Light Direction

Hi guys, this time I am going to write about light direction and the role that it plays. Directional light is opposed to diffused light is non-directional light; where the intensity of light is even. A cloudy day is giving diffused light which often is treasured by photographers for portrait photography; it creates little or no shadow. Personally I love directional light; by moving yourself and your motive; you can change the light with great impact to the expression in your photographs. One example is changing a front lit flat picture, to side lit; it suddenly takes shape and dimension. Changing from side lit to more backlit and the mood change entirely.

This applies to photographing with natural light as well as with studio light; this post focuses on using natural light. As the source of our light is impossible to move; we can only move the direction of light be moving ourselves and or blocking off for some of it;

When it comes to the direction of light, there are 360 degrees of possibilities. When the light isn’t working for you, change it by moving your position, your subject’s position, or the light itself, if possible. I like to break the 360 degrees down to 5 main light directions each with their distinctive effect; remember the final result is a blend of these 5 effects.

The five main direction of light

  • Front light is the light coming from or near your camera; it is lighting your subject straight up. You might hear studio photographers refer to this light as beauty light; while the angle of light hides imperfections and makes your subject look more “beautiful”. Front light is great for lighting your subject up; it gives nice and even illumination; but it easily makes your photographs look very flat, ordinary and typical. On camera flash is another kind of front light

    Your camera’s flash is the most common type of front lighting. Because of the even illumination is it the easiest to deal with photographically because there are fewer shadows to confuse the camera’s light meter. The expense is that pictures lack volume and depth. Textures and details are minimized casing the scene to appear flat with few shadows.

    Front light can also be use in different way, everything from a portrait at a window to this this picture is from a wonderful night out dinning in El Gaucho. A restaurant created by legend and restaurateur Paul Mackay. The place is cozy, yet dark in lighting; the food is absolutely second to none, with deserts made at the table, I simply couldn’t resist shooting this photo.

  • Side light is like its name applies, light coming in from the side. It is perfect when you want to emphasize texture, dimension, shapes, or patterns. Side lighting sculpts a subject, revealing contours and textures. By illuminating one side of the texture; a shadow is created on the other side giving a contrast that helps the viewer understand those areas as raised and lowered; and through this understanding giving a sense of dimension; which can help separate the subject from the background, convey depth, as in a landscape at sunset. It is wise to use this light with care as it impact quickly becomes overwhelming, creating some areas that are too bright, and some that are too dark

    Imagine this scene; your aspiration is to take a black and white picture of an old person with time etched into their skin. You want to convey the impression of the person’s age; remember the viewer judge’s age by looking at facial contours; the skin and its wrinkles also adds to the impression of time under the sun and maybe it is just too many cigarettes that have set its mark who knows. Using side light will illuminate one side of the wrinkles and cause a shadow on the other side of it; give harsh shadows; exactly what we want.

    One of my favorites is by a photographer working under the synonym “Zasu”; he works under the quote from Michelangelo “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.Without losing detail; he masters creating deep shadows. With alive eyes, we get an look into the soul of this person; it’s almost possible to read despair of the lost youth in her alive eyes.

  • Top Light; one of my favorites is Geoff LMV “Top Light“. It is not because it has a terrible sharpness over it; but the ambiance is beautiful portrayed. The fact that the lamp burn out does absolutely nothing bad for this picture. Depending of the distance between the light source and the reflecting surface, it has the ability to intensely focus the light, with a quick fall off. The table nicely lit; and the background falling back in the shadows.

Downlight can like up light be used to give a monstrous effect. I met this guy under Halloween in Seattle. He wanted me to shoot his picture and accepted under the condition that I was allowed to position him under a streetlight, giving him a dominant downlight with just a hint of catch in his eyes.


  • Back Light; is light that comes from behind your subject is by far the trickiest to use, but the dramatic results may be worth the effort. I am not going to write a lot about Co Contre-jour in this blogpost,
    only that
    it is one of my favorite ways to create an impressive photo.

Do read more on this area in my blog posts…

Backlit, Breaking away from conventional wisdom

Backlit, making it better

Backlit, on a rainy day

Backlit, make the colours pop

  • Up Light, if you have ever watched an old black and white horror movie, then I am sure you recall this “Ghoul” lighting. It has heaps of dramatic to it and easily creates a monstrous appearance. Madness is lurking, sinister eyes from the darkness, a vampire hiding in the shadows.

Up lighting can also be used subtle. One example is together with a 45 degree side light; your subject will have tendencies to form a shadow under the chin. Also when shooting portraits backlit; in such cases up lighting with a reflector can be most effective. All sorts of expensive gadget can be bought; but low priced and very effective is simply letting your subject hold the reflector while you shoot the headshot.

If you don’t have an reflector then it is easily Make Your Own Aluminum Foil Reflector

3 thoughts on “Light Direction

  1. Very good reading,thanks for the information.

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