Saturday, January 10, 2015

Using Directional Lighting

For the month of January, the 2014 version of Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge will be focusing on light and lighting. (Interested in joining the 52 Weeks Challenge? We are also starting a re-boot version kicking off from the beginning: click here to join in for 2015!)

Last week we looked at natural light and how to consider both the time of day as well as the quality of the light. This week we will expand that understanding with an introduction to directional lighting and how it can influence your photographs.

Basic Types of Directional Lighting

The "direction" of your lighting refers to the interaction between your light source (the sun or any artificial lighting), your subject, and your camera. The terminology used describes the location of the light in relationship to your subject, not to you as the photographer.

The most common types of directional lighting are front lighting, side lighting, and back lighting. Diffused lighting occurs when light is scattered and does not seem to come from a discernible location (think, a cloudy day with dim light and no shadows). You can read more about diffused lighting in last week's post about Ideas for Natural Light Photography.

Front Lighting

Front lighting is probably the most common form of directional lighting in photography. With front lighting, the light is shining from behind you, as the photographer, and it is illuminating the front of your subject. Front lighting eliminates most shadows as it evenly illuminates your subject.

Front lighting is in evidence in this photograph above of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. The different terraces are all receiving sunlight directly, and the only shadows are small and result from the height of the sun in the sky.

Front lighting is often criticized for making subjects appear "flat" or less interesting, because the lack of shadows give less of a feel of volume or three-dimensions. (Read more about Form and Volume here.)

On the other hand, front lighting is often used quite often in landscape or portrait photography, when the purpose is to equally illuminate a subject. Depending on what look you want in a portrait, many of us would be quite content to eliminate the look of shadows and added-dimension (think: wrinkles or bags under the eyes, for example).

Side Lighting

With side lighting, the light moves from facing directly at your subject to coming off from either side. As a photographer, you want to think about keeping the light off to the side of either of your shoulders. Light coming directly side-on at your subject (a 90 degree angle) will tend to over-exaggerate shadows and dimension, whereas portrait photographers often use an approximately 45 degree angle between the light and the subject for a dramatic look.

Side lighting is also common in still life photography and mimics the look of famous still life paintings as well. In this photograph of the orange and clementines, the light was coming through a nearby window at around 45 degrees to the subject. You can tell this most easily by looking at the brightest spot reflected by the peels - a front-lit orange would have the spot directly centered, while a 90-degree light would have the spot exactly on the right-hand side.

Side lighting is used to add texture and dimension to your photograph. (You can read more about Texture as an Element of Visual Design here.) You can see how the main shadows of the fruit give a sense of its shape and its three-dimensional nature. The side lighting also illuminates all the different little freckles and dimples in the peel, which provide that texture and interest. Side lighting is often used to add drama or strong emotion to a scene or portrait, and it is commonly combined with black and white processing.

Back Lighting

The final main category of directional lighting is back lighting. In back lighting, you light source is located directly behind your subject (which often means that it is shining directly into your camera lens). You will want to experiment with moving your camera around slightly, relative to your subject and the lighting, to avoid overpowering your image by including the light source directly.

These two photographs provide a comparison of the difficulties of using back lighting. With the composition above, the sun itself is in the photograph, and its brightness overpowers the entire corner of the image where it is located. There is also evidence of sun flare (that bright purplish spot near the middle in the bottom) that impacts the image.

By contrast, in this photograph, the sun is shining just off the left-hand corner of the image. By not including the sun within the frame, it is easier to properly expose for the entire photograph.

Back lighting is used most commonly right around sunrise or sunset, as the low angle of the sun makes it easier to place it behind your subject. The back lighting here adds drama to the frozen plants as well as the golden glow of morning light. With portraits, back lighting is often used to provide what is known as "rim lighting" or that glowing light behind loose hair.

Back lighting is also used to create interesting and dramatic silhouettes. To create a silhouette, you want to position yourself so that your subject is blocking the light source. Here, you can see the location of the early-morning sun from its reflection in the lake. By positioning the tree directly blocking it, the tree and shore become black silhouettes, as do the two soaring birds.

Watch Your Lighting

Pay attention to the direction and angle of your lighting this week, whether you are shooting indoors or out. Try moving yourself, your subject, or your lighting to consider different arrangements and relationships between the three. See how it impacts your photography and find the look that works best for you!

Share a link or a photograph in the comments below, or consider joining the BYP 52 Weeks Google+ Community (or the brand-new 52 Weeks 2015) to share your weekly photograph and see what others are capturing.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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