Lessons in Light (Part 3)
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Direction of Light
The final aspect of light to consider is simply the direction from which it originates. In nature, light typically emanates from various directions above and to our side, casting shadows downward and anchoring objects to the earth. The directionality of light can dramatically affect the rendition of your subject and the overall mood of a photograph.
It can, for example, emphasise the texture and form of a building's facade or reduce it to an abstract shape ominously silhouetted against a gray sky. Since we are typically used to observing the effects of light on other people, it's often easier to visualise the impact direction can have in a portrait. Still, the principles described here apply in any situation. Let's look at some general lighting positions.
Frontal lighting emanates from the camera’s position. This position creates flat, even illumination that reduces the presence of shadows and texture. It is commonly used as a key light in portraiture and beauty photography and is generally considered flattering. This position is also typically used for fill lighting to reduce contrast in a scene without introducing additional visible shadows.
Side light originates from beside the subject and is excellent for creating drama and emphasising depth, dimension, and texture in black & white. When used as a key light in portraiture, this direction can visibly divide a subject's face into light and shadow, creating a stark and moody look.
A three-quarter light is positioned off-axis to the camera, often midway between the front and side positions. This direction typically emphasises form, creating a three-dimensional effect. Though commonly used across all genres of photography, it is popular for key lights in fashion and portraiture when wanting to create drama while remaining flattering to the subject.
A back light originates from behind the subject. It's excellent at emphasising shape and reducing or even eliminating form and texture. Back lighting can also throw the subject into silhouette, a popular effect in street photography. Lights positioned behind the subject are often used to define edges or create separation when combined with other sources.
A light positioned over the top of the subject is called a top light. As with side light, it's perfect for emphasising depth and texture and adding a little drama to a picture. The sun at midday is a typical example of top lighting.
When used as a key light in portraiture, this direction can create deep shadows under your subject's brows, obscuring their eyes. It’s also commonly combined with other sources to define the top of a person's head.
Under lights are typically positioned in front of the subject some distance below the camera lens. Consider the effect of sunlight reflecting from the surface of a lake or the eerie glow on faces gathered around a campfire at night. Without context, light emanating from below can invoke a feeling of disorientation or unease in the viewer.
When used as a key light in portraiture, it can distort a subject's features. Underlighting can be combined with other sources to fill shadows under a person's nose or chin. However, you should ensure not to introduce additional shadows in those situations.
As you look at photos, practice analyzing the lighting. Study the quality of the sources and think about how they shape the subject. For example, pay attention to the direction of the light and the edge quality of the shadows. In the case of a portrait, look at the person’s eyes and notice the reflection of the primary light source, referred to as a catch light.
A careful examination of the catch lights can often give insight into how a scene was lit, including the position and type of the sources.
Regardless of the type of subjects you photograph, light is vital—and thankfully, it's everywhere. Observe and study light in all conditions and situations, and learn to see the interplay between it and everything around you. Light is not just a tool for sight; it's your partner in creating breathtaking black & white images.