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Lighting ratios

Balance brilliance and master your lighting ratios for striking images...


What is a lighting ratio?

The definition of lighting ratio compares the main source of light, the key light, and the fill light.

With key light being the main source of where the shadows fall, the fill light will then “fill” in the shadows. When both of these light sources are used, a softer light will be created on the subject.

A higher lighting ratio will make your image more contrasting. On the flip side, the lower your ratio, the lower the contrast. The ratio is based on the brightest part of your subject to the least bright parts.

Light is measured in foot candles. Say the key light is 100-foot candles while the fill light is at 100-foot candles, the ratio will be 1: 1. If the key light is at 200-foot candles and the fill light is 100-foot candles, the ratio will then become 2:1. The stops also determine this ratio.

Each time you increase the stop, the brightness will then double. On the other hand, each time you decrease the f stop by one, the brightness is half as bright as it originally was. Check out this visual:

Changing the stops can be done through various methods, such as changing the exposure triangle, changing the intensity of the light sources, or manipulating the distance between your subject and the lighting.

Let me explain the exposure triangle and how it affects your exposure. The exposure triangle is essential to the exposure of your images since both aperture and shutter speed physically affect your camera’s ability to absorb light. In short:

  • Aperture: This setting will affect your depth of field. If you use a large aperture, the depth of field becomes shallower, and the camera can absorb more light. The reverse applies if you are using a smaller aperture.
  • Shutter Speed: Essentially, it’s the time your shutter can open and close. A faster shutter speed allows you to “freeze" moving objects, saving you from the usual blur when capturing a moving object. Since a fast shutter speed closes so fast, it doesn’t allow much light to enter. A slow shutter speed is more vulnerable to motion blur but lets in more light.
  • ISO: This setting simply brightens your photo. Most cameras nowadays can shoot using 3200 ISO before emitting visually unflattering noise. ISO helps you by providing flexibility in changing your aperture and shutter speed.

With all the important factors affecting exposure explained, let’s talk about common ratios.


What are the common lighting ratios?

Common lighting ratios will always differ depending on the situation you’re in and the client’s request.

But I assume you’re referring to the lighting ratio for portraits inside a studio. Lighting ratios in a studio can vary depending on the agreement between the client or personal tastes. Generally, professional photographers will aim for a realistic, flattering, and three-dimensional image.

Firstly, they prioritize separating the subject from the background. Nowadays, it becomes too easy to introduce too much light onto your subject and erase all of the subject’s shadows.

1:1 Lighting ratio

The basic ratio is 1:1. This ratio provides an evenly lit subject from both sides; it doesn’t have any noticeable shadows and sometimes makes the image rather flat.

The subjects still look great, and the light is still flattering, yet it feels incomplete. Generally, fashion and beauty photographers will use this ratio to make their subjects look flawless (no wrinkles, acne, pores, etc).

2:1 Lighting ratio

Then, there is the 2:1 ratio, with a one-stop difference from the highlight to the shadow. The light is enough to add a dimension to the image. Yet the light is soft, creating the perfect ambiance for child photography. It makes the image feel a bit innocent and pure.

4:1 Lighting ratio

With a two-stop difference between the lights and shadows, there’s a 4:1 ratio. This is the most commonly used light ratio for portraits.

It serves as an all-around light ratio that can be used in most types of photos. A decent amount of shadow makes the image livelier than the 1:1 ratio.

8:1 Lighting ratio

Lastly, the 8:1 ratio with a 3-stop difference produces an almost perfect amount of light and shadow on your subject.

With this ratio, your image becomes more dramatic and much more flattering for your subject. That is all! The four ratios mentioned above are the most commonly used in portrait photography. Of course, everyone has their own preferences and style when it comes to photography.

Feel free to explore and experiment with the various light ratios and equipment to see which works best. There are tons of lighting ratio charts available online to download and print, which can help you decide the ratio you want for a certain image.

The more you get used to your lighting ratio, the faster you’ll recognize the most appropriate ratio.


How to choose the best lighting ratio?

Here's a step-by-step guide to help you choose the best lighting ratio:

1. Understand lighting ratios

Familiarize yourself with the different lighting ratios and their effects. Common ratios include 1:1 (even lighting), 2:1 (subtle shadows), 3:1 (moderate shadows), and higher ratios like 4:1 or 8:1 (strong shadows).

2. Determine your subject

Consider what you are photographing and the desired outcome. For portrait photography, lighting ratios can affect the mood, emphasis on facial features, and the overall look of the subject.

3. Identify the mood

Think about the mood you want to convey in the photograph. A low lighting ratio (more even lighting) can create a soft and flattering look, while a higher ratio (more contrast) can create a dramatic and edgy appearance.

4. Analyze facial features

Pay attention to the subject's facial features. A lower lighting ratio can help minimize imperfections and create a flattering look. A higher ratio might be appropriate for more defined features and a stronger contrast.

5. Consider the environment

Take into account the environment or setting of the photograph. Some scenes might benefit from a balanced lighting ratio to preserve details, while others could benefit from dramatic contrasts to add depth and dimension.

