How To Find Beautiful Light For Your Photos

Inside: Light can make or break a photo.  Learning how to see and harness the different types of light in photography has to power to take your photos to the next level.

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Types of Light In Photography

Once I learned how to use my camera in manual mode I thought I’d be guaranteed beautiful photos.

Not quite so.

While the odds were now more in my favor, I still found that some of my photos were great, while others seemed lifeless and boring, or unflattering to my subject.

What made the difference?  Simply the light.

Aside from learning to control your camera settings, knowing how to find and work with different types of light in photography is vital to making great photos.

A great photographer learns how to recognize and harness different types of light in photography to set the mood, to flatter her subject, to tell her story, and to make magic in her photos.

I’ve heard it said that when taking photos you should first find (or look for) your light, then find your subject.  Before we pick up our cameras we should take a moment to notice and consider the light. 

What great advice!

Beautiful light has the power to make an ordinary moment extraordinary. 

types of light in photography

Identifying The Types of Light In Photography

As we examine different types of light in photography, it’s helpful to think in terms of the light’s DIRECTION, its INTENSITY (or QUALITY), and its COLOR.

The color of light isn’t covered in this post. Be sure to check out this post on color temperature in photography.

This post will focus on direction and intensity.

Light Has A Direction

The direction of the light that hits your subject will be

  • from the front (called front light, or flat light)
  • from the side (called side light, or directional light)
  • from the back (called back light)

The First Type of Light in Photography: Front Light (aka Flat or Even Light)

When the light hits your subject from the front and falls evenly across their features, your subject is front-lit.

This means the light is coming from somewhere behind and/or above your camera.

Front light is flat and even.  It produces little contrast between light and shadow on your subject. 

In this example, my little one had light falling on her from the skylight above her head, and windows to both her left and right.  She was looking up toward the light and her face is evenly lit.

It’s a good photo and a moment I’m happy to have preserved because it’s a face I see often looking up at me, but overall there’s not much contrast.  It’s “flat.”

In this example, my little one was looking up toward the camera again, which pointed her face directly at the light source, which was the sky above and behind me.  Again, her face is evenly lit with few shadows.

Advantages of Shooting In Front Light

Front light is easy to work with, especially for beginners.

When shooting in manual mode, it’s easy to find a good spot on the skin to take a meter reading. If you’re learning manual mode, front light is a great place to start.  Front light also tends to work well in Auto Mode.

{If you need help understanding manual mode, check out How to Use Your DSLR Camera.}

You can easily find front light indoors by shooting with your subject directly facing a window.

Due to the low contrast front light produces, front light can smooth the skin and be very flattering for portraits because it won’t accentuate any bumps, wrinkles or imperfections.

Disadvantages of Shooting In Front Light

Front light is called flat light because it can be considered boring, or uninteresting, due to the lack of contrast it creates. 

The Second Type of Light in Photography: Side Light (aka Directional Light)

Side Light, sometimes referred to as directional light, happens when the light in an image is coming from one direction.  The light source is to the side of both your subject and your camera.

This often happens indoors when the light is coming in from a window and hitting your subject on only one side, while the other side of your subject has little or no light falling on it and is in shadow.

In these examples you can see clearly that the light was coming from one direction – from the window:

In the photo below, notice how the right side (camera left) of his face is bright and the left side (camera right) has more shadows.

Same here – the window to her right casts light on one side of her face, while her left side, as well as parts of the room further from the window, fall into shadow.

Advantages of Shooting in Side Light

Side light adds dimension, depth, and interest to your images because it creates contrast between light and shadow.

Photos with directional lighting can be great candidates for editing in black and white.  The contrast helps ensure that your black and white images won’t look “flat.”

Disadvantages of Shooting In Side Light

Side lighting can accentuate imperfections in the skin.

Also, it’s not easy to get a properly exposed photo in directional light unless you know how to control your camera settings. Thus, it can be more challenging for beginners.

Tips For Shooting In Side Light

Shooting in manual mode and using spot metering (a camera setting that tells your camera to read the light from a small, pinpointed portion of the scene, rather than the entire scene) works best. 

Because of the differences in light and shadow throughout the scene your camera will have a hard time getting proper exposure in auto mode. 

When you tell your camera to expose for the bright areas of the scene, the dark areas will fall away into shadow.  This is one of my favorite things about shooting in manual mode – being able to harness the light in interesting ways.

If your subject is looking at the camera try to position them at a 45 degree angle to the light source (the window). This will ensure that you get good “catchlights” (reflections) in the eyes, which will bring the photo to life.  If they face away from the light source, their eyes will look “dead.”

Look at this photo again and notice the catchlights in the eyes:

The Third Type of Light in Photography: Back Light

When your photo is lit from behind your subject, this is called backlight, or backlighting.

Advantages of Shooting in Back Light

Backlight is my personal favorite!  I love the magical quality it can bring to an image. 

You can capture beautiful sun flares and sparkly background light that make your images stand out.  I incorporate backlight in my images every time I get the chance!

natural light in photography
natural light in photography
types of natural light photography

Backlight and front light can be combined to light your subject on both sides, giving you a beautiful portrait with magical back light.

The image below was taken when the sun was getting low.  My subject is lit from the front with light coming from an area of open sky in front of her AND by the sunset light behind her:

natural light in photography

Disadvantages of Shooting In Back Light

Like side lighting, it’s nearly impossible to get a properly exposed photo in back lighting unless you know how to control your camera settings. Thus, it can be more challenging for beginners.  Getting your camera to focus in backlight also becomes more challenging.

Tips For Shooting In Back Light

Shooting in manual mode and using spot metering works best so you can tell your camera to expose for your subject and not the sun or other bright light in the scene.

Shooting at a wide aperture produces lovely round bokeh when the sun is filtered through leaves or other objects that partially block the light.  Bokeh (BOH-kə) is the term used to describe how a lens renders out of focus points of light.

types of light in photography

It’s best not to shoot directly into the sun because it can overpower an image with haze, not to mention hurt your eyes.

The photo below is “hazy.”  It lacks contrast due to how the sun was shining into my lens.  Changing your angle slightly so the sun isn’t shining directly into your lens can give you a better result.

types of natural light photography

Or, you can block the sun with your subject so it’s not shining directly into your lens.  If I’d gotten down lower so the sun was blocked by one of the boys the image would have been less hazy.

Using a lens hood can also make it easier to shoot in back light.  It will help you grab focus and avoid too much lens flare or haze.

There’s A Lot To Learn About Light!

This post is a work in progress.  I’ll be adding to it over the coming weeks with information on the quality of light and lots of tips for finding and shooting in different types of light.

Be sure to Pin This Post to your photography board so you can come back for updates:

4 thoughts on “How To Find Beautiful Light For Your Photos”

  1. salam,
    I like taking pictures and I find courses expensive.
    hank you so much for the insight now I see a difference when I take pictures because I consider the light.


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