Working with light

Photography & the direction of light

Written by James Jordan

Photography is not so much about making pictures of the objects and scenery around you. It is about making pictures of the light that strikes and reflects off the objects and scenery.

Photography is not so much about making pictures of the objects and scenery around you. Photography is about making pictures of the light that strikes and reflects off the objects and scenery around you.

It’s a big difference in thinking. And it makes a big difference in how your photos will turn out.

Recognizing the origin, intensity and direction of the light in which you’re shooting goes a long way toward creating photos on your terms, and not having to settle for mediocre shots.

For now, we’ll deal with the direction of the light, and particularly as it pertains to shooting outdoors with available light.

The ways sunlight strikes a subject

Sunlight can strike your subject from a low angle (beginning or end of the day) or a high angle (middle of the day). It can also hit your subject from the front, side or back. What follows are some of the best combinations of the angle and direction of light, and how to deal with those situations to make better photos.

Low angle light — the Holy Grail for photographers

Most serious photographers covet the low angle light that occurs at the start and end of each day, and for good reason. Low angle light is less intense, which helps a camera capture all the tonal ranges from light to dark in any particular scene. The light is warmer, which produces pleasing colors and skin tones. Shadows from low angle lighting will help define the shape of objects and scenery. The only question now is whether that low angle light hits your subject from the front, side or back.

Front lighting

Front lighting. Photo by James Jordan.

Front, low angle light

For years, camera and film manufacturers instructed picture takers to place the sun behind them when taking pictures outdoors. On the plus side, such advice made exposure calculations fairly straightforward and predictable in the days of preset or manual film cameras. On the minus side, millions of photos of squinting people and flat landscapes hit the photofinishing kiosks. Such photos now fill memory cards around the world.

Here’s how to get the most out of this type of light.

When shooting landscapes, look for interesting objects in the foreground and incorporate them into your pictures. This will help add depth to your front lit images. It’s a good idea to incorporate foreground interest and leading lines in any light, but even more so when the light hits your subject squarely from behind you.

You want drama? Photographing scenes that include approaching (or departing) storm clouds in this type of light will depict brightly lit earthbound objects with deep blue/black billows above.

For portraits, this would be a good time to experiment with the angle from which you’re shooting your subject. Try shooting from down low or up high – it will make things interesting, plus keep your subjects from having to stare directly into the sun.

Morning light by James Jordan

Side lighting. Photo by James Jordan.

Low angle side light

There are really no minuses to this type of lighting. In fact, it is the ideal, all around light in which to shoot.

Sidelight creates pleasing shadows that help define objects and scenery. Add in the low intensity and warm color cast of low angle light, and you’re in photographic nirvana. Fire away at anything and everything in sight.

For portraits, try to position your subject so the light hits about midway between the side and front (called three quarter lighting). This throws just a little bit of light on the far (shadow) side of the face and helps define facial features. The idea is to form a triangle of light on the subject’s far cheek below the eye.

Backlighting that works

Inner light by James Jordan

Back lighting. Photo by James Jordan.

Don’t count out using backlight as a photographic possibility. Backlight creates a pleasing rim of light around subjects, separating them from the background. Foliage and flowers glow.

The trick with backlighting is to ensure that your camera’s light meter doesn’t interpret all the light hitting it as needing to be stopped down – unless you’re into shooting silhouettes.

Set your camera’s exposure compensation to somewhere between -1 and -2, depending on the intensity of the backlight, to retain detail in the shadow areas of your subject. When subjects are close, the use of a reflector to bounce some light onto the front of your subjects is also helpful. The reflector adds “fill” light without using a flash.

Photographing backlit landscapes

Backlit scene by Gail Bjork

Backlit scene by Gail Bjork.

Shooting backlit landscapes is tricky, but possible. The goal is to retain detail in objects on the ground without washing out the sky. There are several ways of accomplishing this. With sunrises and sunsets, one rule of thumb is to meter on the sky with the sun just out of the bottom of the camera frame and use this as your starting exposure.

You can also help balance the tones of the ground and sky by using a graduated neutral density (GND) filter. These rectangular filters are dark at the top and gradually fade to clear. They are held in place by a holder that screws into the filter threads on your lens and allows you to slide the filter up and down to precisely place the dark/light tones to your liking. A two-stop GND filter (dark area is two f-stops darker than the clear area) is my go-to filter for sunrises and sunsets.

A third option is to shoot multiple exposures of a backlit scene with different settings for the sky and ground. If you’re up to that level of post processing images, merge them together into one image in a photo editing program that supports layers.

Taking photos on overcast days

If it’s a cloudy, overcast day, there is no need to keep your camera home.

While the sky may be gray, those clouds act as a giant diffuser of light. Overcast light is incredibly soft that creates smooth shadow transitions. Portraits are a breeze and landscapes that don’t overly feature the sky can be shot all day long.

Just be sure to set your white balance to “flash” or ‘cloudy” to restore some warmth to colors.

Making the light work for you

As with everything photographic, the more you shoot in different situations, the more you’ll understand about how those situations affect the pictures you take. And by thoroughly understanding how different types of lighting works and how to deal with them, you’ll begin to open doors to new creativity and a higher level of polish in your pictures.

About the author

James Jordan

James Jordan, Digicamhelp Contributing Writer, is owner of James Jordan Photography in Elgin, IL. His portfolio includes portraits for families, seniors and corporations, events, products, travel and landscape photography. His work has been published in travel guides and lifestyle magazines in the Midwestern U.S. A series of artistic landscape prints will be exhibited in Door County, Wisconsin in the summer of 2009.