Use Side Lighting to Your Advantage

Light is essential to photography and how you control it is what can transform mediocre snapshots into quality photos. The angle of your light greatly impacts how your subject is portrayed. Side lighting, which is simply lighting your subject from the side, is a popular choice for various photography styles. With the light source illuminating one side of the subject, the other side falls into shadow, and this effect is great for showing off details and textures, and boosting contrast and depth. It’s often used in portraiture since the outcome is usually flattering.

How to use side lighting to your advantage:

Side lighting highlights textures and details – when you light a subject from the side, it brings out fine textures and details which would add more visual appeal. The textures of skin, fur, cloth, stone, and other surfaces become more apparent, such as with the wooden violin in the photo below. Even the blurry background projects texture because of the angle of light.

Side Light
Photo by Andrew J. Sutherland

Side lighting helps create dramatic black and white photos – side lighting is fantastic for high contrast shots such as when you want to achieve that dramatic black and white treatment. Few gray areas are present and the contrast between the black and white can be quite striking. Add to it the fine details caught by the side light and you could have an eye-catching result. With high contrast photos, take care not to overexpose and inadvertently create blown-out highlights that have lost their detail.

Side Lighting in photography
Photo by Rayza Ramon

Side lighting with sunlight as a natural light source – sunlight is the favorite light source of most photographers, and it’s easy to see why. It’s free, it adds mood depending on the conditions of the surroundings and weather, it can illuminate a wide area, and it’s readily available during daytime. Take note of the direction and intensity of the sunlight. If you want muted side light with soft shadows, shoot during early mornings or late afternoons when the sun is just over the horizon.

Foxglove in evening light
Photo by Ammgramm

Use window light for indoor compositions – If you are shooting indoors, you can still make good use of natural lighting. Windows are perfect for indirectly letting in sunlight from the side. Many portrait and still life photos have been taken with window light as it brings out the contours of the subject in a very appealing manner.

Photo by Daniele Zedda

More tips on using side lighting:

  • Side lighting can create deep shadows, especially when using bright light. To make the darker side more visible so a bit more detail is shown, use fill light or a reflector. An ordinary white board or car sun reflector can be sufficient.
  • In portraiture, it’s ideal to keep the light source at an angle of 45 degrees to the subject’s side. Having the light at a higher or lower angle can make the composition seem off-balance.
  • Experiment with including the light source in the composition. Candles, lamps, light bulbs, and other light sources shining on the subject or scene can provide context and visual interest.

About Kristine Hojilla

Kristine is an avid amateur photographer from the tropical Philippine islands. She always tries to capture the extraordinary in mundane objects and scenes. Feel free to visit her profile here to see more of her works

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