Directional lighting: how the angle of the sun can affect your photos

Directional lighting: how the angle of the sun can affect your photos

Should you stand with the sun directly behind your – or should you shoot into the sun and do battle with shadows? Our infographic on directional lighting helps illustrate the effects you can expect from different angles of the sun.

Learn how to use natural light in your landscape photography

The angle of the sun falling on your subject in relation to the direction you are shooting will have a dramatic effect on your resulting photographs.

At one extreme, you can shoot with the sun directly behind you, using frontal lighting – as photographers were once advised in order to get the most consistent results.

At the other, you can shoot towards the sun to create such sought-after photographic effects as silhouettes and rim lighting.

In between, there is a multitude of angles at which the sun hits your subject – each of which will give a different degree of contrast, colour and shadow patterns.

Learning which works best for different scenes is a useful skill for the photographer. It enables you to then plan to be at a particular spot at the right time of day – or year – so that you are more likely to get the result that you’re after.

Understanding directional lighting: photography cheat sheet

Our cheat sheet below illustrates the effects the sun creates at different angles in the sky, and how you can ensure good exposures. Simply click on the infographic to see the larger version, or drag and drop it to your desktop.

Understanding directional lighting: photography cheat sheet

The sun behind you
Frontal lighting creates the most even illumination across the scene. Shadows are hidden, so form and texture can be hard to make out – but colours in the sky and in the scene itself are usually at their most vibrant.

Shooting into the sun
Backlighting throws the surface of much of the scene into shadow. Expose for the brightest part of the scene and you get a silhouette. Crop in and expose for the shadows and you get a softly lit image.

With the sun to the side
Side-lighting creates dramatic results, illuminating some surfaces and throwing others into shadow. It is great for revealing texture and form in the landscape – and provides strong colour in the best lit areas.

Final Tip: use your feet!
With some scenes and vistas, you have to wait for the right time of day for the sun to be in position. But for many, getting the shot that you want is simply a case of moving yourself into the right position.

With smaller structures – such as a church or castle, a short walk around the subject is all that is needed.

For others – such as a mountain – a well-planned drive is essential. Work out sun angles in advance using an utility such as Photographer’s Ephemeris (free for computers, £5.99 iPhone/iPad,


The 10 Rules of Photo Composition (and why they work)
How to track the sun for perfect landscape photos
See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light
Photography lighting: how to take control of everything from natural light to using flash