We may know the light’s source, its quantity, its quality, and its colour. But where does it come from? What does it light, what doesn’t it light, and most important of all, how does it light it? All things considered, the direction of the light is the single most influential aspect on the “look” of your photograph. Get the direction wrong and even the most beautiful subject in the most beautiful light can fail to work as an image.
Personally I have a soft spot for back light. It creates depth, it can separate a subject from the background, and it can add interest and mystery, depending on what type of light is elsewhere in the picture. Depth is important to me, because typically we are photographing three dimensional subjects to be represented in a two dimensional medium.
Equally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ll go out of my way to ensure that I’m not lighting the subject from the front, if at all possible. Front light is generally flat, it can be unflattering, and a little boring. But there are times when it is appropriate – for instance if I’m photographing a table plan, I may want to simply record it with no distractions, and have the light as flat as possible. Also front light, even a little, can bring legibility to a subject in a way light from no other direction can.
Split the difference with side light and you have definition again, and it’s especially useful for bringing out textures in things like wedding dresses. But you need to be careful with how it falls off as it travels across the frame, and that’s all to do with how far away from your light source the subject is.
When we talk about direction, we always mean where is the light relative to the camera, not relative to the subject.
The subject may be facing the light, but if she is looking to the right from the photographer’s perspective, then from the camera’s point of view she is side lit.
Direction can be the aspect of light that’s most difficult to gain confidence with, which is why for many photographers they’ll find a comfort factor in going back to a lighting set up they know. But for me, to be honest, I try to ensure even if I’m photographing a scene I’ve photographed before, that I’ll push myself to photograph it in a fundamentally different way and typically this starts with changing the direction from which the light is coming.
Get comfortable doing this, and you’re on the home stretch.