Ask Directions

Not that we're lost, but rather it is about asking which direction or directions the light is coming from.

In this series, we are Looking into the Light, and have checked whether we like it Hard or Soft.

Unless it is truly completely overcast, and possibly a bit foggy, it is likely the light will have a noticeable source, and to some degree provide some shadow and highlighted areas.

Look around you where you are right now. Where is the main source of light coming from? Or rather, where is your shadow?

Usually light is above you - think sunshine - but it could be adjacent to you too - think desk lamp. On rare occasions light will be below you - think horror movies.

We are used to seeing light from above, so it provides quite a natural look in a photo. Light from the side can be used to highlight and bring out a profile. Whereas light from below creates shadows we don't often see in day-to-day life, so could be unnatural and a bit scary.

That's the vertical, but we live in a three dimensional world so we must consider light from the front, back and side too.  Perhaps the question to ask here is what do you want the light to do for you.  Make the light work!  Its job is to give your subject the specific look that fits your artistic intent.  So put the light in the place where it can do its job.

When the light is directly in line behind the camera - for example, sun at your back, or using the camera's flash - the shadows on your subject tend to melt away, removing all the texture and definition of the subject.  This might be okay if your subject is a middle-aged lady and you are trying to reduce the appearance of wrinkles (like a good moisturiser), but 9 times out of 10 this front-on type of light is not interesting.  

Exactly opposite to that situation, what if the light source is behind the subject, so you are shooting into the light?  This might work if you are trying to create a silhouette, because there is unlikely to be much light that reaches the front of your subject.  It's not easy to get a good photo with light directly behind the subject, but it can be very dramatic and useful artistically.

Place the source at 90 degrees to the side of your subject to light only one side.  This is also quite dramatic, but for a more pleasing, more rounded look, the light should be at about 45 degrees in front of your subject.

What about when there are multiple light sources?  Pick up a magazine, or look at professionally shot portraits on the web, and try figure out where the lights are placed.  (Hint: look into the eyes - you can often see the reflections!)  More is not always better, but pro photographers often use multiple lights on a subject to get the effect they want.  The lights are named by the job they do:

  • Key: this is the main light on the subject, and usually the brightest.
  • Fill: this is a secondary light, usually on the opposite side to the key, usually dimmer, that fills in some of the shadows created by the key.  
  • Rim: this is a light, usually from behind the subject, providing a separation from the background.  There are other specific variations of these back lights, like hair or kicker, but let's save that for a future discussion.

I really do encourage you, from now on, to look closely at photos, particularly portraits, and work out where the lights were to get the image.  The clues are in the shadows.  The BBC show QI, with Stephan Fry and Alan Davies, makes me cringe every time I see their episode still images with all the contestants.  It is shot with straight-on, very hard, bright light.  It gives a very flat look on the faces, but with harsh shadows, especially unflatteringly under the chins.

Image borrowed from BBC  If you've never watched QI, you will be enlightened if you do.  It is quite interesting.

Image borrowed from BBC  If you've never watched QI, you will be enlightened if you do.  It is quite interesting.

Someone has taken the trouble to make a grid of all the possible angles light could fall on a head.  Check out this link.  You don't have to read the article (although interesting in its own right), but scroll down to the grids near the bottom of the page.

Your Challenge

Take a photo where there are two light sources.  Tip: they don't both have to be active sources of light (light bulb, sun, candle, etc).  One could be a passive source - where the light is reflected back onto your subject.