Light: Direction

Now let’s talk about light direction. Before taking a picture, try to identify where the light comes from. There are many sources of light such as the ones listed below.

  • Sunlight
  • Window light
  • Open shade
  • Reflectors /Translucent diffusers
  • Artificial light
  • Candle light
  • Off camera flash
  • On camera flash
  • Video light
  • Continuous fluorescent
  • Black light
  • LED

Light travels from its source in the way of light beams. Some sources of light spread light beams everywhere and others are set in a way that all light beams are directed to go towards a particular direction. A flashlight for example, it is made in a way that it directs all the light beams just to wherever you are pointing to.

[Image of light beams.]

If you are in a dark room, turn on a light and direct this light to an object, that part of the object will be well lit, but the other side of the object will be dark. Pretty simple, isn’t?

[Image of light shadows.]

In photography, and if physically possible, you can light up your subject from any 360 degree angle or from any position within an x, y, or z axis. Or said in easier words, you can light up your subject from virtually any position: left, right, front, back, above, below or any combination of those. But, not just that, you can use more than one lighting source too.

Light can produce different effects on your pictures depending on the direction it comes from. Use the same light but in different angles and you can make some people look different. You already know that light can produce shadows. If light falls on one side there may be shadows on the other. Here are some examples of light direction and their effects on your pictures.

Front light

Front light is any type of light coming from the same direction of your camera. If you are taking a picture of a person and the light comes from the same side of your camera, the person will have front light. It doesn’t matter if the person is facing sideways or turning her back towards the camera, it is still front light because the light comes from the camera side. A common type of front light is the flash light that comes right from your camera when you take a picture.

Front light tends to eliminate many shadows. Shadows are in fact behind the subject and we cannot see them in the picture. By eliminating shadows you also take some depth away. A picture that could look more like a 3D is turned into something flat. Front light may not be ideal for architecture since structures would look two-dimensional. For nature, front light will also hide the texture of fur and feathers, rocks, and trees.

A face looking at the camera under front light tends to come up with less texture and less detail. This would probably be something that some people would appreciate; especially those with bumps or marks on the skin of their face or those who are concerned of the size of their nose or cheekbones. Older people with wrinkles may also prefer pictures with front light.

However, front light may be less dramatic and in some cases too predictable, common and/or boring.

Side light

Side light is any type of light that appears on the left or right of your subject. Again, it doesn’t matter whether the subject is facing the light. Light direction is identified in relation to the camera, not the subject. This also applies to which side light comes from. Light from the right side is light from the right of the camera, not the right of your subject. Likewise light from the left comes from the light side of what the camera sees, not the left side of your subject. Many pictures, for example, show side light when people are being photographed next to the window during the day.

Side light (assuming there is one light only) will show one side while darken the other. Side light is good to bring some texture. It will bring more depth to your picture. Curved shapes and bodies will gradually show a transition between light to darkness giving some sort of volume or three dimiensional effect. And if we talk about people, cheekbones will be better defined. But along that any skin texture such as blemishes or wrinkles. One side will be lit while the other darkened. Side light boosts the contrast and puts strong weight on facial expressions.

Back light

Back light is when the light is behind your subject. Or put in different way, it is when the subject is in the middle between your camera and the light. Back light is very dramatic. It is great for silhouettes and strong contrast. You will see most of things black and only a rim of light will be visible around people or animals. In semitransparent subjects this may create very appealing results such as back light passing through the petals of some flowers making them glow.

Back light is not good for keeping details nor facial expressions, it is for shapes and stories. Back light tends to take color away from objects on the foreground. Back light could also be vulnerable to lens flare, so you should be careful.

Light from above

Light from above is light above your subject. This produces shadows underneath the subject. If you take pictures of people with light from the top shadows will also pop up beneath the eyes, nose, and chin. It is very common to find light from above in pictures taken around noon when the sun is right above on the sky.

Light from above can be good for some drama and very interesting effects.

Light from below

Light from below is any type of light coming from beneath your subject. It is not common to find it in portraits because it makes people look sinister and extremely dramatic. Light from beneath is not just for these effects, when used to lit water on a fountain, a ceiling, trees and a lot more can simple make things look very inspiring. Perhaps you have seen a few pictures of people with light from below when they have a candle or a fire under their heads.

Light from other angles and multiple sources

I have mentioned basic directions of light, but in reality your light source can be from any point in between those that we have mentioned. Light can be positioned in angles, such as 45 degrees above or towards the left, etc.

[Image about light angles.]

Light can also come up from different sources simultaneously. In fact it is so common to see different sources of light falling on your subject. If you combine them properly, you can make magic with your pictures. You read that light will make one side visible while the other side will not. When you add an extra light, you can control those shadows and give them some shape. Many photographers do that in a studio. Have you noticed that many of them have at least two or three sources of light when taking a simple portrait?

In many cases especially outdoors, what you will want to do is compensate light with other sources of light. You can also redirect light.

What if I can’t move the light?

We often change the light to fall properly onto a subject, but you can also position your subject in a relation to the light. So if you can’t or you don’t want to move the light source, move the subject. Remember, it’s about direction of light.

Exercise 1

Take a magazine with many pictures of people and try to recognize where light comes from.

Exercise 2

Pull your camera out and take seven pictures of someone looking at the camera all the time. These pictures will only show the face, neck, and shoulders of the person. Don’t take a picture of the whole body. You will use the same light source for all of them but from different positions. I would recommend using a portable light source. If you don’t have light equipment, you can simply use a flashlight or a hand lamp. If there is additional light in the room, don’t worry about it, just make sure the light you will move is brighter on your subject. You will take seven pictures under the following light directions:

Picture one: A picture with front light.

Picture two: A picture with back light.

Picture three: A picture with light from the left.

Picture four: A picture with light from the right.

Picture five: A picture with light from the top.

Picture six: A picture with light from below.

Picture seven: A picture with two light sources. One front light 45 degrees above and another light on the right side.

The purpose of the exercise is for you to practice a couple of things, especially 1) That you experience what we photographers have to deal with every time we take a picture, which is taking in consideration light direction and 2) that you see how light affects your own pictures.

You have now learned about light direction. You know that light produces different effects depending on its source direction. You also learned that light sources can be combined with multiple light sources. Next time you take a picture of your friends or anything else, see where the light comes from. Think of what effects it will produce.
You will learn some tips about how to take better portraits later in this book. Right now you just need to focus on the principle of light direction.

Also if you want to learn more about light position take a look at these videos


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