Photo Tip Friday: The Direction of Lighting

by Mary Denman      @MaryDenman

Mary Denman Photography
One of the most important factors in great photography is understanding lighting, lighting, lighting. 

Bad lighting will ruin a great shot. While there is more that can be done with digital photography to correct bad lighting, understanding lighting goes a lot further to creating great photography.

So today we're going to go over some examples that will help you see how the direction of lighting can affect your photography. 

We're going to see what happens when light is directly behind your subject, at side angle to your subject, and in front of your subject.

Let's get started.

COLLAGE 1: Light Directly Behind the Subject by Mary Denman Photography
COLLAGE 1: My cat Lady Catherine De Bourg was sitting behind me, on the back of the sofa, basking in the sun from the door. She provided a great opportunity for me to show you the affect of sun on your subject. 

I grabbed my camera and took these two shots. 

In the first picture, you can barely see anything other than the outline of Lady. I read the light (took a meter reading) above her head, where it was the brightest. That meant I took the photo at a fast speed to compensate for the bright light, hence, the darkness of the rest of the picture. 

Then, I moved down a little to block some of the light for the next picture in the sequence. I read the light at the edge of her ear. But, because of the extreme contrast caused by the direct sun, it was still very difficult to get a good shot. 

TIP 1: Direct, bright lighting behind your subject will almost black out your subject. While this can used to create some great shots, most of the time, it will frustrate you. 

Which brings us to tip 2:

TIP 2: Move and reposition yourself so your subject is not directly backlit. Let's look at an example of how simple and effective this can be. 

COLLAGE 2: Light at an Angle on Subject by Mary Denman Photography
COLLAGE 2: I only moved a little to take the next two shots. 

In the first, the sunlight was no longer directly behind her. But it was just as bright. So what made the difference? It was at an angle behind her. 

Now, you may notice the soft "wash" look of the first photo. That's because my camera lens was in the line of the sun. The bright light across the lens creates lens flare. This can be a great way to create mood with your photography. Lens flare has a great place in photography. 

In the 2nd picture of collage 2, notice the lens flare is gone. Just like in the first collage, I only moved a little to dynamically change the feel of the shot. 

I leaned back ever so slightly to get my lens out of the direct sunlight. Hence, the very different appearance. The soft wash is gone. Lady is clearer, but there is a nice halo of light around her head. 

The pictures are very different. But personally, I don't think one is necessarily better than the other. I like them both. But which do you prefer?  

TIP 3: By having light come across or backlight your subject, you can create a soft feel or mood to your photos. 

COLLAGE 3: Light in Front of the Subject by Mary Denman Photography
COLLAGE 3: I then moved to the floor behind the sofa to take the next shots. I was looking up at her. 

Once I moved, the lighting completely changed. (Note: Lady turned to face me.) 

The light was coming in from in front of Lady, not behind her any longer. Notice how bright she is. Or at least her white patches are! Being a black & white calico makes her a bit of a challenge to photograph. (But I'm always up learning how to push my photography to get better so I can help you!)

So, what differences can we see from having the sunlight in front of Lady? 

The pictures are very clear as opposed to the soft wash from lens flare or softness from the backlighting. She also stands out in contrast to the background now. 

Notice too that she's still in direct sunlight. You can tell by the distinct, sharp lines of the shadows.

TIP 4: Bright light directly on your subject can make them clear but also cause distinct shadows. Again, this is something that can cause problems or be used to create interesting photos. In the case of collage 3, the bright light directly on Lady worked well because she has so much black fur on her face and I needed the light.  

Here are some last pics. 

COLLAGE 4: Lady was in the direct light from the window. Kuzco however, was not in direct light. He was further down the sofa and you can see though, that he is clear, but without harsh shadows. 
COLLAGE  4: Lady and Kuzco by Mary Denman Photography

Where lighting comes across your subject can have huge impact on how your shots turn out! 

So do this, grab your camera and a willing subject, a pet, a person or a plant and do an impromptu photo shoot. Move around your subject and try to create different feeling photos.

TIP 5: Sunlight an hour or two before sunset and after sunrise create what's called "magic light." When the sun is overhead, it creates harsh lines and shadows and is difficult to work with. Sometime we have no choice when we photograph someone or something, but do this experiment late in the day or early in the morning. 

I took these shots late in the afternoon.

FOR BLOGGERS: The more comfortable you get with your camera, the more confident you will be with it. Then, as you take more shots, you'll be able to use them more and more on your blog. You'll be able to create mood shots that evoke feelings. Or take clear shots that go right to the point. You'll have more inspiration for your blog and the direction it takes! 

 Hope these tips help! 

Keep on clicking!


TWEETABLE: The Direction of Lighting and how it Affects your Photography (Click to Tweet)


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  1. Hi Mary!! I'm so happy you take the time to stop by and link up with my NO RULES party!!

    Star is now a year old, very energetic and happy, and becoming a mischievous little thing lol. She is the reason why I don't get out as much in blogland these days. I've been meaning to do her 1st birthday post but haven't had the time. I really should do it soon though since her birthday was Jan 31.

    Have a great weekend :)

    1. Wow, I missed when her birthday was! I'll remember now. My daughter's is Jan 29, mine is Jan. 30 and Star's is the 31st! You'll get back to blogging in due time! Just glad you're back. :)

  2. You are a cat person! No wonder you do great headshot photo sessions - cats are sneaky and inquisitive. I love the one in collage 2 where Lady is in soft light. If makes her look mysterious.

    1. Maybe that's my secret! If I can get great cat shots, people are easy! Ha ha ha. :)

      Hope you have a great weekend Sherry!

  3. Hi Mary, great posts :) Love reading your photo tips, I would love a pet ..

    Thanks fpr sharing at the #weekendbloghop..

    1. Thanks Claire! I'm glad the tips help. :) I hope you get one sometime soon!

  4. Hi Mary, what fun information, your kitties are darling for sure, love your calico, they are special!
    Thanks for sharing your tips with Oh My Heartsie Girl this week.
    Enjoy your weekend, Karren

    1. They are little sweeties! Have a great weekend!

  5. Awesome tips and photos Mary - thanks for sharing with us at Friendship Friday at Create With Joy!

    1. Thanks for hosting Ramona! Love your blog and sharing with you! Have a wonderful day!

  6. As a photographer of my cats and cats and other animals seen on the street, I found this post very interesting and have Create with Joy to thank for giving me the heads up.

    I have a point and shoot, a Canon PowerShot Elph520HS, and do well enough with it, though I must admit to not being that experienced in experimenting with all it allows me to do...something I need to find time to work on.

    Elvira Mistress of Felinity will be featuring this post on the latest Carnival of the Cats, sometime this evening. :-D