You know that the type of light (e.g., natural, artificial) can have a dramatic impact on your photographs. Did you know that the direction or position of light is just as important? Where you place your lighting source can influence elements such as shadows, depth, texture, and brightness in the final print. Here, a brief primer on front, back, and side lighting.
Front lighting is when you place your light source in front of your subject, and to the back of the photographer. This lighting technique is ideal to use for portrait photography since subjects tend to be evenly lit from all angles. The one place where front lighting can pose a problem is outdoors in direct sunlight. To prevent your subject from squinting in direct light, seek a location with partial shade for your photograph. The shade will act as a natural diffuser for the sunlight, scattering and softening the light so it will not be as harsh.
Back lighting is essentially the opposite of front lighting; that is, the light source is placed behind the subject and in front of the photographer. Photographers often use back lighting in portrait photography to create a warm glow around their subject, often referred to as rim lighting. Back lighting is also used when a photographer wants to create a silhouette of his or her subject. In this case, a strong light source is needed and the photographer must set his or her exposure so that the brightest part of the scene is correctly exposed. When done correctly, the final image will cast the subject as a dark outline against a bright background. One final use of back lighting is to highlight details in semi-transparent objects, like flowers or leaves. When a photographer uses a back light to capture these subjects in a photograph, the light will shine through the semi-transparent object, revealing texture that might not have otherwise been picked up with a camera.
Side lighting is used to illuminate just one side of a subject, allowing the other side to remain in shadow. Side lighting, unlike front and back lighting, is used by photographers to create volume. Depending on the angle of the light, a photographer can use side lighting to bring out a variety of textures, contours, shadows, and depth. Side lighting’s ability to coax out detail makes it ideal for highlighting facial features in portraits, and landscape and still life photographers rely on the technique to emphasize texture in natural objects, like rocks, sand, and leaves. Of course, there are times when having shadows and added depth in a photograph is not ideal. For these occasions, two light sources can be employed, one on either side of the subject, to create an evenly lit effect.
Just like experimenting with different types of light, the best way to get comfortable with shooting photographs using front, back, and side lighting is to get out and start taking pictures. With experience, you get a feel for when to use each type to best effect and become more confident in your photography.
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