Light in Photography

Light (& Shallow)

How important is light in photography? Well, without light, there is no photograph! Light is the number one important factor in photography. You can get good photography with normal subject with great light. To understand the difference, we can just compare the images/video of most TV series with movies. Movie scenes look much more beautiful and the most important difference is the lighting (movies spent lot of budget on creating great light, great atmosphere).

With light itself, it is not enough. Photograph is two-dimensional and to make it looks 3-dimensional, it requires another element which is shallow.

Light illuminates, shadow defines.  


Next, lets look at types of light.

Front light

  • Light illuminates the subject from the front.
  • Light source is behind photographer.


  • Most of scene are well lit so you can see everything in the picture
  • Easier to get correct exposure especially for landscape
  • Front light can be good when the light is soft in the morning or late evening


  • Less shadow -> appear flat or less three dimensional
  • Boring as most people will like to take this type of picture
  • For portrait, bright front light may cause your subject to squint and may create harsh shadow under eyes and chins

Here is one example of a photo lit by front light. Nice place, interesting subject but the photo lack dimension and depth.

Side light

  • Light illuminates the subjects from the side
  • Light source is at the side of the photographer


  • Create highlight and shadow -> 3D
  • Emphasize textures, dimension, shape, pattern and roughness


  • More challenging to get correct exposure because of the combination of highlight and shadow
  • Side light from small light source (bright sun) can create harsh shadow,
  • Not flattering for portraits
  • Could be too severe for camera to record both highlight and shadow at the same time

Below are some examples of side light effect. As you can see the side light creating side shadow, the long shadow make the photos look much more 3 dimensional.

Back light

  • Light illuminates from behind the subjects
  • Light source is in front of the photographer


  • Result could be most dramatic
  • Simplify the scene and emphasize the shape of the subject such as a silhouette
  • Add beautiful rim light to portraits to separate subject from background


  • Challenging to get the correct exposure for your subjects
    • Correct exposure of the subject but blown out background
  • Causes lens flare resulting in low contrast picture
    • Quite trendy now

Some examples of photos taken with back light. It will make the ordinary subjects more dramatic.

More tips on lighting.

To get natural lighting for portraits, you can try the followings:

  • Indoor – Window light provide large and soft light
  • Outdoor
    • Even lighting
      • Open shade
      • Bright overcast day
    • Back lighting
      • With dark background, the back lit subject has a rim of interesting bright highlight

For open shade, looks for the followings:

  • Large building wall provide even soft light & catch light
  • Subject backlit with beautiful rim light


Simple lighting for still-life

Using natural soft window light as back-lit light source and DIY card reflector

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