If you’re struggling to understand light direction and why it matters in photography, then you’ve come to the right place.
Because in this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about lighting direction–so that you can confidently operate your camera in all sorts of lighting conditions.
And you can come away with gorgeous photos.
Let’s get started.
Table of contents
What Is Directional Light?
It’s important to know:
Not all light has a direction.
Some light is so soft and diffused that it doesn’t have any type of direction at all, which means that it casts essentially zero shadow and looks the same, no matter how you position your subject.
Directional light, on the other hand, clearly comes from somewhere.
It can come from behind your subject. Or in front of your subject. Or above your subject. Or any number of other places.
But it has a direction, and is therefore called directional light.
Note that directional light causes shadows, because your subject will be lit from one direction, and shaded from another.
Also note that there’s really a directional light spectrum; light can be very directional (if it’s harsh), medium-level directional (if it’s directional, but softer so as to cast less shadow), slightly directional, and non-directional.
Very briefly, let me point out that essentially all light that comes from flashes and strobes is directional. It has to be, because a flash isn’t big enough to cover your subject from every angle with soft, even lighting.
Sunny days also offer directional light, because the sunlight comes from a particular point in the sky and lights the subject from one side only.
Heavily overcast days, however, feature non-directional light.
Because the light is deeply diffused by the clouds, which causes it to softly and evenly wrap around the subject.
Related Lesson: How to Take Photos with the Sun Behind the Subject
The Five Key Lighting Directions
If you’re working with directional light, then there is an infinite of possible lighting directions.
But there are just five essential lighting directions you need to know:
Each of these lighting directions will give you a different result–and so it pays to understand each one of them, and how they’ll affect your photography.
So let’s take a look at every lighting direction, starting with:
Frontlight is the most common type of light for beginning photographers to use, because it does a good job of evenly lighting your subject without causing too many problems.
Here’s an example of a frontlit shot:
Generally speaking, frontlight will give you a well-lit subject, so it can be a good go-to when in a pinch.
But frontlight also results in very flat images, because your subject doesn’t have any shadows that can be seen by your camera.
Note: More shadows equals more three-dimensionality. And three-dimensional images are generally stronger than flat images.
Frontlight is also a very strong type of lighting because it hits your subject directly. That’s part of the reason why bird photographers and wildlife photographers love frontlight; it keeps the light nice and bright, so they can capture sharp images!
You can produce frontlight in a few different ways:
Using an on-camera flash (either your built-in camera flash or a flash mounted to your camera hotshoe), or by shooting early or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky.
If you do shoot when the sun is low in the sky and you want frontlight, note that you’ll need to position yourself so that your shadow points toward your subject.
And the more precisely your shadow arrows toward your subject, the flatter the frontlighting will be.
If you’re a wildlife or a bird photographer, frontlight is invaluable.
And if you’re a street photographer, frontlight can also work.
But if you’re a landscape, architectural, or portrait photographer, I’d recommend staying away from frontlight. You’ll often want more three-dimensional images than frontlight can provide.
Instead, I recommend you work with the next type of lighting:
Sidelight refers to light that comes from off to the side of your subject.
It looks like this:
And sidelight, unlike frontlight, offers a lot of three-dimensionality. It illuminates one side of your subject while casting shadows on the other half, making for significant depth, which in turn creates drama.
Now, sidelight is dramatic, but it can be a bit more difficult to find and work with.
Because even minor adjustments to the position of your subject can radically change the effect of the sidelight. Facial features can go in and out of shadow, for instance, or you can end up with unwanted shadows in the worst places.
Sidelight also comes with a tonal problem:
Cameras struggle to capture scenes that include both very bright areas and very dark areas. And since sidelight illuminates one part of your subject while shrouding the other part in shadow, your images may turn out a bit more contrast-heavy and lacking in detail than you’d like.
That said, landscape photographers love to use sidelight for realistic, three-dimensional scenics. They wait until the sun is low in the sky, and then capture lots of gorgeous images with beautiful background skies and sidelit foregrounds.
Portrait photography is another genre that has heavily embraced sidelight. While it’s not as common to see a true sidelighting setup (also known as “split lighting”), you do often get lights positioned off to the side of the subject in order to add depth.
Even genres where sidelight is less common, such as wildlife photography, still do a lot of great work with sidelight. Because while drama isn’t always good, it can make for stunningly moody images on occasion.
Backlight comes from behind your subject.
It’s the most versatile of the lighting directions, because you can use it for a bunch of different effects.
