Light, as you may know, is a fundamental part of photography. Often for beginners, the direction of light is accidental. Learning to control light direction will help you understand the way that it affects your subject(s) and help you communicate better with your viewers.
The basic light directions are Front, Side, Back, Overhead, and Below. Of course, a photographer could utilize many different types of lighting in photography, but in order to simplify things, we’ll discuss each one individually and look at some examples.
These examples were taken with a simple one color background and no ambient light, meaning there is no light coming from other directions. I have taken these shots with both still-life and portrait subjects so that way you can see how the light direction effects specific types of situations.
It is also worth noting that these photos utilize hard lighting. I have done this to emphasize the effect of the light direction. If you diffuse the light it will become softer and change the way that the subject is perceived.
Front light photography tends to be very flat and it usually comes from just above the photographer. It has a tendency to cause distracting shadows in the background (you will often see these shadows when you use your camera’s built-in flash).
If you are photographing a person, you may see a small shadow under the nose or chin. In this example, you can see the harsh shadow behind the boy and the small shadow under his chin.
When photographing objects, you’ll have a hard shadow under the objects and some definition whenever anything sticks out from the object. In this case, it’s hard to see the shadow under the cup since it is placed on a black cloth, but you can see the gradual shadow that goes along the sides of the cup.
Side light photography brings out more texture within the object or face. If that is not the desired effect, you can use a diffuser to soften the light.
For my portrait, you can see the distinct line that goes down the middle of the boy’s face. Notice also that the eye on the right is in complete shadow, which makes it difficult to see any definition there. Since the boy is young, there aren’t any blemishes on his face to highlight, but if there were, you can bet that they would be emphasized by this side lighting.
For my still life, notice that the left side of the cup is in complete darkness. The handle appears from nothingness. This is a more dramatic angle for a still life.
This type of lighting makes for VERY HARSH shadows. In portrait photography, it can be very unflattering (making shadows in the eye sockets and below the cheekbones).
In portrait photography, it has a tendency to make the subject look mad and foreboding. However, if that is the look that you’re going for, then overhead lighting is what you want!
In still-life photography, overhead lighting places the direction of the shadow below the objects. You can see the shadow in this still life even with the black cloth used as the background, especially under the handle. You may also notice that you can barely see the bottom of the cup due to the placement of the light.
This type of lighting is also very harsh light for a portrait and has a tendency to give off a “creepy” feeling. If it is exclusively lit from below, you won’t likely see the top of the object (or the person’s head). Lighting from below (and above) is a very dramatic decision and they certainly have their place in photography.
My portrait shot certainly has several shadows in places that might make my little boy seem creepy. You can even see the shadow made by his eyelashes!
Since my still-life image includes a ceramic object, the shine from the light is very prominent. Also, notice that the back side of the top of the cup is completely covered in darkness.
True backlight will be a complete silhouette, with no light falling from the front. Silhouette photography often requires the photographer to mess with their camera settings in order to get the gorgeous, crisp silhouette shot that they’re looking for.
If a silhouette is what you’re looking for, you’ll want to turn off your camera flash so that you don’t get any blinding front lighting on your subject. You also may want to consider using your tripod to keep your camera as steady as possible. If any front lighting is reflected from the source, some detail can be retained from the subject.
The shot below was taken just after the sun went below the horizon. I chose to show a landscape here because it is difficult to capture a still life or a portrait with backlighting in a studio. If you want to capture a landscape silhouette, place your subject in between yourself and the sunrise or sunset. Take several shots so that you can see how the light changes as the sun sinks lower below the horizon.
So what is the best direction to place your light? Answer: It depends! And often, multiple sources of light are both suitable and preferred. Try multiple directions and find the one that works best for your situation and that will communicate the message that you’re trying to send. Remember, every photo tells a story, so make sure you’re showing the one you want to tell!
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