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3 Directions Of Light Every Beginner Should Know

Light Is The Soul Of  A Photograph

Photographic camera isn’t focused on any image; there   is no line, form or texture for it. Digital sensor or film can take only the photon flux, which is projected by the camera lens.

The light is more important than the subject, because we can’t see the subject itself, we can see only the light which subject reflects. Beginner photographers notices the subject, and the professional one follows the light. Before explaining the directions of light, let me give an idea about light, and its characteristics.

sunset in a beach
Photo courtesy: Pedro Martín via Flickr

Characteristics of light

The first and foremost thing you should know about light is its quality. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is the choice of light quality. When the quality of light is bad, the photograph will not look good no matter how good the subject is.

Light can be direct and diffused. Direct light creates strong shadows while diffused light creates soft shadows. Also, it depends upon the light source and its distance from the subject. The sun, moon, sky, snow, white wall, flash are the light sources for the photographer. The farther the source is to the subject,  the softer will be the light. However, the light contrast also depends upon the source. The smaller and the farther the light source is the harder and more contrasting will be the light.

Photo Credits: Michael Woloszynowicz /500px

For example, if you make a portrait in a studio with a flash without any reflectors, the light will be very hard i.e. one part of the face will be brighter and the other side will be dark.  It would be better to put a diffuser on the flash, then the light becomes softer, because the size of the source becomes bigger.

Understanding the inverse square law will help you to know the characteristics of light. It is very significant in photography. It goes like this: the light intensity is inversely related to the squared distance from its source. In other words, when the distance between light-source and subject is doubled, the intensity of light falling on the subject will be reduced to four times.

The Three Directions of Light

There are mainly three directions of light:

  1. Front light
  2. Side light
  3. Back light

These three light direction can come directly (from light source) or indirectly (reflected light). Let me explain briefly about the light directions.

Front light

When the light source is on the front of subject or the light coming from the forward direction of the subject, it is called front lighting. Front lighting is very common as when you face the sun, an artificial light source, or flash. Front lighting creates highlights on the subject leaving shadows behind. This makes the image looks ‘flat’ or low contrast.

Houses over the water in the Columbia River in Oregon
Photo Credits: Michael Flaherty/500px

Side light

Side lighting, as the name says, is when the light coming from the subject’s side – either directly or indirectly. This type of light can be more expressive than the front lighting if you use it skillfully. It creates highlights on the side where it falls leaving shadows on the opposite side. For example, say,if you li on the right side of your friend’s face, then the shadows forms on the left side of the face. This property increases the image. So you should be very careful with the choice of exposition . The lateral light is perfect for the photos with the texture and pattern like wood, sand, mountains. Eventhough it is not a common choice of light for portrait photography, you can add drama to your portraits if you use it properly.

side lighting in a landscape photograph
Photo Credits: Stefan Thaler/500px


A subject is backlit when the light source is behind the subject. Backlighting is tricky as it confuses the camera’s light meter. Common examples are when you pose for a photography with sunset as backdrop. Backlight creates strong silhouette thereby making interesting images.

silhoutte of a frog -- backlight
Photo Credits: Irawan Subingar/500px

Your turn

Now that you know the three different directions of light, it is your turn to try it out. You can try these by changing the direction of light sources. It will help you to know how the direction of light creates highlights and shadows. Changing the direction of light creates different images with the same subject.

If you have any queries, please drop them as comments.

About the author

Paul Smith is a writer at essay writing services uk. He is an interesting person, fond of photography, travelling and have several articles about it.


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