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The Importance of Light: the Five Lights of Nature

Artist’s Corner, photography

Lighting for illustration, and the five natural lights found in nature artists use to create convincing work with depth and polish.

Light is one of the fundamental tools that artists and photographers use to create depth, shape and drama in their work.

It is the basic tonal ranges and values that stretch a two-dimensional canvas into the illusion of three dimensions. There are 5 natural lights in nature. Combined and blended, they provide the viewer with information about shape, size, surface texture and mood.

In this article we will discuss the specific functions of each lighting value. Think of light as tiny photons of illumination that are thrown onto an object and bounce around like ping pong balls. Some of the photons will strike directly upon the object and bounce right back towards the source. Others will skim across curved surfaces and may bounce off of walls and surrounding elements – some of them bouncing back to hit the object from a different angle.

The Five Lights of Nature

1.Specular Highlight

The first light, where the photons hit directly and bounce back towards the source, is the brightest light.

It is called the specular highlight. The location of the specular highlight on an object defines from what direction the light is coming in. The edge transition shows how large the source light is and how shiny or dull the surface of the object is.

Large light sources produce highlights that are slightly lighter than the rest of the object with soft gradient edges. Small light sources produce much lighter highlights with definitive edges.

In addition, shiny surfaces, like glass, metal or oily skin, are represented by bright white specular highlights with sharp, well-defined edges. Dull objects, like cotton fabric, produce specular highlights that are just a bit lighter than the next tonal value and it’s hard to tell exactly where one value ends and the other begins.

2.Diffused Highlight

On round objects, photons skim across areas that bend away from the source light.

The result is a more graceful illumination that is known as the diffused highlight. The diffused highlight shows off the correct color and truthful texture of the object. There is no difference in color between specular highlights and diffused highlights (created with white light source), only a difference in value.

In addition to color, diffused highlights show the correct value for the objects in relation to each other within the context of the artistic creation. On people, this light shows the correct skin tone and pore structure and is considered to be “the mask of the face”. Texture may be visible in other values on the object but the natural texture is evident in the diffused highlight value.

3. Shaded Side

The shaded side completes the trio of values required to make round objects look round. Round requires gradation between light (specular highlight), medium (diffused highlight) and dark (shaded side).

The shaded side receives no direct light from the source. It cannot be seen on flat objects that are lit from the front because it is behind the object. When light comes in from the side (directional light), the shaded side occurs directly opposite the specular highlight. While there is only a difference in value between specular highlights and diffused highlights, there is a difference in both value and color between diffused highlights and shaded sides. Shaded sides contain the complimentary colors to their respective diffused highlights.

For instance, an orange object contains blue in the shaded side that is also darker in value than the object is in life. Because the difference is in both color and value, textures are exaggerated in the transition between diffused highlight and shaded side. On a face, blemishes and wrinkles are more pronounced in the transition between diffused highlight and shaded side – that’s where retouching artists reshape the transitions to create illusions of smoother skin.

PRO TIP: If an object you are working on looks too “flat” – it’s missing one of the previous lighting values. Determine what is missing and replace it. If your light source is directly from the front, you might consider using a more directional light if you want to show more shape and depth.

4.Reflected Light

Reflected light happens when photons hit something else and bounce into the object from another direction other than the source. Perhaps there is a wall nearby, or a table surface, or, if you are a photographer, a reflector.

When used artistically, reflected lights rim the edges of shaded sides and add additional shape and definition to the object. Reflected lights are usually not as bright as the specular highlights. In addition, reflected light often contains color because color travels with light.

Leonardo di Vinci said, “the color of the object illuminated partakes of the color of that which illuminates it.” Look for reflected lights when you are photographing so you can position them to add accent shapes and colors to the contours of the subjects you are photographing.


Many people confuse shaded sides with shadows but they are distinctly different.

Shaded sides are the parts of objects that receive not light from the source. Objects cast shadows by blocking light from hitting surrounding areas. A person walking on a sidewalk in late afternoon will have a shaded side on the body but the body casts a shadow upon the sidewalk. The shadow positions the object in relationship to its surroundings and also communicates the shape and texture of the surrounding areas.

The shadow a person casts upon grass takes on the texture and shapes of grass. The same shadow cast upon a flat wall will replicate a direct outline of the subject. Shadows are used when making image composites to tie all of the components together as one piece.

Using the Five Lights

The Five Lights of Nature always occur in the same relationship to each other. Specular highlights will always point to the direction of the source light. Diffused highlights will always occur just next to the specular highlights on round objects. The shaded side will always be on the opposite side of the specular highlights. Reflected lights will always bounce in directionally from surrounding areas. Shadows will always fall away from objects directly opposite the light source and take on the shape and texture of surrounding areas.

If more than one light source is used, more than one set of the 5 lights is produced and at this point, controlling the light becomes important to the successful implementation of value within your creation. It’s important to understand each light, be able to identify it visually and control it artistically.

Mastery of the 5 Lights of Nature gives you powerful control over any art form you desire to work with.

Photographs become breathtakingly beautiful, retouching becomes a work of art and paintings achieve the status of timeless masterpieces. Did you know that one of the first signs of a fledgling artist is their fear to use depth – their fear to use light and their ignorance of how to use light effectively? Learn to see, feel, and create lighting in your work and your knowledge will allow you to achieve a higher plane of excellence.

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. 


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