6. Experiment and test

Experiment with different lighting setups and ratios during your photoshoot. Take test shots with various ratios and review the results. This will help you see how the lighting impacts the final image and how it aligns with your vision.

7. Adjust for skin tone

If you're photographing people, consider their skin tone. Different skin tones react differently to lighting ratios. Ensure your chosen ratio enhances the subject's skin tone rather than causing unwanted color shifts or harsh shadows.

8. Dont be afraid to break rules

While guidelines are helpful, don't be afraid to break the rules and experiment creatively. Sometimes, unexpected lighting ratios can lead to unique and striking results.

9. Review and refine

Review the test shots and determine which lighting ratio best achieves your desired outcome. Pay attention to the balance between shadows and highlights, as well as the overall mood of the image.

10. Post-processing

Remember that you can also adjust the lighting ratio during post-processing using editing software. However, it's best to achieve the desired ratio as closely as possible during the initial photoshoot.


How does key light affect lighting ratio?

By definition, the key light is your brightest light source. As the main source of light, it controls the ratio and the amount of light/shadow intensity.

The key light is oftentimes used in the three-point lighting method, accompanied by the fill light and backlight/hair light. Photographers can place their main lights wherever they please in the studio. The main purpose of your key light is to illuminate the subject, provide highlights towards the form, and, lastly, the dimension of the subject.

An image can still be taken without a key light. The result is a silhouette effect that looks pretty cool and edgy and reminds me of James Bond. High-key lighting will reduce the scene’s lighting ratio. This translates into less contrast between the bright and dark areas.

Less contrast between both elements creates an upbeat mood, which is often followed by a positive message. You’ll often witness this type of lighting in video interviews, educational videos, training videos, and many more.

To produce this message loud and clear, your content and lighting must work hand in hand. If you deliver a negative message using high-key lighting, your audience might capture a confusing message. But this is not a restriction on your creativity and serves as a rule of thumb. As a fellow photographer, I encourage you to experiment and enjoy it.

Low-key lighting also gives you the least amount of mid-tones and whites. Photographers have been using this technique to create a more dramatic and mysterious mood for the image.

The lighting technique creates a moody dark tone with a hint of seriousness and mystery, which naturally looks better in black and white. Film noir and crime dramas just love using low-key lighting; their themes thrive in the high contrast lighting.

You will barely see low-key lighting in advertisements or promotional material due to its ambiance. Even if you see one, it will most likely tip to the more emotional and gloomy side.


How does fill light affect lighting ratio?

Fill lighting serves a more complementary role if compared to the key light and backlight.

Fill light basically fills in the shadows that are created by the key light. The strength of the fill light will never be over the key light; at most, it’ll be on par with the key light.

As a light that is mainly used to fill the shadows, photographers don’t really use too much fill. To maintain a sense of drama, they use a lot of key light and minimum fill light. For scenes that need to look more upbeat and positive, they’ll use a fill light with the same strength as the key light.


How do you determine a lighting ratio?

Determining your light ratio is somewhat difficult yet easy. Sometimes, you can just use the same lighting ratio over and over for multiple photo shoots since it is quite “neutral.”

Photographers commonly use the 2:1 ratio when photographing babies and children. The 8:1 ratio is more appropriate for artistic portraits that want to show personality and seriousness. The best option is to adapt based on your theme, subject, and client’s expectations.

The 1:1 ratio is better at hiding your subject’s imperfections. Each ratio has its optimal use, but some photographers experiment with the limits of each lighting ratio.

To measure the lighting ratio, you’ll need a light meter. There are many affordable and useful light meters on the market, but the most popular one is the Sekonic Light Meter 308s.

To use this light meter, place the dome on the brightest area of your subject and face the light source. This will then show you how bright your key light is. After that, you’d follow the same procedure for the less bright areas of your subject. The f-stop will show you how bright the fill is.

The indicator will show you in increments of stops and voila. For a more detailed explanation, read our article about the light meter.


What lighting ratio would virtually eliminate shadows?

If you’re talking about a fully illuminated face from each side, then it’s the 1:1 ratio.

It looks good in certain images, which makes them look more flattering and beautiful. But shadows actually play a larger role, and they’re not just a nuisance. Shadows appear when an object blocks the light source, making the object’s shape projected onto the shadow.

Using shadows will help direct the viewer’s attention toward a specific location. It reveals features that may be better off unseen. They add drama, emotion, and mystery to the photo.


In conclusion, the lighting ratio is the ratio of key light to fill light. The 1:1 ratios (with virtually no shadows), 2:1, 4:1, and 8:1 ratios (with the most shadows) are commonly used.

However, each ratio has its own uses and ambiance, depending on the key light and fill light. The key light is your main (brightest) light, while the fill light “fills'' in the shadows. Knowing when to use certain ratios may be hard at first, so consider using a lighting ratio at first. The more you practice and use lighting ratios in your photo shoots, the faster you’ll get accustomed to it. Have fun and good luck!

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