ArchivesLight Fundamentals

Direction of Light

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
  • backlight

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. 

Directional? Non-Directional?

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.

Direct Light

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.

Overhead 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

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.

Back Light

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!


Understanding Light

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.

Look at the shadow. Look at the “highlight” spot.
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!

And yet….

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. 

Lighting Conditions

The lighting conditions play a big part in your photo session. After all, EVERYTHING we do comes back to light! 

It’s therefore important to have an understanding not only of whether the light is harsh or soft, or warm or cool, but also the type of lighting conditions you’re working with, and the direction of that light.

In this lesson we’ll be breaking down the different lighting conditions. In the Learning Journey, we delve into each condition in much more detail so you can really master using these different conditions.

Full Sun

Many photographers think when the sun is out and shining brightly that it’s the perfect time to go take photos. This may be true with action photos, lenses with narrow maximum apertures (high f/ number), or cameras that REALLY can’t deal with any kind of ISO…

But if you want pretty photos of your pet, full sun is unlikely to get you the results you want.


  • middle of the day, harsh overhead light, cold/neutral temperature. Very strong and bright. Usually unflattering.
  • Sun at golden hour becomes softer and much warmer, and is more flattering than sun during the rest of the day. 

It’s best to avoid shooting with full sun if you can.

If you’re on holidays and you have no choice, then of course go for it! Capture your memories! Just try and face the dog directly into the light to avoid crazy shadows and contrasts.


The sun has gone behind clouds and many new photographers look outside and WISH they could be taking photos…

But they can!

Overcast is actually  one of the BEST lighting conditions for taking photos!


  • Soft, even, neutral/grey ambient light from the entire sky
  • Can be a bit more difficult with kit  lenses or lenses with a narrow maximum aperture, as there is less light around
  • Can be a bit more difficult for action photos
  • Can be a bit “boring” if you’re including open sky in the photo
  • Can feel a bit “flat” and lacking contrast until edited.
  • For portraits, perfect!


If the sun is out, getting into some shade might be a great option to not have to deal with that harsh sunlight! 

It can be a bit of a challenging situation to work with though!


  • “Open shade” is for example next to a wall, under a roof, or under a large tree. Light from the sunny area bounces off the ground and illuminates the dog. Problem is, the background is usually EXTREMELY bright, which can distract from your subject
  • Shade in the woods can often be patchy and if those “hotspots” get on your dog, they are a big distraction and not that pretty. Dappled light looks a bit magical to us, but usually doesn’t come out very well in photos due to the extreme light difference between the sunny patches and shady areas.
  • Shade temperatures will be neutral to cool, with LOTS of colour casts bouncing off the ground, grass, bushes, trees, etc. 
  • In the woods, it may be too dark for some lens/camera combos. 

Golden Hour

The favourite lighting condition of MANY photographers. This is usually the hour or two just after dawn, and before sunset. 


  • The light temperature is rich and warm, and is how I get the warm orange/gold tones in the background of my photos.
  • it is much softer than during the rest of the day
  • you can use it to backlight the subject (with the sun behind them) for some cool effects and bokeh
  • may be difficult for some lens/camera combos due to the lower amount of available light
  • takes some skill to backlight the subject
  • can be weird to edit if the light is shining on the dog since there is so much colour in it, so the dog is the wrong colour!


Indoors & Artificial

Indoors, you have two options: use window light, or bring in some artificial light sources.

While our houses with medium-sized windows may appear bright, for a camera, they are usually very dark! Especially if you have a lens with a narrow maximum aperture. 


  • When using window light, avoid putting your subject in beams of sunlight unless you’re going for some special effect
  • Closer to the window = softer light
  • The bigger the window = the softer the light
  • If you do a lot of indoor photos you may want to investigate investing in a proper artificial lighting setup, for example continuous studio lights in softboxes
    • using lamps and overhead lights can work… but overhead lighting often isn’t very flattering, and lamps and tungsten globes give off a lot of weird colours
    • soft boxes with continuous lights allow you to keep the light on all the time, to see how bright it will be and get your settings where you want them
    • bigger soft boxes = softer light
    • closer to the dog = softer light
    • a flash or strobe is another option, but this is not my style of photography, so we will not be diving into it at this stage, as I don’t think it’s really necessary to master in order to take lovely photos of your dog!
Taken with two continuous lights in rectangular soft-boxes

Types of Light

Table of Contents

There are a few different types of light we want to consider in our photography, as this will affect where we need to position our dogs, the type of mood or feeling we will get, and so on.

It is important to be aware of the lighting conditions, especially in situations where they are changing (from soft dawn light to more harsh daylight, shifting clouds and so on), so we can adjust as needed.


Light can be harsh – as seen in the middle of the day when the sun is out, or soft – as seen on overcast days beneath the cover of clouds. 

For our purposes, we usually want to use soft light, as it is even and flattering, does not create any intense contrasts, and best showcases our subject

Harsh vs. Soft

Whether the light on the subject is light or soft depends on a few factors.

