Photography Lighting: Direction of Light

Lighting is one of two key components to photography, the second is having a camera to capture the picture. Without light nothing would ever be able to be photographed, pretty simple concept isn’t it? However, light and lighting in your photography is and always will be the biggest challenge you will ever face. My first impression of lighting for photography was of that one mathematical problem that has 46 different steps to solve. I briefly touched base on Observing the Quality of Light the other day, today I would like to discuss the directions of light.

Light rays move in a straight line , illuminating only what they strike. What makes this so tricky is light bounces off of things and forms another straight line, and another, and another. Light can also be filtered by things and absorbed by others. In order to be a successful photographer you must be able to access the direction from which the light is coming in order to plan how your photograph to appear. The direction of light can flatten your subject, give definition to the subjects details, wash out the details, or creatively add mood.

Steph 2012  Standard 45 degree example Created by Melissa Fague

The rule of thumb for well lit indoor and outdoor photographs is to shoot with the light or the sun falling over the photographers shoulder at a 45 degree angle.  This angle allows the light to illuminate your subject with minimal shadows cast in the contours, this is an especially good rule to follow for shooting standard portraits.

Over head light, such as mid-day sun coming directly down on your subject. This works fairly well for landscapes but it will cause deep shadows. If shooting a portrait the heavy shadowed area will appear around the eyes, a main focal point that people naturally gravitate to when viewing a portrait. I don’t recommend relying solely on natural light mid-day if you want a portrait of your family member. If you want to go all natural use a white reflector to counter act the effects of the mid day sun or overhead light by reflecting light back up onto your subject in the shadowed areas.

Sidelight is very dramatic. If only one light is used it will illuminate one side of your subject while allowing the other side to fall into shadows. Using a fill light on the opposite side of the main light will counter act this. By adjusting the intensity, distance, and filters of the fill light you will be able to offer a range of detail in the shadows.

Antique Plates effect (Nik)

Jeff Low Key,  1 side light example Created by: Melissa Fague

Front lighting is when the light and the camera are directly in front of the subject. This often flattens the details of the subject because the shadows which create dimensions are washed out.

Up lighting, I found very few applications for up lighting. It’s a techniques that resembles the old 1920s horror movie posters when you use it in portraiture. It is however, a very beautiful way to light landscapes and architecture when photographing them at twilight or night.

Glowing Rose is a nature photograph of a white rose from the Brandywine Rose garden in Wilmington, Delaware. The rose was back lit with a remote flash to create the glow of the petals. Title: Glowing Rose 2 Photographer: Melissa Fague Genre: Nature Photography Brilliant Yellow is a very simple nature photograph that emphasizes the bold yellow hue of an autumn leaf. This image was created by use of lighting the leaf from behind in order to create the bright glow of yellow. Title: Brilliant Yellow Photographer: Melissa Fague Genre: Nature Photography
Glowing Rose and Brilliant Yellow created by Melissa Fague – Nature photography

Back lighting is very interesting and it’s fun to do. You can create silhouettes with back lighting or depending on the material of your subject, back lighting can make the objects appear to glow like the images above.

Light illuminates our subject but as photographers we have the ability to capture special moments, create mood or drama, and emphasize our artistic vision with it. My advise is to take a light and practice a little with each of these directions to see how the shadows are created. I hope you enjoyed this article, the next article will be on the characteristic of light.

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