Casual photographers cling to a dogma learned from their first camera manual: that we should always take pictures with the sun at our back. That’s why we all have so many images of loved ones squinting.
Take a closer look at some of your favorite photographs – personal, professional, or hanging in a museum – and you will see that many are side-lit, some are backlit, and others are lit from above or below. Some feature soft, even lighting, while others depend on hard light and deep shadows for drama.
“Soft” and “hard” are qualities of photographic light, and refer to the sharpness of the transitions from light to shadow. A sharp transition results from hard light. A smooth, graduated transition comes from a soft light source. Photographing people in “open shade” shows the benefits of soft light, as this technique prevents harsh midday shadows under the eyes, nose, and chin.
Paying attention to the direction of light can add a lot of impact to your pictures, and can also help you find the most flattering light for your subject.
Understand and control the quality and direction of light to dramatically improve your photographs. Just pay attention to where the light comes from, and don’t be afraid to try some different angles!
One of the best ways to SEE the effect of directional lighting is to sit in front of a mirror while moving a small, household lamp around you. As you move the lamp, see how the shadows change on your face. Experiment with moving the lamp closer and farther away as well, for a glimpse at the difference between hard and soft light, which we’ll discuss in a future installment.