The direction of natural light can dramatically alter the way an entire scene is represented. A resourceful photographer will use this to their advantage. It’s not overly technical and requires no additional gear. The key is your ability to recognize the four basic types of light. Front, 45 degree, 90 degree, and backlight. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each.
1) Front Lighting
Also known as flat lighting, this occurs when the sun is at your back. The shadow falls directly behind the subject, essentially hiding it from the viewer. It’s typical to find this at mid-afternoon when the sun is high in the sky. If your goal is to evenly illuminate your entire scene, this can be quite effective. Since the sun is strong at this time, a photographer must expose carefully to avoid blowing out (overexposing) the highlights.
2) 45 Degree
Utilizing shadow in a composition is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, 45 degree light can reveal the shape and dimensions of a subject. You’ll find it when the sun is lower in the sky. To help visualize how this works, think of the light source as coming over just one shoulder. It’s more directional than front lighting, and therefore more dramatic. Even something as mundane as rust can take on a mysterious beauty when lit this way.
3) 90 Degree
An opportunity to capture 90 degree light happens twice each day, shortly after sunrise and just before sunset. This type of light is more extreme than 45 degree, completely illuminating only one portion of the subject while leaving the rest in heavy shadow. The bold contrast can make for an edgier exposure, adding a sense of drama to an image. With side light, a photographer can also accentuate the finer details of a surface’s texture.
Of all the directions of light, perhaps there’s no finer option than shooting directly into the sun. You can use it to bring landscapes to life, add visual interest to portraits, or highlight the color of a flower petal. Keep in mind, backlighting can be a tough scene for a camera to expose properly. If you’re not comfortable with metering manually, take several shots using exposure compensation. Bracketing this way is a quick way to handle an otherwise tricky scenario. As you’ll quickly see, the results are well worth the effort.
To help reinforce these ideas, take photo hikes at different times of day. Photographers who limit their shooting to sunrise and sunset are missing a wealth of opportunity. Each direction of light has qualities worth exploring. Some subjects will work better at high-noon, while others are more suited for 90 degree side light. This knowledge can be used to transform an ordinary scene into something splendid.
Photos and Text by Chris Corradino