinating world of photography, where photographers weave tales of light and shadows through their lens. As you embark on this creative journey, you may encounter peculiar phrases like “the lighting looks flat” being casually tossed around. Curious, isn’t it? Flat lighting, my friend, is both a common challenge and a deliberate artistic choice in the realm of photography.

Picture this: a captivating portrait where every contour is softly illuminated, casting an ethereal glow upon the subject’s features. Or imagine a scene bathed in even, diffused light, eliminating harsh shadows and lending an air of tranquility. These are just a glimpse of the potential outcomes when it comes to flat lighting.

But here’s the twist: there are instances where you’ll want to steer clear of flat lighting, as if it were an infectious ailment. Conversely, there are moments when photographers intentionally set the stage to capture the essence of flat lighting. The key lies in understanding your desired results and wielding the power of light to create the desired impact.

So, let’s embark on this enlightening journey together as we uncover the nuances of flat lighting in photography. Prepare to unravel the mysteries, grasp the techniques, and discover when to embrace or avoid this intriguing phenomenon. Are you ready to delve deeper into the world of captivating illumination? Then let us begin.

Key Takeaways

  • Flat lighting in photography refers to evenly and broadly lit scenes or subjects, resulting in minimal shadows, highlights, and contrasts, often leading to a dull or two-dimensional appearance.
  • Flat lighting can be deliberate or accidental, depending on the desired effect and artistic intention.
  • Common causes of flat lighting include using direct flash, shooting under overcast skies, and capturing images around noon when the sunlight is harsh and creates even lighting.
  • Understanding the impact of shadows and highlights on a photograph is essential for creating depth and adding visual interest to the scene or subject.
  • Flat lighting can be advantageous in certain situations, such as fashion and beauty photography, where it helps minimize imperfections and create a uniform look.
  • On the other hand, flat lighting can detract from natural scenery, as it fails to accentuate highlights and shadows, making the landscape appear lifeless.
  • To avoid flat lighting, photographers can choose the right time of day, research their subjects in advance, create their own lighting conditions using off-camera flashes or alternative angles, and pay attention to weather conditions that affect lighting.
  • If necessary, photographers can return to a location at a different time or day to capture the desired lighting conditions for their photographs.

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!


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 create 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!


In the mesmerising realm of photography, flat lighting emerges as a versatile companion, offering both advantages and challenges to behold. As we draw closer to the end of our enlightening journey, remember this: flat lighting is not a foe to be defeated, but rather a tool to be mastered.

Consider this question: How can you harness the potential of flat lighting to breathe life into your photographs? As you embark on this artistic endeavour, remember that practice and analysis are your guiding stars. With each click of the shutter, with every photograph examined, your skills will sharpen, enabling you to deftly wield the available light to shape the results you desire.

Photography, at its core, is a dance of light and shadow, an art form that allows us to capture moments that resonate with depth and emotion. Understanding the nuances of flat lighting expands our creative palette, giving us the power to evoke tranquility, emphasize details, or infuse a dreamlike quality into our compositions.

So, fellow storytellers of light, embrace the duality of flat lighting, embracing its advantages and navigating its pitfalls. Step boldly into the realm of experimentation, for it is in the pursuit of mastery that you will uncover your unique artistic voice. As you continue to explore the interplay between light and subject, may your photographs become a testament to your passion, vision, and relentless pursuit of capturing beauty.

Now, armed with newfound knowledge, go forth and paint with light, weaving tales that transcend the boundaries of time and space. The world awaits your creative vision.