aerial photography of water beside forest during golden hour

Which is more important: Lighting or Composition?

I have been a photographer for a long time. I have worked in camera stores for 20 years, helping people understand photography. And then this question pops up today: WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT: LIGHTING OR COMPOSITION?

That is a very good question. Because without good lighting, you can’t have good composition. And good composition can’t be any good if the subject is not lit up correctly.

I am going to show you how lighting was the key to several photos, but, in these cases, composition was good, only because lighting helped create these amazing photos.

asphalt dark dawn endless
Photo by Pixabay on

Using some of my friends from Pexel Photos, I am using this photo as a lesson in lighting. Answer these questions with me, and see if you agree: 1- Is this good composition? 2- Does lighting play an important role in the success of this photo? 3- Would this photo be so good if it didn’t have this lighting? All good questions, but, it goes back to the important lesson good photographers learn somewhere along the way. And because I am so involved in these blogs, I understand more than ever, how important it is to see a good photo. It is an art. And it takes 10,000 photos you have to take before you really learn to SEE a good photo (said a professional photographer once). In this photo above, I think this photographer was just driving down the road, and noticed the incredible lighting, and stopped and captured this photo.

photo of people reaching each other s hands
Photo by Anna Shvets on

This photo was one of the most beautiful photos taken in the last little while. And the lighting is rather flat. Not exciting. But, if the light hadn’t been perfect on these hands, the message would not be the same. This is a beautiful photo of hands that has made a wonderful statement in the last year.

As landscape artists, we are told that the best time of day to get really good photos of landscapes, is to either go early in the morning or late afternoon to get the most dramatic photos of your landscape. Would this photo above be the same if it was shot at noon? No, definitely not. The shadows, the side lighting is what totally makes this photo. If you have ever been here, taken a photo at noon, you would be severely disappointed in your photos. But, if you got up early in the morning, when you have the long shadows, then you will always have a winner.

woman in white clothing touching her face
Photo by Yuliya Kosolapova on
woman with veil on head in studio
Photo by Владимир Васильев on

If you are a portrait photographer, in order for you to be successful in portrait photos, you have to know and see lighting better than the average photographer. The question you may run in to, as a portrait photographer, is: Would this portrait be more dramatic with the whole room full of lights, or just one light? Here above, are two portraits taken with just a minimal amount of lights. The first photo, involves two lights, one in blue to shine on the back of the model, and then the yellow light in front. So, basically, on the face…. just one light. This second portrait, only one light was used. Knowing how to get that lighting so perfect was an art. We call this “Rembrandt Lighting”. A very beautiful lighting technique, that uses 1 light, and have it give you that triangle of light on the one side of the face. Do you see it? That is what you need to see in all photos: the perfect light.

symmetrical photography of clouds covered blue sky
Photo by James Wheeler on

What makes this photo so great? If you just had the lake and the mountain in the photo, would it be so good? No, I don’t think so. The lighting from the sunset is what makes this photo so spectacular. And without this light, it would, in my book, only be a 2 or 3 (rating it from 1 to 10, and 10 being the best). But, with light, and the different color of light, this photo is close to a 10, I think.

So, what is the priority in photography? Lighting or Composition? I will pick lighting first. You can have great composition on a photo, but, without the proper lighting, composition is nothing.

two person riding boat on body of water
Photo by Jayant Kulkarni on

I hope by even looking at this photo, that you now see what light will do to get an amazing photo. Start by looking at things with special lighting on it, and practice “seeing” a photo. You will notice right away, that light is so important.

Article written by Lanny Cottrell, Editor, author of 123PhotoGo.

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