Table of Contents
The more you understand how light works, how it bends and moves around objects, the better you will be able to manipulate it and use it in editing later.
The more conscious you are of the source of the light, and the strength of shadows, the more you will be aware of potential mistakes in your photos that will make editing difficult.
What is Light Direction?
Unless we’re in the literal middle of a cave, light has to come from somewhere.
Sometimes, that will be the sun. Sometimes, it will just be a patch of open sky in a clearing in the woods.
As photographers, we need to be aware of where the light is, and how strong it is, in order to make decisions about where we position ourselves, and how we position our dogs.
The direction of light relative to us and our subject can make a huge difference to how our photo looks.
A general rule of thumb when I’m taking photos is:
If I can see a shadow, I am working with directional light.
Our main light direction options will be:
- direct light/front light
- overhead light
- side light
Below, we will have a look at what each one is.
These are explored in further depth in the Learning Journey, once you want to start taking more control of your photos and using the light in more purposeful and artistic ways.
If I’m shooting when the sun is out, that light is obviously going to have a direction… and the direction will be where the sun is. The light could be coming from the side, front, overhead, or behind (backlight).
Even if the sun is bright behind a cover of clouds, if there’s a shadow, even a faint one, you need to treat the light as directional. Side, front, overhead, or backlit.
If it is a thickly overcast day like we get in Europe and the UK quite often, and everything is dull and without shadows, then we can consider the whole sky a light source.
This doesn’t mean we won’t have to work with light directionality! If I position my dog with the woods directly to our left, and open sky to our right, where is the light going to be coming from? To our right! Therefore we would want to consider how to position ourselves and our dogs in order to make sure that light is going to work for us.
Light shining directly on the subject from behind you, or from above in the case of the open sky.
Direct light is recommended for full sun conditions. It also works perfectly for overcast days and to create easy, soft, and even light on the dog’s face. You almost can’t go wrong with direct light.
This is more relevant on sunny days, as overhead light from a grey sky works quite well.
Overhead light occurs when the sun is directly above the subject. Think midday sun. This is rarely flattering and is best avoided. Take photos before or after this time of day, or wait for it to be cloudy.
Side light occurs when the light is off to the side!
This can occur when the sun is shining in from one side, making half the subject’s face bright, and half dark…. but it can also occur when you have, for example a large shaded forest on one side of the dog, and a large area of open sky on the other side. There will be an imbalance of light, making the dog’s face become “split in two” if he’s looking forward at you.
The best course of action when woking with side light is to get the dog to look toward the light source.
Notice how Journey’s face camera left is dark and in shadow compared to the camera-right side of his face?
This is because of the tree trunk and large dark woods to camera left. To the right was a huge area of open sky.
This is the same location, everything is the same, except that Journey is now looking out toward the area of open sky. Notice how evenly lit his face is now.
Alternatively, I can move myself and Journey around so the forest is behind him, and he’s now looking out into the area of open sky. This is now “direct” light. Notice how even the light on his face is, compared to the first photo.
This is when the main light-source is behind your subject. This is my favourite lighting direction and how I achieve the warm orange backgrounds in many of my photos.
This is also one of the most difficult lighting directions to do well, because you have a strong light-source behind your subject (eg., the setting sun)… so you need a secondary light-source (like the open sky) in front of your subject.
If the light from behind is too strong, or the light from in front is too weak, your camera will struggle and you’ll likely end up with either:
- a sky that is nothing but white because it got too bright
- and/or a subject that is extremely dark, but a sky that shows the sunset/clouds/colours/whatever, because the camera/you exposed for the sky, leading the subject to be black.
There’s no magic trick to backlight, and it’s something we explore further, especially if you’re in the Learning Journey. It’s important to remember that the camera/phone can only take a photo at one exposure. Unless you’re doing a HDR type photo, it can only be one level of brightness. Meaning, if the sky has the sun in it, the sky with the sun is going to be very BRIGHT, so in order to capture that sunset, everything else will have to be dark. Otherwise, the sky will have to be very bright, so the subjects aren’t too dark.
To do backlight well, you need to:
- filter the main light source through branches, leaves, etc, to make it less strong.
- get a lot of ambient light from overhead/directly on the dog, so they won’t be so dark.
Master the other lighting directions first, but keep backlight in the back of your mind for a future challenge!
Take a moment to check the light...
Even (especially) the not-so-obvious light!!
In this photo, for example, I was so excited about the pretty backlight that I neglected to notice how much the lack of light from the woods on the left side of the photos was making that side of his face very dark compared to the other side. While I could probably fix this in editing, it will probably look unnatural since both sides won’t easily match, depending on the ISO of the image, I may end up with some noise/grain issues only on that dark side of his face, and in general, it would have been a better idea just to turn his face/our angle more toward the large open sky to my right. Being aware of even very SUBTLE lighting directions like this can save you a lot of heartache later!
360/180 Light Walk
One way to add some variety to your shoots or even to learn the way different lighting directions can change the feeling of the image, is to play with the direction of light.
Find the light and pose your dog, then walk a 180 or a 360 degrees around the dog taking photos as you go. This is a great way for you to learn how different lighting directions can product different effects, different moods, and for you to experiment, see what you like, and to get more of a feel for different lighting directions. It can also really help you get a feel for how different “gazing directions” can make the face more or less illuminated.
This video was taken with my phone, more for beginners to see how direct sunlight casts really harsh shadows, but I’ll include it here as I think it’s an interesting concept, and could be worthwhile for you to try as well – whether in video format, or as a series of images. I find Journey’s part toward the end especially interesting, as he’s getting hit on his side by the sun, and how moving his head just slightly can dramatically change how might light it receives.
I also found it interesting how even in the shade (granted, it was pretty patchy shade) you could really see the difference on Loki’s face for the times when there was even a slight difference between the amount of light/shadow hitting his face. Especially important for black dogs!
As I mentioned above, developing your understanding of light is really important especially in regard to editing your photos later. If you want to have any control over the light in editing, or if you’re working with low-contrast/flat images and you want to develop the perception of light, you need to understand how light works.
If the light is shining from the top right-hand corner, as the highlight spot suggests, then the shadow doesn’t make sense. If the light is falling from the top left hand corner – as the shadow suggests, then the highlight spot doesn’t make sense!
Being able to “see” light will allow us to use it creatively, work with it while shooting, and bend it in editing.
Consider this image.
There is clearly light hitting the inner part of his body, and the outer shoulder and side of his face are dark. In fact, he is even throwing a very slight shadow!
There was really very little light at all! It was slightly more open to the inner side of Journey, however I worked a lot in editing to really create the sense of that cool winter sun hitting his body, even as much as adding a slight shadow.
By understanding how light works, where it would hit, where would be in shadow, how it affects the fur, and so on, allows us to edit light in creative ways. Of course, it’s possible to edit your photos without manipulating light! It depends entirely on how “true to life” you want your photos to be.
This shows “light fall-off” which we experience as the lightwaves disperse as they get further from their source.
There is a whole ton of nerdy math around this subject (check this out) which deals mostly with artificial light, but it does link closely to our harsh sun vs. soft overcast/shade light (where the light source is very far away in the case of the sun, vs. much closer in the case of the sky) and also with how we can expect light to “fade out” across the surface of an object.
Now, I’m not saying we need to go into a huge study of light and how light bends – that gets all a bit scientific for me, though some people find it very interesting! I’m not 100% sure it completely serves our purpose at this point, however, the more you see, understand, notice and think about light, the more skilled you will be at using and mastering it.