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Where is the light coming from—the front, the side, or behind?

The direction of light has a tremendous amount to do with creating a sense of shape and texture in your images. To be a bit more precise, the direction of light controls the width of the shadows. And it’s the shadows that create a sense of shape and texture in your photographs.

I tell all of my students, every time I start a workshop:

“If you want to create interesting light, you have to create interesting shadows. So, look at the light and think about the shadows.”

Why are shadows important? When we look at a scene, we see depth because the separation between our eyes gives us the ability to see stereoscopically. We see in three dimensions: height, width, and depth. Yet, when your photograph of that scene appears onscreen or is printed on paper, the image only has two dimensions: height and width. Since the screen or paper is flat, the sense of depth in your photographs is created by geometry and shadows. In terms of geometry, we assume that larger objects are closer and smaller objects are farther away. In terms of shadow, the shapes of the shadows go a long way to informing the viewer about the shape of the objects.

The Lighting Compass

The placement and width of shadows in a photograph is created by the angle between the camera and the light source. To keep the discussion simple, we’ll only consider what happens as the light moves in a circle around the subject.

You, the photographer, control how the camera sees the direction of light through the framing of the shot. If you move your camera in a circle around your subject, you will see that the direction of the light changes as you move. For now, as shown in Figure 1.1, let’s think of direction as being one of four possibilities:

  • On-Camera or Aligned with the Camera (red): This means that the sun is coming straight over your shoulders or the flash is parked right on top of your camera. Typically, you will have flat light that lacks significant shadows. Photos with flat light often fall short of capturing a scene as you experience it because they lack depth.
  • Angled Towards the Subject (green): When the light approaches the subject from either side of the camera, shadows are created, and shape/texture become more apparent. The width of the shadows increases as the direction of the light moves from the camera out to the side. You’ll find that 45° is a great angle for many lighting situations.
  • To the Side of the Subject (orange): When the main light comes at the subject directly from the side, you’ll have very dramatic light—perhaps too dramatic. Unless there is a fill light or reflector on the other side of the subject, the camera will record the subject as being lit on one side with a dark shadow on the other side. This can be good if you want to create a headshot that conveys mystery, but not so good if you want to convey glamour.
  • Behind the Subject (blue): Unless you want to create a silhouette shot, light coming from behind the subject should be considered a secondary light. I love shooting with the sun angled from behind my subjects, but I always have to add a source of fill light (either a reflector or a flash) on the front side of the subject. As you will see in Chapter 3, Using the Light Around You, a light coming from behind can help create a thin edge of brightness that will separate your subject from a dark background.
Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1. The lighting compass is a view seen directly above the subject. It shows the angle between the camera and the light source. As you move the light from on-camera out to 90°, the shadows become more pronounced because they become wider. When you move the light behind the subject, you are creating an edge of light that will separate the subject from the background.

Let’s put these concepts into action. Compare the headshots in Figures 1.2 and 1.3. On the left, see how the texture of the shirt is flat? You really cannot see the folds in the fabric. Likewise, the face lacks depth. Now, as shown in Figure 1.3, by moving the light 45° to the right on a small lightstand, I created shadows that add shape to the face and texture to the fabric.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2. With the flash sitting in the camera’s hotshoe, the lighting appears flat because it lights both sides of Mallory equally.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3. Moving the flash off-camera on a lightstand 45° to the right adds depth and texture to the shot because the camera now sees shadows.

Sometimes you have no control over the location of the light source, such as when shooting outdoors under the sun. In this instance, try circling around the subject so that the camera sees the light falling on the subject from a different angle.

Direct, Diffused, and Reflected Light

We’ve just reviewed how the angle between the camera and light affects the shadows in the image. During that discussion, I did not distinguish between direct, diffused, and reflected light. So, now, let’s expand the discussion a bit. We need to consider whether the light goes straight from the source to the subject or changes direction along the way.

Direct light flies straight from the light source to the subject (Figure 1.4). As we’ll discuss later in this chapter, direct light typically creates shadows with high contrast and hard edges. Sunlight on a clear day is direct light. Light from an on-camera flash can also be direct light. While direct light has many uses, photographers often prefer the softer look of diffused and reflected light.

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.4. Light coming directly from a source to the subject will have dark shadows with a hard, defined edge.

Diffused light passes through a semi-transparent material on the way from the source to the subject (Figure 1.5). Diffused light creates shadows with lower contrast and softer edges than direct light. Depending upon the amount of diffusion, it is possible that the shadows will be so light that you can barely see them. Clouds are a great example of how sunlight can be diffused. The water vapor causes the light to bounce around and come at the subject from many angles rather than directly from the sun. A sheer curtain over a window is another example of a light diffuser.

Figure 1.5

Figure 1.5. Light that passes through a semi-transparent material, like a cloud bank or diffuser panel, will come at the subject from many angles. This light will have soft shadows.

Reflected light bounces off of an opaque surface before it hits the subject (Figure 1.6). Sunlight bouncing off the concrete wall of a building is reflected light. Sunlight bouncing off of clouds can create reflected light. Photographers can use white foam core panels or fabric reflectors in a variety of colors to bounce light. Hotshoe-mounted flashes often have the ability to tilt and pan so that the flash can be bounced off a nearby wall or ceiling. Like diffused light, reflected light is softer than direct light.

Figure 1.6

Figure 1.6. Light that bounces off a surface, like a white wall or ceiling, will also come at the subject from many angles and have soft shadows.

The difference between diffused and reflected light comes from the location of the diffuser and reflector. With diffused light, the diffuser is between the light source and the subject. With reflected light, the light hits a nearby surface and then bounces onto the subject. This is why clouds can be both diffusers and reflectors. When the sun’s light goes through the clouds, they are a diffuser. When the light reflects off of the clouds—such as when the sun is setting low in the sky—then the clouds serve as reflectors.

As you will shortly read in the section on Hardness, diffused and reflected light is softer because the diffusion or bounce increases the apparent size of the light source. I know that this does not make sense to you now, but it will soon. The point to remember is that you should think about whether the light is direct, diffused, or reflected. If it is direct, then you may have options to create softer light by using a diffuser or reflector.

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