Direction of Light in Photography

June 19, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

The direction of Light in Photography

The type of lighting that illuminates your subject will have a major impact on the success and feel of a good photograph. In Digital Photography, it is not the amount of light that really matters and we can control that or adjust that through various settings on the camera or from the light source itself. Even in the darkest of locations, it is possible to get enough light rays to reach camera’s sensor. You simply need to use a longer shutter speed. Today's advanced cameras are able to produce good enough noiseless image even at very high ISO.

It is the quality of the lighting that transforms an ordinary shot into a great picture.

Several factors contribute to lighting quality, but the most crucial is the direction of the light source relative to the subject. This determines where the shadows fall, and which areas of the actual subject are lit. The light on a subject can come from any angle. Many pictures are taken using daylight, so the angle it comes from can vary through 360° around the subject, but also through a 180° arc depending on the height of the sun in the sky.

In the studio, a good Photographer would always replicate the light, the way it exists in nature. The subject can also be lit from below but does natural light does that ever? Sun is always above the horizon except for early morning and late evening.

For simplicity, photographers usually talk about just three broad types of lighting direction. The light can be in front of the subject—this is often called frontal lighting. Alternatively, it can be behind the subject—known as backlighting. Or the light source can be to the side of the subject, and this is called side lighting. Which side you should illuminate is also an important creative decision on part of the Photographer. Each type of lighting has its own characteristic effect on the image and plays an important role in setting up the overall mood of the Shot. With Side lighting, depending upon the position of the subjects face, the lighting can be Broad or Short.

This simplistic view is complicated by intermediate angles—a scene may exhibit features of both sidelighting and frontal lighting. You also have to take into account the characteristics of the lighting itself. Direct lighting on a clear day, or from a built-in flash, gives a different feel than lighting from the same angle but on an overcast day, or if the flash is being scattered through a clip-on diffuser.

It is also important to realize, particularly in outdoor photography, that although shadow areas are not lit directly, they are not in complete darkness. Even in the shade, subjects are lit indirectly by the sun’s reflected rays.


When the side of the face towards the camera is illuminated, the side lighting is called Broad lighting. pallavi_00837pallavi_00837

Shot in the mirror of the makeup room, the model is illuminated with Rembrandt lighting. It is typical of getting a triangular highlight on the cheek.

Yet another example of Rembrandt lighting. 

Although natural light is falling behind the models in these Advertising shots, the fronts are supplimented with artificial lighting. Without the artificial lighting the subject would have turned up dark. In case the exposure was opened up, the background would have turned out to be too bright.

In Fashion and Advertising, one does need to work around the lighting. At twilight, unless the models are illuminated artificially, it will all be dark. In this case, the models have been side lighted with hard light to get some natural shadows as well.

the light is quite frontal in the following shots.

Munish Khanna is a leading fashion photographer of India Munish Khanna is a leading fashion photographer of India

while it is side lighting for the models and the garments they are wearing, they have been asked to look towards the light, making it kind of front lighting for the face.  Best Fashion Photographer of Delhi – Munish Khanna

When the light is frontal and just a bit above the subject creating a shadow under the nose, it's called Butterfly lighting.

It's because of the side lighting that you see the detailing in self on the Black lingerie. Shooting Lingerie is quite difficult as it generally involves situations where there is a lot of detailing in done with the same colour. The texture is important as well. A Good understanding of lighting helps to bring out good detail in lingerie. 

Light is Directional in reference to the camera position. It's the same window in the following three photographs. In the first one the subject is rendered as a silhouette as it is being photographed absolutely against the light.


As the camera position is changed, the subject is now being illuminated from the side. The light from the window facing north west in the first part of the day is quite diffused and not so directional.

Towards the evening as the time approaches the sun set, the light is quite warm and directional. It's relatively hard and the pattern of the wire mesh is also quite visible in contrast to the light in the earlier part of the day. So, the natural light coming from the same direction can have a different effect on the same subject during different time of the day. Light is constantly changing over the period of one day and over the period of time as the seasons change.

All Photographs have been shot by Munish Khanna.



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