A grasp of lighting equipment brings enormous benefits to your photography. It means you can lift your subject under any conditions, or achieve all manner of different styles. Good lighting can elevate a photo beyond the ordinary. It speaks of a professionalism and competence that separates the serious photographer from the amateur smartphone snapper, and it’s also a great deal of fun.

With supplemental lighting, our choices are huge. When we shoot with natural light alone then there’s usually only one exposure that lets us correctly capture the scene in front of us. But if we can start to add in our own light – be it with a speed light, a studio head, a lamp, or even a torch – then we have freedom to create different looks and bend the exposure to our will. We could, for example, subtly boost our subject by filling in the shadows, or transform the look by overpowering the ambient light.

However, light can be a troublesome beast to master, and even those who have successfully used lighting equipment for years often to fully control or even comprehend it. For the beginner, talk of guide numbers, light meters, modifiers and flash duration can be daunting. ‘I prefer to shoot exclusively with natural light’ is a common phrase, and a perfectly fine opinion. But there are plenty who would admit that, in part, the preference is because they are uncomfortable with using lighting equipment. With practice and understanding of a few fundamentals, there will be a light bulb moment when everything suddenly clicks.

If as we often hear, photography is ‘painting with light’, then think of lighting equipment as your artist’s paintbox. We’ll explore the most common types of photographic lighting – from speed lights to portable flash, studio lights and LEDs. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, and will be suited to different shooting conditions.

Lighting on location

Lighting equipment can open up a new world of photographic opportunities. Suddenly you don’t have to seek out the perfect light for your subject: take your lighting gear on a location shoot and you can make your own instead. Whether you want to photograph a person outdoors, capture an architectural interior, or lift any kind of subject, learning how to light on location can be a powerful weapon in your creative arsenal.

The right kit for location lighting will vary depending on what you intend to shoot, and the ambient lighting conditions. For example, in some scenarios, an LED (such as the portable and impressive Rotolight AEOS) can be a great location light as unlike flash you can judge the light by eye and adjust the colour temperature to match the surroundings. However, LEDs aren’t powerful enough to overpower the sun, so they’d be no use for lighting a portrait in direct sunlight. For this you’d need a more powerful flash.

Lighting on a budget

A basic speed light (such as the cheap-as-chips) is ideal for all kinds of location lighting as long as you have a separate wireless trigger to fire it off-camera. A budget trigger is similar in cost to a memory card, so it’s a worthwhile investment. Freed from the hotshot, you can place your speed light behind the subject or off to one side, up a tree, inside a building – anywhere you choose.