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Understanding the direction of light

From: Up and Running with Lighting: Natural Light

Video: Understanding the direction of light

The angle of light falling upon your subject is an important concern in photography. Whether natural or artificially created in a studio, the direction of light dictates the outcome of your image. The 4 basic angles of light are side light, front light, back light and top light. Side light makes the shadows in your scene more visible, and creates dimension and form in your photograph. The nature of a photograph is two dimensional, but by using side light you can accentuate facial features, emphasize texture and create a three dimensional quality to your photograph.

Understanding the direction of light

The angle of light falling upon your subject is an important concern in photography. Whether natural or artificially created in a studio, the direction of light dictates the outcome of your image. The 4 basic angles of light are side light, front light, back light and top light. Side light makes the shadows in your scene more visible, and creates dimension and form in your photograph. The nature of a photograph is two dimensional, but by using side light you can accentuate facial features, emphasize texture and create a three dimensional quality to your photograph.

When shooting outdoors in natural light, look to see where the light is coming from so you can position your subject with one side towards the brighter light in your scene. Front light illuminates the entire face and occurs when your subject is facing the light. This is also known as beauty lighting because it de-emphasizes any lines bumps or wrinkles on someone's face. You can read where the light is coming from by looking at the shadows and attractive light direction on people as wide above the subject eye line. In this image you can read the light direction by the shadow right under my subject's nose.

Shoot when the sun is low in the sky. Early morning or early evening. You can position your subject in open shade or indirect light near a window. Back light is light coming from behind your subject, and can be used to create a rim light, a silhouette, lens flare, or reveal transparency of an object in your image. This can be the trickiest light to expose for, and you must be careful not to damage your eyes by accidentally looking straight into the sun through your lens.

A lens magnifies and you don't want to fry your eyes. Create a rim light around your subject by shooting outdoors when the sun is lower in the sky. Either early morning or late afternoon. The goal is to shoot into the light while avoiding the sun's direct rays on your lens. A lens hood is helpful in blocking these rays. Create a silhouette by placing your subject against a brighter background, like a bright sky in the early morning or late afternoon, or right after sunset.

The camera's internal light meter will read all the light in your scene, and expose for the brightest areas, rendering the darker areas almost black. Strong rays of light directly hitting your lens and causing a slight sunburst in your images are called lens flare. Sometimes it happens by accident, but you can create it in purpose for a cool, contemporary effect on your images. If you want an image with lens flare and not simply over exposure, you need to remember one thing, camera position to the sun. This will depend on what time of day you shoot.

In the mornings or evenings it's easier to shoot directly into the sun. But at midday this changes. You'll need to position yourself fairly low to the ground in order to shoot into the sun. Typically 11 AM or 2 PM are the best times for midday lens flare. Take a lot of pictures and experiment with your camera settings. This may be a time to shoot a manual mode instead of one of your camera's pre sets. Create transparency in your images by shooting earlier or later in the day when the sun's direction has a chance to shine through clothing, leaves or flowers or anything else with transparency. This really makes your image come alive.

When the direction of light is straight above whatever you are photographing it's called Top light. It can create deep shadows under eyes and chins. And unless you fill in the shadows with the reflector this is a very unattractive lighting scenario. Top light happens during the middle of the day in bright, harsh sunlight. This is often not a great time to shoot natural light, so try to avoid it. Once you learn to recognize the different directions of lighting, your photographs will become much more interesting.

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Up and Running with Lighting: Natural Light

17 video lessons · 9390 viewers

Erin Manning
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