Why The Direction Of Light Is So Important In Photography?

It’s amazing how the direction of light is able to change a photograph. Have you ever checked it? Have you noticed, for example, how the textures of an object or a portrait change simply by varying the angle at which the lighting hits it?

Surely if you are passionate about portrait photography , you will have noticed that at certain times the portraits turn out spectacular (you are sure to be a fan of sunrises and sunsets 😉) and at other times, that the portraits show some shadows very unflattering (for example at noon).

This comes not only from the intensity of the light, which also, but from the orientation of the light. And since it is something essential in lighting, we are going to dedicate this article to it in its entirety. It’s worth staying and taking a look, you’ll see how you’ve come to some interesting conclusion by the end of it :).

Before you start, I would recommend that you save our complete guide to lighting in photography , where you can complete this article with a lot more information about lighting.

With that said, let’s get to the topic at hand.


Beyond the size of the light source or the intensity of it, which are equally important in terms of light shaping ability, in this article we will cover the different types of light direction:

  • Frontal
  • Side
  • Semilateral or 3/4
  • Zenithal (or chopped)
  • Against zenith (nadir or low angle)
  • rear or backlight

The direction of the light determines which part of the object or subject will be in shadow and which part will be illuminated. It also determines aspects such as volume or textures, so it is very important to know how to work with it to obtain the results that we want in our photographs.

The orientation of light can be classified according to whether we move the light source from a horizontal axis (light moves sideways) or a vertical axis ( light moves up or down). Within this classification, several combined orientations can be given: For example, a frontal lighting (movement corresponding to the horizontal axis) slightly overhead (movement corresponding to the vertical axis) would be a combination of both.


In this case, the light would move from the horizontal axis, that is to say to the sides of the axis and not up or down. Within the horizontal orientation lights we have:


In front lighting, light hits the front of the object or subject (for example, when working with the camera’s built-in flash). In this type of lighting, the result obtained is flat images, since the object is illuminated in a homogeneous way and there are no shadows that make us perceive the volume of the object.

The textures are therefore minimized, which can be useful, for example, for portraits where we seek to eliminate imperfections. The color in a frontal lighting is saturated and more detail is perceived, that is why it is the lighting that is used in the photos for the identity card.

Front light direction


In this case, the light source, be it natural or artificial, is placed to one side of the subject. This type of light orientation produces very marked shadows in the half of the face or part of the object that is not illuminated.

Since with this orientation of the light a lot of contrast between lights and shadows is generated, we have a great sensation of volume and depth. This type of lighting is ideal for highlighting textures and increasing drama.

light in photography
side light direction


This type of lighting is located between the front and the side. With this orientation of the light, contrast and textures are achieved, but without reaching such a dramatic effect as in lateral lighting.

Semi-lateral or 3/4 lighting is one of the most used by portrait and still life photographers , since it achieves textures and volume, as well as a certain drama, but being a more balanced and equally interesting and photogenic option.

Light direction semi-lateral or 45º

Within this type of light scheme, there is the famous Rembrandt style, named after the painter himself, and which is widely used both in portraiture and in culinary or still life photography. It is based on a 45º lighting from a somewhat steep angle and achieves very characteristic portraits.

Here you can see on video how this lighting scheme works:


In this case, the light is positioned just behind the main subject. It is the light of the silhouettes , and the shape, since much of the midtone information is lost.

The harsher the light, the more the silhouette will be enhanced, since the dynamic range of the camera does not allow to obtain the lights and shadows correctly simultaneously, so you have to choose between a background or a correctly exposed subject.

By varying the angle of the backlight (approximately 135º) we can use it to outline our subject.



In this case, our light source moves on the vertical axis. That is, from top to bottom.


The light source is placed above the main subject or object. It is the light of the sun when it is high (noon) or of all those lights that are above the main subject or on the ceiling of the rooms of any home.

When we use this type of light, we get very strong shadows. In portraits we get shadows under the eyes, nose and chin and, although we are used to it, it is not usually a good option for photographing portraits.

In these cases, it is usually a good idea to use a reflector to soften those annoying shadows on the face, or try to find angles that are not so zenithal by moving our subject or the lamp slightly.


This type of light is the most unreal, since we do not find it naturally. It is a lighting from a low point of view upwards.

With this direction of light, very unreal shadows are created, totally opposite to the zenith. In portraits, shadows form above the chin, in the eye sockets, above the lip, etc. They are not at all flattering shades if you are looking for a standard portrait, but they can give you a lot of play if you want a sinister image. That is why this type of lighting is widely used in scary movies.

If we move from the vertical plane slightly to the sides, this accentuated effect is reduced, and makes this type of lighting less “radical”.

light in photography
Direction against zenith of light (or nadir)

Beyond the strict definition, which is simply used to define the light direction schemes, keep in mind that the different orientations can be mixed to obtain more balanced results. You can make a frontal and slightly contrapicado light scheme, a lateral zenithal one, etc.


Lighting is based on some basic schemes, but we are not always based on just one light source, rather it is possible to combine several of them. In this way, we can obtain the advantages of one light scheme and correct its “disadvantages” with another.

In lighting you have to be creative, not afraid to experiment, and have a good dose of tolerance for frustration when you start 😉 . It’s all a matter of spending hours and having fun.

I recommend that you do a portrait session at home with the different basic directions of light. It won’t take you too long, and it will teach you how light behaves, what shadows look like, how to control settings, and see how you can get the best results. And if you don’t have someone to photograph and you don’t dare with the self-portrait, take any object, a vase, an orange, a doll, etc., there are no excuses.

Because photography without practice is meaningless and there is no other way to learn it than by doing exercises. So find yourself a model (or object) that you can dedicate a while to, a light that you can orient that you have at home (for example a flexo ) and start practicing. You will see how you get more than one interesting photo.

I hope this article has been useful to you and encourages you to practice with lighting. Because you know, photography is writing with light, and the way we photographers do it is by learning the language of light. So let’s get started 😉 And don’t forget to share this article if you think it might be useful to a fellow fan. Surely he appreciates it and is encouraged to practice.

See you in the next article.