Side Lighting in Photography: A Comprehensive Guide

Side lighting adds atmosphere and can give a wonderful sense of depth to your photos. But what is side lighting? And how can you work with side lighting to achieve the best possible results?

In this article, we will consider side lighting in detail. I’ll show you how to use it, explain when it works, and provide lots of tips and examples for starting your own side-light photography.

Let’s dive in!

What is side lighting in photography?

early morning side lighting on a landscape
Early morning side lighting.

As the name suggests, side lighting illuminates your subject from one side. That’s basically all there is to it; it’s just light coming from the side of your subject (as opposed to behind or in front of the subject).

Of course, while it looks simple enough, not all side-lit photos are alike. There are many variation possibilities. The light can be coming directly next to your subject – at a 90 degree angle to the camera lens – or at a 45 degree angle in front of your subject, at a 45 degree angle behind your subject, etc The light can be hard or soft. It can be natural or artificial. It can be ambient or added. What matters is the general direction of the light.

Now if the light is coming from the side and hitting your subject it will naturally create a shadow. Specifically, the side of the subject facing away from the light will be darkened relative to the side of the subject facing the light. Depending on the characteristics of the light, this may mean that the shadow side of your subject has little or no visible detail.

For example, when a subject is lit from one side by a bright, harsh light source, the dark side will often fall into a deep shadow. This is especially pronounced when there is very little reflected or ambient light:

portrait of a senior man with side lighting

When to use the side light?

Side lighting is ideal when you want to accentuate texture or add a sense of depth to an image.

If you photograph a flat, textured surface with front lighting, you will produce an image of the flat surface with no real depth – the surface will appear smooth. But if you photograph the same textured surface with a light positioned at a low angle and off to one side, the texture will become apparent. Why? Because the viewer will see the shadows created by the side light!

Similarly, lighting a building from the front can make it appear very two-dimensional. If you wait for the sun to move to one side, the result will have much more depth. Again, this is largely due to shadows created by side lighting.

monk with side light on dark background

Lighting from the side of a portrait often increases the feeling of emotion. The shadow adds drama to the subject’s face and highlights shapes and wrinkles far more than a flat front light ever could.

During golden hour, the sun is low in the sky, so it provides amazing side light. Simply position your subject so that the sun shines on it from one side; the shapes created by the shadows can then be used to add interest to your compositions.

welder with blue side light

Getting Started with Sidelight: The Basics

To get the most out of side light in photography, you need to be able to control the position of the light and/or your subject. (If you don’t control either of these, you’ll have to be patient and wait for the sun to move to the right place.)

If you decide to use artificial lighting, simply grab a flash or continuous light source, then point it away from the side of your subject. Remember that you have a wide range of options. As I pointed out above, the side light doesn’t need to be at a 90 degree angle to your lens! A 60 degree angle, a 45 degree angle, or even a 30 degree angle will all produce effective side lighting. Each position will, however, create a unique look, so you will need to carefully select a lighting angle based on your interests.

In other words, you can put the light source to the side and slightly in front of your subject for a brighter, less dramatic effect, or you can put the light source to the side and slightly behind your subject for an ultra-dramatic effect. . , shadow look. Another option is to create a true split light effect by positioning the light source directly to the side of your subject, so that one half of the subject is brightly lit while the other half is cast in shadow.

Pro Tip: When you’re new to side lighting, continuous lights are easier to use. They will allow you to see the exact effect created by the light before you take a picture, whereas the effect of an external flash can really only be gauged. after you press the shutter button.

With continuous lighting, you can constantly experiment with different looks and you won’t need to capture dozens of test shots. You can move the light around and observe how the shadows change, which will quickly give you a good understanding of the effects of side lighting.

Close up of steam train engine for side lighting photography

Now, if you’re working with natural or ambient light, you probably won’t be able to control the direction of the light source. But all is not lost! To get side lighting, simply move your matter In place. Position your subject so the light hits it from the side, then capture lots of beautiful images!

Note: When taking side-lit portraits, you can tilt your subject so that some light spills past the nose. This creates the beautiful moody Rembrandt effect; a small triangle of light will appear on the opposite cheek, while the rest of the face remains in shadow.

When shooting something you can’t move, like a tree or a building, you’ll have to wait until the sun is in the right place in the sky. (Sometimes you’ll have to go back to another time of year!) Sun tracking apps can be really helpful!

landscape with river and mountains with side lighting

Side light vs front light vs backlight

The beauty of side light comes from combinationWhere balance, shadows and light. But if you use the front light or the backlight, this combination will be very limited (or non-existent); the direct front light, for example, does not create obvious shadows, while the direct backlight ensures that your entire the subject is plunged into shadow.

Thanks to the mixture of shadow and light, the side light produces more of a three-dimensional effect than That is backlight or front light. The shadows give an illusion of depth and the result looks wonderfully real.

So if you want to faithfully reproduce a three-dimensional subject, side lighting is usually the best. I would also recommend using side lighting when working with flat subjectsabove all if these subjects are very reflective. If you position a flat subject, like a painting, so that the light is directly in front of it (and behind your camera), you will inevitably capture an unpleasant glare effect – but if you move the light to the side, you reduce the risk of glare (plus you’ll capture the texture of the subject while you’re at it!).

woman walking in the rain with a large pot on her head
Backlighting makes subjects appear apartment.

Backlighting leaves the front of your subject in shadow and black against the background. To capture a well-exposed subject, you’ll often need to blow out the background, which tends to be very upbeat and even airy. Alternatively, you can expose for the background and let the subject turn into a silhouette, which will produce an image entirely different vibe. Both of these approaches make for interesting images, but neither will produce the mysterious atmosphere that makes side lighting special.

As for the front light: it tends to create photos that lack drama. The direct angle evenly illuminates all parts of the subject, and while the resulting images have plenty of detail, they won’t offer much ambience or atmosphere.

close-up portrait of a man
Front lighting also makes a subject look flatter than side lighting.

Advanced Side Lighting Tips and Techniques in Photography

The key to creating powerful side-lit photos is shadows, so it’s important to manage them carefully. Ask yourself: how far do I want my shadows to be? Do I want a high contrast look? This will depend on ambient lighting, but it can also be controlled through the use of reflectors and other lights.

When you want deep shadows that create a lot of mystery, it’s best to use just one light source. The more additional lights you include (or even the more ambient light you allow in the scene), the brighter the shadows will appear.

The level of contrast in your photo also helps influence the mood. The darker the shadows, the more they hide detail. It can help add a more moody feel to a photo. Adding a second (fill) light to soften the shadows, on the other hand, creates a softer feel. Careful control of fill light brightness can make or break your photos.

Also, adding a sidelight to a subject can help separate it from the background. With the main light turned off on one side, more light can fall on your subject – and if you adjust your exposure to produce a detailed subject, the background can turn out a bit underexposed (or very underexposed). This will help separate the subject and the background and add more depth to your images.

road side dummy with side lighting and fill flash.
Adding fill light softens shadows.

Sidelighting in Photography: Final Words

When managed well, side light can produce some very interesting and moody results.

As with any type of lighting, be sure to expose your subject carefully and be sure to spend plenty of time adjusting the power of the main light relative to other lights and reflectors. The intensity of the shadows will contribute to the overall mood of the images.

So the next time you’re gearing up for a photoshoot, take the time to do some side-light photography. Observe where the shadows fall. Experiment with light and subject positioning. This will help you get the right balance between light and shadow and you will create the mood you want to create.

What do you think of the side lighting? Will you use it in your photos? Share your opinion in the comments below!

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