Week 6: Light Sources

Last week I discussed light quality, but that’s only half of the story in photography. Light sources are also important to consider when capturing a photographic subject. For this post, I referred to advice from John Hedgecoe, Tom Ang, and Paul Comon.

The three main light sources are front, side, and back light.

Front Light IFront Light I - Sepia

Lighting on these columns were created by the direct afternoon sun outside of DuPont.  The version to the left was taken for a daily shoot requesting a “subject low in color saturation,” but I think I actually like the sepia version better because it directs attention to the strongly patterned shadows.  Front lighting is supposed to enhance a subject’s detail but reduce its three-dimensional qualities.  I think this picture I took during Week 1 of my project is a better example of front lighting and how this light source affects detail and dimensions:

Side LightAs I walked past Pollard during the late afternoon, I noticed the strong side light on the building’s columns.  According to Comon, side lighting is more difficult to work with than front light, and therefore “Good sense tells us to first play it safe, and then experiment.”  I think the side lighting on Pollard was more interesting in “real” life, but I think it’s at least noticeable in the photo.  On another note, the image’s horizons are a product of both the aspect ratio (16:9) and, of course, the subject’s lines.  The aspect ratio was actually completely unintentional here, but it worked out anyway.  (Somehow I changed my camera’s aspect ratio and can’t figure out how to readjust it!!)

Back lighting was the most challenging light source to find examples of, so I’m going to pull some pictures I’ve taken in the past to supplement this part.  (I did, however, take the sunset shot a few weeks ago.)  Backlighting is commonly used for silhouette portraits (e.g. this photo from ohaylalala), but more generally, it produces good high contrast images if approached correctly.


Backlight II Backlight - Sidelightx

All of these back lighting examples were photographed in the evening, but this isn’t the only time of day that back lighting works. When using back lighting, Ang suggests “expose for the background alone” and “try to position yourself so that the subject itself obscures the light source.”



That being said, I’ve found specific times of day offer the most cooperative light sources.  For example, oblique morning light is realtively forgiving (e.g. the MWC sign on Sunken).  Night photography works if you can adjust your camera for a longer exposure (e.g. for fireworks).  Bright afternoon light is the most difficult light to work with.

Now that I’ve got a handle on lighting, in the coming weeks I want to  look at colour in photography.  It seems like a fairly complicated topic, so it’ll probably take multiple weeks to cover the basics.


  1. I really love the DuPont and Pollard pictures– very frameable. The MWC plaque is also very poignant and framed so nicely by the leaves

  2. I am just going to say your posts always impress me, you take amazing pictures. For the sunset picture I love the colors featured, but I would have focused in more on the sunset with less darkness in the background.

  3. You have some really great shots here! At first, I really liked the colorful picture of DuPont. Once I read your commentary about the two pictures, I decided that the second one’s shadows looked great, and now I kind of like that one better! I love your explanations of the pictures and how lighting affects them, good stuff!

  4. I think my explanation starts off a little weak, so I’ll expand on it for you. The side-by-side pictures from Melchers show direct/front light on the subject, but side light from the perspective of the photographer. I wasn’t sure which category to include those pictures in, but hopefully that explanation helps you understand it the different light sources. I get a little confused by the difference, too! The photo of the building facade is definitely a better example of front lighting.

  5. It was difficult for me to perceive the difference between front and side lighting. I understand the concept, but distinguishing between the two in real life is another story.

  6. This is kind of unrelated to this post, but I recently did some pinhole photography and it was really fascinating. I thought maybe you’d find it interesting too 🙂 (it’s information related to the camera obscura) Great info about light sources!

  7. This is just so incredible. I think many people (as far as non-professionals go) don’t acknowledge the importance of lighting in photography. Pictures can either be made or broken with the presence or absence of it. I love how you point out certain times of the day and how the effect pictures.