For instance, you can create images with softly-lit subjects and bright backgrounds.
Or images with stunning background bokeh.
Or images with dramatic silhouettes.
All thanks to the power of backlight.
While backlit images tend to be the most noticeable when they’re taken in nature, thanks to the powerful sun, there are plenty of indoor photographers that shoot with backlight of some sort. Product photographers and portrait photographers, for instance, love using what’s known as a “rim light” to create a glow around the subject.
You do have to be very careful when working with backlight, however. Backlight is versatile, but that also means that it’s easy to create the wrong look, by making your photo too dark or too bright.
For instance, you might seek to get a nice portrait, but accidentally create a silhouette like this one:
You’re also at risk for lens flare, which is caused by the sun aiming directly inside the lens:
And while both of these effects can be very artistic, they’re often not what you want.
Therefore, if you’re working with backlight, I recommend you carefully position the sun so that it’s blocked by your subject, or blocked by another object in the frame. That way, you can avoid lens flare.
I also recommend you take several test shots, and also check your LCD frequently. Don’t be afraid to use exposure compensation if necessary, because it’s important that you get the right exposure in camera!
Pure overhead light comes from directly above your subject.
And while it’s rare to find photographers using this, you do often encounter types of overhead light, both in the studio and in nature.
Now, as a rule, photographers rarely shoot with overhead light.
When the light comes from overhead, it creates unpleasant shadows that fall over your subject in unflattering ways. Plus, overhead light, in nature, comes when the sun is high in the sky, so the light is also very harsh.
That’s not what portrait photographers are after, and it’s not what landscape photographers, wildlife photographers, and macro photographers want, either.
Street photographers and architectural photographers often do like harsh light, for one big reason:
It creates all sorts of interesting, dramatic, contrast-heavy shadows.
That allows for very cool results, with lots of dark tones and light tones, all mixed together.
In the studio, portrait and product photographers also use some forms of overhead lighting. You’ll often see portrait subjects lit from above and slightly behind, to better illuminate their hair (the “hairlight,” it’s called!).
And portrait and product subjects are often lit from up and to the side, in order to create slight downward-moving shadows, which adds to the three-dimensionality.
Upward lighting is the final, and rarest, form of directional lighting in photography.
As the name suggests, upward lighting comes from underneath your subject, and will upward-moving shadows.
The classic example of upward lighting is from Halloween photos, where a child lights their face using a flashlight held under the chin.
Not very flattering, right?
And it’s rare to find upward lighting in nature, because the sun doesn’t come from below subjects. The rare exceptions are when a person is standing above a bright object, like lava or a fire, or when a person is lit by a reflective surface of some sort (such as white sand on a beach).
But, while upward lighting isn’t very popular, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get featured. Portrait photographers sometimes light their subjects from below using a weaker light, while more strongly lighting the subject from above; this is called “clamshell lighting.” You see, the upward lighting helps remove some of the shadows caused by the high-up main clamshell light, which keeps the photo looking good.
You can also use reflectors to generate some upward light and punch up shadows under a portrait subject’s chin.
So don’t undervalue the power of upward light, because it certainly can make a difference!
How Light Direction Affects Photography: Conclusion
As you now know, light direction is a huge part of photography.
After all, without light direction, there would be no dramatic sidelight, no flat frontlight, no gorgeous backlit silhouettes–nothing!
But now that you know all about these types of lighting…
…you’re well-equipped to create some beautiful masterpieces of your own!
Directional light refers to light with a clear direction. In other words, it hits your subject from a particular angle. You can have directional light that hits your subject from above, from below, or from any side.
There are three very popular types of light: backlight, frontlight, and sidelight (where the light comes from behind the subject, from in front of the subject, and off to the side of the subject, respectively). But you can also shoot with upward light, where the light comes from underneath your subject, or with overhead light, where the light comes from above your subject. Note that you can mix lighting types for interesting results–for instance, you might use overhead light to create interesting shadows, but then put a reflector under your subject’s chin for a bit of upward light to cancel out dark areas.
Not necessarily. Frontlight is nice in some situations (such as when you want a very evenly-illuminated wildlife subject), but it’s also very flat, which makes it a lot less interesting. Sidelight, on the other hand, tends to produce much more three-dimensional images.
Backlight is where light comes from directly behind your subject. It’s very powerful, and it’s one of the best types of light for more dramatic images, but it’s also very difficult to work with. You have to be careful not to end up with a very dark subject and a very bright background (unless that’s what you’re going for, of course!).
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.