Direction of Light

Direction of Light

Characteristics of Light

In the previous articles of this series we have had a look into the color of light and the quality of light. This time we’ll have a closer look at the direction of light. Are there directions that are flattering for our subjects? Are there directions to avoid? What characterizes a specific direction of light? These are the questions we address in this article.

The direction of the light is seen from the subject’s perspective and not from your camera position. So if the light comes from behind your camera falling directly on your subject, we are not talking about a backlit subject, but a front-lit one.
In the following sketch, the red area marks a light source’s position to front-light the subject (the pyramids). The orange area marks a light source’s position to back-light the subject, and the blue ones would be for side-lighting.


Direction of light


Front light

If your subject is front lit, the shadows cast by it will fall behind your subject. Shadows, however, give the viewer a feeling of depth. So in these cases, your subject looks flat and not very interesting. Frontal main light on your subject is therefore not a good idea.
For portraits, however, you may find that a backlit subject might need some front light to not become a silhouette. So as a single (or main) light source falling directly onto your subject front light is not a good choice, but as a secondary light to brighten up otherwise dark areas, it might help enhance the photo. You might even get away by using a reflector instead of a second light/flash, to reach the desired effect.

Front lid houses


Back light

Your subject is lit from behind, and the shadow of your subject falls into your image. This can create stunning rim-light effects or silhouettes if you are placing your light source in a good spot. If your light source happens to be the sun, which is difficult to move around, wait for the sun to be low in the sky around sunrise or sunset, to reach the desired effect.

A summers evening in Noresund
Back-lid trees in Noresund


Side light

Unsurprisingly your subject is lit from its side. Shadows enhance the image and give it a feeling of depth. This is pretty much the most desired light situation in landscape photography, and of course, combined with the colors around sunrise or sunset.

Sunrise over Jökulsárlón
Side-lighting sunrise over Jökulsárlón – look at the shadows in the mountains


Light from above

During the late morning to early afternoon hours when the sun is high up in the sky, you have light from above. At this time the shadows fall “below” your subject, and does not help you in creating an impression of depth. So the result won’t be the impressive images that you would love to capture.

Undirected light

Undirected light occurs in nature when the sky is covered in clouds. Within the clouds, the light is reflected in many directions before it exists the cloud toward the earth. This type of light does not result in shadows, and it is great for macro photography when you need an evenly lit subject. You can “create” undirected light from a directed light source by using a diffuser, more about this in the fourth and last article of this series.

Garden cosmos - Cosmos bipinnatus
Undirected light used to capturing a Garden cosmos


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