Fashion Photographer Lighting Terms Explained

Welcome back to the photography blog! Light is a complicated subject BUT, it's the key to understanding great photography from good photography. When dealing with fashion photography and lighting in general there are some terms that you should know when you start out. Although these aren't going to be used everyday, they provide a nice foundation when working with other photographers, assistants, or just having fun. They're also useful for giving specific directions.

Without further hesitation let's go look at some lighting terms we can clarify.

Back Light

– Lighting that comes from behind the subject and falls into the camera. This can also be a light that acts as the third key hair light in place of your key light (main light) and fill light (second light).

Magic Hour

– In natural light photography, this is when the sun let's after golden hour. There's still light in the air and everything has a slightly lovely blue quality to it. This varies based on where you are and at least for me is usually later the closer you are to the horizon or a beach.

Bounce Light

– A light that is bounced onto the subject. This is used as a natural light fill when you need a little more pop on a subject. Typically used with a reflector, white board, but can be done with a variety of photo objects.

Broad Light Pattern

– Broad light is a type of lighting pattern where the model is slightly away from the camera and the key light or main light throws more light onto the side of the model's face that is toward the camera. Essentially less dark, more light on a subject's face. This does not mean that the model is fat or broad in anyway.

Butterfly Light Pattern

– Another light setup where there is a light above the subject. This creates a butterfly shadow below the nose. People often correct this with a soft bounce or low power light source.

Catch Light

– What makes the eyes sparkle! This is a bright area that reflects in someone's eye. A white spot in the eye if you will. Depending on the camera setting this might appear blue or a different shade and need correction in post.

C Stand

- A metal three pronged arm that is used for one thousand purposes, hence C or Century Stand. This is used

Continuous Lighting

– A term where the model is lit all the term. This varies from strobe or natural as it usually implies an outside light source that is plugged in and also runs continuously. Hence continuous lighting.


– A piece of fabric, cloth, what have you that diffuses the light from a strobe! Super useful for making an image softer or the model look smoother so to speak.

Directional Light

– An easy example would be the sun. This is a light source that is located far away and casts light in all directions. Even though the light comes from a specific object (another example is a bulb) it is spread out and bounces around.

Effect Light

- Usually a small light, it illuminates a portion of a subject. Like a mini flashlight that highlights a particular area.

Fill Light

– A fill light is light that fills in shadows and helps merge dark and lights. Pretty simple. Reflectors and


- A flag is a piece of dark material or board that blocks the light. Usually used in studio and attached to a C stand.


– Otherwise known as a ‘gelatin filter’, they come in a variety of different colors and formats but basically act as a red, blue, green, filter for the lens or a light source that changes the mood or temperature of a scene. These are also used in movies (as is a lot of these items) quite frequently.


– Abbreviated to stand as a go between, gobo is something that goes between the light and the background or foreground to create a shadow effect on the model or subject you have. Shadow puppets are a type of gobo as a fun human example.

Golden Hour

– My favorite hour is golden hour! If it's not yours then what's going on? In natural light outdoor photography this is what sunset basically is. Also occurs during sunrise. If you're not sure, check out if the air seems golden! Pretty self explanatory. The best time of day to do a shoot.

Hair Light

– Technically a back light, a hair light is a light source positioned to illuminate the rim of the subject’s hair in order to separate the subject from the background.

Halo Lighting

– A portrait lighting pattern which uses a strong light directly behind the sitter’s head which creates a halo of light through the hair and makes the subject stand out dramatically from the background. The light is placed behind the sitter so it cannot be seen from the camera position.

Key Light

– The main light source! Excellent. This helps to illuminate your model or subject. Used alongside other light sources if you wish. For outdoor model photoshoots, the sun is typically the key light.

High Key

– A lighting style where the lighting ratio is small (ie. close to 1:1). High-key lighting is typically bright shows little contrast between light and shadow.

Light Plan

Reflector – Object that reflects much of the light that falls on it. Usually white, silvered, or gold coloured.

Rim Light

– Another name for the back light (see above); so named because it is light that comes round the edge (or rim) of a subject from a source behind or to the side.

Spill Light.

– Every photographers worst enemy. Lighting that goes over onto a subject or light from an outside source that you don't intend to be there. Usually note helpful

Split Lighting

– A portrait lighting pattern that splits the model's face down the front into a light and dark side. Used in many a Star Wars advertisements but not directly related.

Strip Box

– A smaller soft box that utilizes a grid pattern as its diffused.

Strobe Lighting

– You friend the quick flash light. Makes a quick burst and then goes away. Very helpful for adding extra depth to an image. Strobe lighting does make your camera settings only got to a 160 shutter so watch out!

Three-Point Lighting

– The ideal but possibly least fun lighting system to setup correctly. Uses three lights with a combination of natural and studio. Include key, fill, and a third hair or direct light source.


– A type of light modifier; essentially an umbrella whose materials and form have been modified for use in studio photography.

Want to Learn More Photography?

If you’re interested in learning more about a specific photography subject or idea, shoot me a message on Instagram or contact me via email I’m always happy to answer additional questions or comments.

Morey Spellman is a Los Angeles based fashion photographer. 
His work combines a love for beautiful light, authentic beauty, and natural scenery.