See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light

See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light

Natural Light Photography: using shadows


Photography Tips: use sidelighting

Image copyright Kevin McNeal

Shoot with the light to the side of or behind your subject and you’ll create an image where shadows become part of the picture. These shadows can obscure parts of the scene, but you can use this to your advantage and get creative with your shots.

The way that shadows fall throughout your image can give you information about a picture that flat, frontal lighting can not reveal. It can provide clues about how smooth or rough a surface is, and reveal the contours of a subject.

Sidelighting and backlighting typically produce high-contrast images with very bright areas, and very dark ones (find out how to conquer high contrast with auto-exposure bracketing). Because your digital camera can only capture a limited contrast range successfully, it is impossible to set an exposure that suits both the highlights and shadows.

The exposure settings need to be a compromise – and you may need to use exposure compensation to darken or lighten the shot and get the effect you want (for more on doing this, check out our photography cheat sheet on exposure compensation).

Throw subjects into darkness
Backlighting creates a subject that is completely bathed in shadow. This can often lead to an image that looks flat, grey and lacking in detail, but there are occasions when this lighting results in stunning images.

Photography Tips: create silhouettes

The most common example is the silhouette. If the contrast is high, the exposure can be set so that the subject becomes a black outline against a well-exposed backdrop.

Do this by framing the scene so it includes the background alone, press the Exposure Lock (star) button, recompose and shoot. This accentuates the shape of a subject while hiding the texture, detail, colour and three-dimensional form.

Silhouettes work much better with some subjects than others, and often only when shot from certain angles. For example, a person’s profile works far better as a silhouette than if the person is facing the camera.

Backlit subjects needn’t always become silhouettes. Outdoors areas are often lit to varying degrees by light reflected from the ground, from the sky, or from surrounding buildings.

Photography Tips: Use backlighting for outdoor portraits

Try setting the exposure for the subject (using your camera’s Spot Metering mode makes this easier) and you’ll get a shadowless, soft light that is often perfectly suited to portraits.

Form is the artist’s word for the three-dimensional shape of an object. When drawing or photographing an orange, for example, it is the shading or shadows that convey its form – showing that the fruit is a sphere rather than a circular disc.

To create these shadows, the light needs to be at an angle to both the camera and the subject. Some degree of sidelighting, therefore, is essential for accentuating form.

With faces or the human form, this picks out the natural curves of the body. 
It is useful with architecture too, illuminating some surfaces of a building more than others (as in the image, right) to add some depth.

Photography Tips: using sidelighting

Angular lighting is also crucial for revealing the texture of a surface, so you can see the dimples on the orange, or tell a nectarine from a peach. Sidelighting often does the trick here, too – although the angle of light needed will depend on the orientation of the surface.

With landscapes, the texture of hills and fields is best revealed when the sun is near the horizo

PAGE 1: Where is the light coming from?
PAGE 2: Using shadows
PAGE 3: Soft and hard light
PAGE 4: Time and place


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