Direction of Light


The type of lighting that illuminates your subject will have a major impact on the success and feel of a photograph. In digital imaging, it is not the amount of light that really counts. Even in the dingiest conditions it is possible to get enough light rays to reach the camera’s sensor—you simply need to use a longer shutter speed. It is the quality of the lighting that transforms an ordinary shot into a great picture.

Several factors contribute to lighting quality, but the easiest to change is the direction of the light source relative to the subject. This determines where the shadows fall, and which parts 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 the height of the sun in the sky. In the studio, the subject can also be lit from below.

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 sidelighting. Each type of lighting has its own characteristic effect on the image.

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.