Design & Creativity
February 14, 2024
4 minute read time

On Craft: The Impact of Lighting in Visual Storytelling

The PINO Team
Photos by
Illustrations by

There are many ways to tell a story. The written word, the spoken word, and even visuals that have little to no words. But when it comes to photography and videography, lighting is one of the most fundamental and impactful elements of storytelling. After all, it is only through light that a camera is able to capture an image and that a story is told through it. Through various techniques, it quite literally allows you to choose the light in which your audience sees your subject. Light can make a photo either lively or dark, a scene either menacing or gentle.

But how does something both so present in our everyday yet inconspicuous hold the power to carry and convey meaning? Read on to find out about three lighting essentials and how they come together to create a story.


Position is all about where the light is placed in relation to your subject. It determines how the light hits the subject, playing a dramatic role in the overall look and feel of the final image.

Generally speaking, the three fundamental positions are front, back, and side lighting. Typically used for straightforward storytelling and making a subject as attractive as possible, front lighting is used to bring out all the details of a subject. With the light fixed in front of the subject, shadows fall directly behind it and do not conceal any of its characteristics.

Without necessarily meaning a 90 degree angle, side lighting creates shadows and depth, and even the most minor angle changes affect the image in a big way. Small adjustments can create more interesting or flattering shadows, highlighting a subject’s different qualities or toning them down. In videography, particularly in film, this can be used to stir a feeling of indecision about a certain character, creating doubt and raising a question or two.

As the name implies, back lighting is when the light is placed behind the subject, making the shadows fall in front of the subject and concealing most of its details. As the light shines behind the subject and towards the camera, this lighting is known for making subjects appear to glow. At times it can obscure all the details of a subject, leaving only its silhouette and conjuring a unique flavor of drama or calculated discomfort.

Soft vs. Hard Light

Other than the position of the light, there is also its intensity. Light can either directly or indirectly hit a subject, creating either harsher or softer shadows to establish a certain mood.

With hard lighting, there is a drastic and quite abrupt difference between the light and dark areas of the subject, even to an extent where there is almost no transition. The shadows are starker, creating more contrast. In storytelling, it is used when a scene is meant to contain higher energy or emotion, making a happy one even happier, or a sad one even more glum.

Soft lighting, on the other hand, has a more emotive quality. It creates a gradation between a subject’s light and dark areas, making the transitions subtle, where the contrasting areas almost blend into each other. Using this lighting creates a gentler mood, making the image more pleasing to the eye.


Last but not least, a light’s color can make a frame either dramatic or vibrant, warm or cool, evoking a certain emotion in the audience. Orange, for example, is iconically used to create a warm “sunset” mood, while blue establishes a cooler, more somber mood.

With hundreds of colors, each hue can depict a different story. In fact, the power of color is so great that you can take any image and completely transform its meaning in post-processing with different color-grading techniques. A raw black and white photo that feels cold and distant, for example, can be made to emanate warmth simply by adjusting its colors.

The Big Picture

If a writer uses words to tell a story, photographers and videographers use light. Its position, intensity, and color all have a different role to play, but essentially one purpose: to create meaning and emotion.

Each aspect greatly affects the story you are trying to tell, and together, their dynamic makes up the big picture.

While these lighting elements and the general rules that accompany them can be considered the baseline, artistry is found in one’s ability to bend or break the rules. Making use of unorthodox combinations and playing around with the elements, unique perspectives and ways of storytelling are realized, and art is born.