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This may be something that you have already heard from landscape photographers. It is very important to be aware of the angle of the light (where does the light come from) to be able to get the best of a scene, and the best exposure for your image. Also, when using a polarizing filter, it is more effective when used at a 90 degrees angle to the sun for better blue sky results.
But when it comes to people photography I couldn’t find a lot mentioning the angle of light online. So here is what I think about it.
When photographing people, it is also very important to be aware of the direction of the light. As I mention when teaching about composition, you should try, as much as possible, to keep the light behind you (or avoid facing the light). If the light remains behind you, the general exposure has more chance of being better, avoiding under and over exposed elements in the image.
Keeping the light behind you ensures a better general exposure through the whole image. Hoi An, Vietnam.
When facing the light, there are two options when it comes to people photography. You can either create a silhouette of your subjects while exposing for the brighter background. Or you can try to find a middle exposure, thus avoiding over exposing your background too much and keeping some details on the subject. This last method works very well in the early morning and late afternoon.
A silhouette created by directly facing the light. Isfahan, Iran.
The third option would be to expose for your subject and completely overexposing your background. I personally do not believe it looks that good though.
But when you put the light at a 90-degree angle, there is something magic that happens. When the light is softer and more colorful (at sunrise and sunset) it is possible to come up with some type of semi-silhouetted images. The part of your subject exposed to the light will be exposed correctly. The other part will be much darker (still preserving some details). That is going to create a more contrasty image, with a little more punch.
If you take an image which is slightly overexposed, there are no blacks in it and the histogram is slightly shifting to the right. As soon as the exposure goes down, some darker pixels will appear and add contrast to the image, making it instantly more powerful.
This is what a 90 degrees light will do to your subject: shadowing part of it and adding contrast and power to the image.
The light being on the right side, the back of this man is underexposed (in shadow), thus creating more contrast in the image. Hoi An, Vietnam.
For close-up portraits, the angle of the light has some superb effects on skin tones. Mostly when the tones are darker and more keen to reflect the light, this angle will enhance these tones. Because, as mentioned above, a part of your subject (the part which is not directly into the light) will be darker, the brighter parts will be enhanced.
Here are two images of the same man, taken two minutes apart from each other. As you can see in the first one, the light is more even throughout the picture.
In this second image, there are some much darker areas on the left, adding contrast and punch to the image. The details on the skin tones are also much more interesting.
I hope that gives you some ideas for using the direction or angle of light to add punch to your people photography. Know where the light is coming from and make a conscious choice how to use it to your advantage.
Please share your people photos in the comments below.