How-To: Shooting Photos in Directional Sunlight

How-To: Shooting Photos in Directional Sunlight
Text and Photos by Lynne Eodice

The sun starts out very low in the sky and offers some warm, pretty light first thing in the morning. Then it rises as the day progresses, producing brighter and less dimensional lighting from above. In the late afternoon, the sun is low in the sky again, but in a different position. Foliage that was illuminated from the front early in the morning may be backlit in the afternoon, or vice versa, depending on which way a scene faces.

Natural light changes constantly throughout the day, and the intensity and quality of light changes throughout the seasons of a year. The continual shifting direction of sunlight imparts the same subjects with different looks. A red-rock area in the desert Southwest that looks somewhat pale and washed out during midday can be ablaze with color and texture late in the afternoon.

You can sometimes change the direction of your subject if you don’t like the way the light is striking it—like a person or obedient pet—until you see a lighting direction that you like. If you don’t like the way someone is squinting in the bright sun shining down in the middle of the day, you can move that person to the shade, for example, or turn him so that his back is to the sun. With subjects that are more stationary, like a rock formation or statue, you can often move around them to change the lighting direction, which often opens you up to more unique angles.

Each direction of light has its own characteristics. Here are the four primary directions of light, and ways in which you can work with them photographically:

Top Lighting

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This illumination is usually found during the middle of the day, and can produce some very harsh light. On the plus side, sunlight from above often casts an even illumination across the top of your subject and may bring out its color. On the flip side, however, this lighting may appear flat and creates harsh shadows on people’s faces. You’re better off moving your subject to a shady spot, or if this isn’t possible, use your camera’s flash to fill in the shadows.

Front Lighting

One guideline in photography suggests that you’ll always get the best results by keeping the sun over your shoulder when you shoot. Illumination that strikes a subject from the front tends to provide bright colors and even lighting, which can be a good thing. But frontal lighting can also look a little two-dimensional and flat. You won’t get the modeling on a person’s face or the texture of a landscape that you might achieve with side or back lighting. However, you can sometimes get nice color when the sun is low and strikes a subject from the front. The “keep the sun over your shoulder” edict sometimes works well, but shouldn’t be followed exclusively.

Side Lighting

Light that comes in from the side of a subject brings out texture and shadow, and gives an image more of a three-dimensional look. This is often the ideal lighting for shooting landscapes, architecture, and a lot of close-up subjects. And because it occurs early or late in the day, side lighting can provide a warm, flattering light source. It can give a scene a real feeling of depth, as well as drama. Just be careful of getting too many strong shadows, because a lot of them can make a photo look very contrasty. As long as the light isn’t too strong, side lighting can be a great source for photographing people as well.

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When shooting portraits in this type of light, you may want to use your flash off-camera with a flash cord to soften the shadow area a bit. I especially like to use a reflector to bounce a little light back into the shadow area of a person’s face. There are a lot of commercial collapsible fabric reflectors on the market today that come in silver, white, gold, or a combination thereof. Reflectors provide a soft, warm and continuous fill-light source, though using one is a lot simpler if you have an assistant or friend to hold it in place.

Back Lighting

Just as you may have been told to keep the sun over your shoulder when taking pictures, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t shoot into the sun. Don’t believe it; shooting toward the sun will give you backlighting effects that can be beautiful, particularly when photographing portraits, flowers and landscapes. When a strong light source, like early morning or late afternoon sunlight, is directly behind a subject, it can produce a brilliant rim of light. This effect is most pronounced along edges that catch the light, like a person’s hair or the spines of a cactus.

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If you’re photographing a person and want to capture a rim-lighting effect, but don’t want to create a silhouette, you should use a reflector or even flash to fill in the shadows on the front of a subject. If you’re not using flash, you may want to use exposure compensation to add one or two stops of exposure on a person’s face. Backlighting a semi-translucent object like a flower petal or a leaf will make it appear to glow from within. And by using backlighting behind opaque objects, you can create dramatic silhouettes. Simply expose for the bright area behind your subject, and you’ll turn your subject into a dark shape.

All types of directional light can be interesting— shoot often, and you’ll discover what type of light you enjoy photographing most.


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