Directional Lighting For Photography

Using Directional Lighting For Photography

When photographing subjects in a studio, you can precisely manipulate various aspects of light, including intensity, direction, and color. However, when photographing your subject outdoors, your ability to manipulate these aspects of natural light is largely diminished. Rest assured though, because there are several types of directional lighting methods you can use to get the most out of natural lighting and get the best photos possible.

Pre wedding of asian coupleFront-Lit

When the sun is shining directly on the subject and is therefore at the photographer’s back, the scene is front-lit. This type of lighting is great for evenly illuminating the subject. But in such bright light the small details and sense of depth in the scene can be somewhat negated.

Pro: Great for bringing out vibrant colors, especially in landscapes.

Con: Not so great for portraiture because subjects will squint with the sun in their eyes.


Backlighting occurs when the sun is behind the subject; therefore the subject is in shadow. To use this situation to your advantage, expose for the brightest part of the scene you’re shooting to get a nice silhouette. Alternatively, you can zoom in on your subject and expose for the darkness of the shadows in order to get an image that is very softly lit.

Pro: An “artsier” alternative to front-light that also eliminates the squinting factor.

Con: May require artificial light to make subjects visible; may also cause lens flare if a lens hood is not used.


As the name suggests, side lighting occurs when the sun’s rays enter the scene from the left or right. A subject that is side-lit is in both light and shadow, creating more dramatic results with various forms and textures. Side lighting is especially effective for black and white photography, which relies on the presence of fine details to make a powerful impact.

Pro: Enhances color in lighted areas and texture in shadowed areas, while giving photographs a feeling of being three-dimensional.

Con: Can result in harsh contrasts, necessitating the use of a reflector or artificial light source to lighten up shadowed areas.

Side lit photoConclusion

Making use of natural lighting allows you to capture the essence of the outdoor scene you’re photographing without relying on artificial lights. Although certainly helpful and necessary, artificial lighting can make photos look, well, artificial, particularly when compared to natural light photos.

Taking photos (good ones, at least!) with natural lighting requires a lot of patience and a great deal of practice. But photographers that can master the use of front, back, and side lighting can produce some stunning photos that would be unattainable in a studio setting. It’s a bonus not to have to carry around bulky lighting equipment either!

Much of this information came from interviewing Bob Hallam who is a wedding photographer in Chicago.  Be sure to check out his fine art photography on his blog because he does an excellent job with directional lighting.  Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me!


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