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We all know that light has direction, right? As photographers, we need to think of light direction in relative terms. We think about the direction relative to the camera and the subject’s position in the scene. We pay attention to light direction as it can significantly affect color, form, texture, pattern, dimension and saturation of a photo. A great photo will have all these qualities, and to get there we need to have highlights next to shadows.

Light it naturally
Natural light is ideal for any photograph as long as the timing is right. Choose a time of day when the sun is low in the sky, either early morning or late afternoon. Photographing people when the sun is high in the sky causes the subjects eyes to fall into shadow and will cause your subject to squint, which isn’t  flattering.

45 degrees – The sweet spot
Sidelighting can vary from 45 degrees behind the camera to 45 degrees in front of the camera, relative to the subject in the scene. When the light is within this range you will notice that the tactile qualities of the surface textures are amplified which increases form, texture and dimensionality. Open landscapes such as wetland, beaches and plains respond very well to this type of lighting.

Blocking the light
Backlighting produces spectacular silhouettes as well as rendering dimensionality by creating dramatic and elongated shadows that draw the eye into the scene. One of the biggest benefits that backlighting can provide is an effect called rim lighting. Rim lighting uses a bright light source to create a brilliant and vivid fringe of light around the subject that separates the subject from the background.

Front light equals flat
Are you looking to reduce texture, and need to flatten things out? Front lighting is the answer. This lighting will significantly reduce or eliminate the color, form, texture, pattern, dimension and the saturation of a photo. Front lighting is accomplished by lighting the subject directly from the front of the camera or directly behind and over the photographer’s shoulders. This will cause the photo to be flat, losing fine detail and subtle clues that create texture.

Have you found a lighting setup that works for you? Share your tips in the comments!

About the Author

Ray Mabry has over twenty years experience in photography. He started in film and used black and white to capture images in architecture, landscape and abstract forms. In 2001, Ray with his extensive computer technology and digital imagery experience, made a natural and seamless migration to digital. Whether shooting film or digital, Ray loves the freedom of creative expression that photography has to offer.

A writer, a photography instructor and photojournalist, his goal is to capture the sights, sounds and feel of the environment and translate those senses into a visual experience that will transcend the two-dimensional bounds of the photograph itself.

Ray has a professional photography studio,, runs a blog , offers training courses for digital photography and Photoshop, and also co-organizes a Meetup group called the Sonoma County Photography Group.

Tags: Digital Photography, lighting, Ray Mabry, Safari Books Online,

2 Responses to “Photography: Do you know which direction your light is coming from?”

  1. Photography

    Portrait photography is the process by which a person’s facial expressions are captured. A typical photo portrait captures a person’s facial expression. A candid shot does not create a portrait because, in a portrait shot, the person being photographed is well aware that their image is being captured, thus resulting in a posed photograph – there is always an intentional pose when portraits are being taken.

  2. HD Camcorder Reviews

    Ray Mabry’s talks about the often “taken for granted” lighting concept while shooting gives a great idea even for newbies to consider these lighting factors before they click on their Camera. Great post & I really enjoyed!