  • the size of the light-source For example, the flash on top of your camera is a relatively small light-source, compared to, eg., the sky! The smaller the light-source, the harsher the light.
    • Harsh light sources could include: a bare flash, a small window.
    • Soft light comes from larger light sources: large windows or open doors, a large softbox or light modifier, the open sky
  • the strength of the light-source. The stronger the light, the harsher it will be.
    • Harsh light can come from: a strong flash, strong indoor studio lights, the sun, strong reflections off a building, etc.
    • Soft light comes from filtered light, or indirect light, eg., light from the grey sky on an overcast day, light which passes through a modifier like a soft box, light in the open shade of a large tree, and so on.
  •  how far away the light-source is.
    • The further the light-source is, the harsher the light will be. (I know, this seems REALLY strange, but it’s true!). The best example here is the sun. How far away is the sun? A long way away. And its light is reeeaaalllyyyy harsh. Using window light far from the windows, or setting up a flash or modifier further from the subject will make the light harsher. 
    • The sky is relatively close to the subject, making soft light, placing them close to windows or a soft box with a flash or studio light will also make the light softer. 
  • 1. An old photo of my Aussie shepherd, taken in full midday sun. Although there are no harsh shadows or hotspots, there is still a very strong light, strong contrast, and harshness to the quality of the photo that I don’t love. Some people really like these stark contrasts, and if you do, that’s fine! But understand that it will have a very different mood to a much softer, more even and gentler light. You may not be able to achieve a “dreamy” and “romantic” kind of look with this kind of light, nor deep, dark and moody. It will be more bold, hard edges and sharp lines – possibly good for in a city.
  • 2. The same dog with much softer light on an overcast, snowy day. Note that both of these were not edited/not edited very well!

Examples of Harsh Light

I really don’t have many examples of harsh light as I tend to avoid it! A lot of these photos are therefore either quite old, or were taken specifically for lessons so are definitely NOT examples of good photography!

While there are a couple here that are “okay”, it is just generally not soft, pretty and nice to look at when the light is harsh, and we have to be VERY careful about which direction our subject is positioned in, so we don’t get crazy highlights and shadows like you see in some of the photos above! Nobody wants half their dog to be super bright and shiny and the other half super dark…. right??

Examples of Soft Light

The examples below, are either unedited or minimally edited, because I wanted you to see how the light looks AS IT IS.

This light CAN look flat, when you take the photo straight off the camera… but with some small edits, you can get the contrast back easily.

The thing is… it’s always going to be easier to edit these photos and to make them look nice, than it is photos with harsh light. 

With this soft, ambient light, I don’t have to fix really bright areas, or try and lighten up half a face that’s super dark, and I don’t have to deal with black dogs who have gone silver grey because their coat is reflecting the light.

Professor Snoot Says...

For pretty, artistic, or nice photos of your pet… aim for soft lighting conditions! Harsh light is rarely flattering, even for people! Choose shady locations, overcast days, or shoot when the sun is low and gold. This applies even with black pets, and especially black and white ones like me!


We must be aware of the effects of harsh light when we want to take photos in shaded conditions too, as harsh lighting can wreak havoc on our photos by creating hotspots when the photographer was trying to get away from the sun and into the woods.

The photos above were mostly taken from and except for the photo of Loki. Each one has different examples of hotspots, whether they are shining on parts of the dog, on the ground in the background, or even on the trees in the background – although I would say that the photo of Loki with the bright trees would be MUCH easier to fix than the pup with the dappled shade on his neck. 

Of course sometimes it is unavoidable and you just need to take the photos. In this case, try and hide as many of those hotspots as possible with your position or angle, have a helper hold a diffuser up to soften the light. You can find these on Amazon, for example these oval-shaped ones which can also be used as reflectors to bounce more light onto the dog (useful if you have a helper!) or these circular ones, which I have, and also have a lot of different options.

Interesting shadows

There is a love for shadow patterns in some genres of human portraiture. I’ve yet to see this done well with dogs. In fact, I’m yet to see any harsh, direct sunlight photo done especially well. But I’m particularly interested in the moment in bending our genre of photography, so if this is something that interests you, in using shadows and highlights for certain effects, then maybe you should pursue it!


The temperature of the light in our photos can range from cool/blue (particularly at dawn and dusk) to white/neutral (midday sun, overcast days), to golden and warm (first light, last light of the day. There is no set time period here, eg., the first and last two hours of the day… it depends on the time of year.)

As with most elements of our images, the temperature of our photo can change the mood and feeling of it. 

We should consider the temperature of the photo not only in regards to editing choices and finding the correct white balance, but also with the mood we want to create too.

It is much more difficult (if not nearly impossible?) to create a “deep dark forest” photo with sparkly warm orange bokeh. It is also much more difficult to create a bright, happy, joyful, light and airy photo with flat grey light (though not impossible!).

One thing I would advise is (in general) not to try and fake the temperature of the light too much. People often ask me how I get the golden backlight when there was no gold in the light (after they’ve seen a before and after photo) but the fact is that after I correct the white balance, there is usually always golden light in those photos. I have only rarely (and usually for the sake of making a tutorial) faked the temperature of the light in the background.

Of course you CAN. And that is an editing decision that you can make throughout the process of your work.