Light is the photographer’s sculpting tool, and the mastery of it makes the difference between a nice, yet average snapshot, and an introspective image that commands more than a passing glance.
The three common directions of light used in photography are front lighting, side lighting, and back lighting.
Are you familiar with the well-worn adage that the designated picture-taker has to stand with his/her back to the sun, so the sun would come over their shoulders to brightly light the subject(s) being photographed? This is an acceptable rule of thumb to make sure all subjects in the photo are evenly lit, and this type of lighting is easiest for your camera to meter correctly. However, this is front lighting, which is two-dimensional and flat, providing little depth to the image. This is the same lighting that your on-camera flash produces. The crumpled paper in the front lighting image is pleasing enough. We can see its form, and the folds and creases.
Side-lighting gives a three-dimensional effect to your subject, with the combination of light and shadow revealing more depth and texture. The piece of paper has taken on a new look, revealing details that aren’t present in the first illustration. Side-lighting at a 45-degree angle is the lighting of choice for most portraits. A 90-degree angle, commonly referred to as “split” lighting is used for highly dramatic portraits as the face appears to be evenly halved with light and shadow. Additionally, this is the lighting to show texture in fabric, or bring out the coarseness of a weathered fence post.
Back-lighting is when your light source is illuminating your subject from its rear, with the light source facing your camera. A common situation — you’re inside the house, photographing someone who is sitting in front of a brightly lit window. Your subject will be outlined or “rimmed” in light, but they will be under-exposed. With back-lit subjects, your camera meter on automatic will expose for the light source (such as window mentioned above) and your subject will be in shadow. Setting your camera to compensate for back-lit subjects will then render the back-ground over-exposed. Back lighting is good for dramatic effects such as when you want to render your subject as a silhouette.
Doing this paper experiment yourself can be very useful in helping you to see the difference the various angles of light produces. You can use a stationary light source (as the sun, or a brightly lit window) and move your piece of paper to the various angles; or you can use a movable light source (lamp, floodlight) and move it around the stationary piece of paper.
© 2010 Joan Rudder-Ward