Front Light Photography: A Complete Guide

What is front lighting in photography? And how can you use the front light to capture great photos?

In this article, I explain everything to you:

  • What is the front light
  • When to use the front light (and when to avoid it)
  • How to work with the front light to create the best images

Front-light photography is powerful, it looks great and can definitely improve your wallet – so if you’re ready to become a master of lighting, then let’s dive in, starting with the basics:

What is frontal photography?

The front light illuminates the subject of the frontwhich means that the light itself usually comes from rear the photograph. In other words, the light goes over the photographer’s shoulder and hits the subject head-on.

Since front lighting hits objects directly, front-lit photos tend to feature limited shadows and eye-catching, full-face subjects. Here is an example of a front-lit image; pay attention to how the front of the hook is bright and lacks shadows:

Note, however, that the front light can come from high above the subject, well below the subject, or at subject level. The angle of the front light source will determine the strength and placement of the shadow. While a front-lit scene from subject level will exhibit limited (or no) shadows, a front-lit scene from above will typically exhibit visible shadows (e.g., shadows under the nose and the chin of a portrait subject).

Monk with a camera front light photography
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/5.6 | 1/320s | ISO200

When to use the front light?

Since the front light produces minimal shadows, front-lit photography tends to appear flat and lack depth. It is not necessarily a evil thing, but if you’re looking to create deep three-dimensional images, sidelight – which comes from beside your subject and has lots of shadows – is often the best choice.

On the other hand, the front light is ideal for capturing two-dimensional abstract photos.

yellow and rust textured front light photography
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/6.3 | 1/640s | ISO200

It is also suitable for many types of nature photography – including birds, wildlife and macro photography – as it tends to illuminate the subject and the background clearly.

I’m particularly fond of using front light in portrait photography:

Portrait of Akha woman front light photography
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/5.6 | 1/250s | ISO200

Front lighting makes skin look smoother, especially when the light is filtered and soft, while side lighting tends to accentuate skin blemishes and wrinkles.

Also, when a subject is lit from the front, it is easier to capture a well-exposed image.

Why? The front light tends to be very same, so your camera won’t have a hard time determining the correct automatic settings. For this reason, if you like to use your camera in auto or semi-automatic exposure mode, the front light will often give you excellent results.

woman wearing straw hat front light photography
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/11 | 1/160s | ISO 400

Tips and techniques for front light photography

In this section, I share my top tips and tricks for front-facing photography settings, lighting choices, and more.

1. Use an open shade for front-lit portraits

As I explained in the previous section, front lighting is ideal for portrait photography. However, you have to be careful when doing front-lit portraits, because unless you’re working on an overcast day or in the late afternoon, bright sunlight will produce all sorts of nasty shadows. It will also cause your subject to squint.

My recommendation? Maintain the direction of the front lighting – with your subject facing the light source – but move them into the shade. Position your subject near the edge of the shadow, but don’t let them cross the shadow line; this way their face will be softly lit and they won’t have to squint, but you will have plenty of bright light to work with.

By the way, you should also be careful with reflective objects. Light can reflect off the ground, nearby cars, or the walls of buildings, and by positioning your subject close to these reflective light sources, you can achieve beautiful effects.

Finally, if you’re stuck with harsh midday light and can’t move your subject to a shaded area, I encourage you to bring in some artificial lighting. A flash, LED panel or even a reflector will reduce harsh shadows and add shape to your subject.

happy teenage boy front light photography
Nikon D800 | 55mm | f/11 | 1/125s | ISO200

2. Trust your camera’s exposure recommendations

As I pointed out above, the front lighting is very same – meaning that, when pointing your camera at a front-lit subject, you’ll usually get a good exposure reading.

Of course, your camera can always make mistakes, especially when shooting very bright or very dark subjects. But overall, the front light makes exposures easier, whether you’re using aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, auto mode, or even manual mode.

So when working with front lighting, don’t worry too much about exposure settings and exposure compensation. Instead, examine your images for exposure issues, but let your camera do the heavy lifting!

two hill tribe women in thailand front light photography
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/4 | 1/640s | ISO 400

3. Don’t be afraid to change the subject

Front lighting may produce flat images.

And while flat planes can look interesting, many types of photography thrive on three-dimensionality and depth.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution:

If your photo looks a little flat, then turn your subject. This works great for portraits, and it’s also a great trick for shooting products and some still life subjects.

Of course you don’t want to turn your subject also dramatically, but go for a subtle twist and see what you think. If you are working with a portrait subject, ask her to turn slowly and observe carefully how the light and shadows affect her face. (You may only need one light rotate to create a more three-dimensional photo!)

4. Pay attention to the height of the light

The height of the light source will greatly affect your photos, so whenever you are shooting from the front, you must pay attention to the position of the light!

Note that this is true for natural light and artificial light – although you have more control over a flash or LED panel. If the sun is positioned too high or too low, you’ll often have to wait a few hours or come back another day, but if you don’t like the height of your external flash, you can simply raise or lower the light stand. Make sense ?

So when using a flash or continuous light, constantly test the height of the light. And as you work, observe how the position of the light affects shadows and fill effects.

It will also be necessary to pay attention to unpleasant reflections. When shooting shiny subjects, for example, light positioned at the same level as the subject will reflect directly into the camera lens, producing a distracting highlight. To avoid these reflections, try moving the light up, down or (slightly) to the side.

teenage girl dressed as the mad hatter front light photography
Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/16 | 1/200s | ISO200

5. Film during the golden hours

The afternoon front light might look nice, but if you want really on the level for your photos, I encourage you to take photos during the golden hours, which is the hour or two after sunrise and before sunset, when the sun is low in the sky and the light is a beautiful golden color.

On the one hand, the low sun produces very same front light, which produces minimal shadows and very detailed results.

Also, the light is more diffused – that is, softer – during the golden hours, so the shadows that To do appearing on your subject will be much more flattering.

And the warm, golden light is almost always amazing:

man at market during light photography before golden hour
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/5.6 | 1/160s | ISO 400

Front Light Photography: Final Words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know everything about front lighting, when you should use it, and how you can adjust your settings and scenes for the best results.

So get out there with your camera and do some front lighting exercises. See what you think of the results. Observe your subjects carefully and review the images as you work. Soon you’ll be using the front light like a pro!

Now your turn :

When do you plan to use front lighting in your photos? Did you take any front-lit photos you’re proud of? Share your thoughts – and your photos! – in the comments below.

Experiment with front lighting. When you can, shoot your subject with side lighting and backlighting as well. Then compare the differences between these photos and determine which lighting works best for your subject.

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