How to Understand Natural Light Part 3: Direction of Light


Light has different qualities, and by understanding those differences and using them in your favour, you can become a better image maker.

In two previous articles I covered:

In this third chapter, you will learn:

  • How to control the direction of natural light in the field.
  • How to understand the different effects the direction of light will have on your portraits. How to mix light colors to create depth.
  • A few advanced techniques, like using reflectors or flags.
  • How to practice using exercises.

Please note that as a portrait photographer, I will be discussing portraits, and using them as examples. However, this knowledge applies to any kind of photography.

Working with natural light does not mean compromising

Most people will tell you that while working with artificial lighting will allow you to fully control the lighting situation in your shooting, working exclusively with natural light will limit your ability to control the lighting to almost zero. In my opinion, this false assumption is leading many photographers to mediocre images. Stating that the lighting is poor, because “that’s how it was” when they made the photo, is not acceptable.

So, the first step in controlling natural light is to carefully plan your time of the shoot. In the preview articles, we have discussed how the quality and color of light are affected by time, and weather, during the day. Now, let’s understand how the direction of light will change throughout the day, and how it will affect the lighting situation in our portraits.

Frontal lighting

Frontal lighting refers to light which comes directly in front of your subject (the light source is behind you and the camera). The situation is possible or when your subject is facing the light source (for example face directed to a setting or a rising sun). Another possibility is with reflected light. Like in this image, Dialsiz was standing in the shade, but in front of her was a bright sunny wall, reflecting the sunlight directly on her face.


Pros: Frontal lighting will usually illuminate your subject’s face evenly, without any shadows. It will create an aesthetic and balanced look, which is why this setup is very popular in fashion and beauty shoots.

Cons: The lack of shadows will create a lack and depth and drama.

45 degree lighting

As the name suggests, this refers to a situation where the light comes from an angle of 45 degrees from the nose of your subject. This is extremely popular lighting setup in portrait photography, which is sometimes called Rembrandt lighting. It can be easily achievable with side light coming from a rising or setting sun, or by positioning your subject at a 45 degree angle to a window.


Pros: in this lighting setup, you will note how the light illuminates your subject’s face gradually. Creating a gradual shadow, and in our two dimensional art form, shadows usually mean depth and volume. That is the reason this setup is so appealing in the eyes of most viewers.

Cons: The dramatic effect of shadowing parts of the subject’s face might not be suitable for your visual story.

90 degree lighting

As the name suggests, this refers to a situation where the light comes from an angle of 90 degrees from the nose of your subject. It can be achievable with side light coming from a rising or a setting sun or by positioning your subject at a 90 degree angle to a window.




Pros: Extremely dramatic effect, which is almost impossible to ignore.

Cons: This dramatic lighting setup can be a little over dramatic, and with the right subject, this lighting can be scary! It all depends of course, on what you want to evoke in your visual story.


This refers to a situation where the light comes from behind your subject, and in front of you.

IMG 9185b

Pros: Backlight will create highlights in the contours of your subject, and unlike with frontal lighting, this will create a sense of depth, and a clear separation between the subject and the background. Unless the light source is very dim and fully covered by your subject’s body, working with backlight will force you to be creating with your photography, as it will make the exposure a bit more difficult. This is where switching from the automatic mode can be handy. While overexposing can be good for creating a burned out background or a lens flare, underexposure will usually result in a nice silhouette (as above)

Cons: As mentioned, this one is a bit more advanced to handle, and will mostly require switching out of your camera’s automatic mode, but again, a great opportunity for some creative photography.

Light from above

This refers to a situation where the light comes from directly above your subject, like during midday.



Pros: This interrogation room style lighting setup will not be flattering to most faces. Light coming from above will result in deep shadows on your subject’s face, making the forehead shadow the eyes, and making the nose shadow the chin. However, it can be used as a way of creating a very dramatic image. Oscar-winning Cinematographer Gordon Hugh Willis, did a groundbreaking work in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, The Godfather, with the combination of underexposing and positioning the lighting source above the actors’ faces. He managed to support the dark and mysterious sense of this movie, with the audience was unable to see most eyes throughout the movie.

Cons: As mentioned, when handled right, this lighting setup, can lead to great and creative results. Otherwise, you subject will look like he or she is going to answer some tough questions.

Controlling natural light

Basic: in the simplest form, controlling natural light is first in the planning. Choose the right time to be outside, or take your subject indoors to use the soft light coming from a window.

Advanced: You can control natural light almost like controlling artificial lighting, with the help of reflectors or/and flags.

Reflectors are used to bounce light into the subject’s face. For example, if you are dealing with light coming from above, you can overcome the problem of dark eyes by illumining them using a reflector. It can also lighten the dark side of the face, if needed, in the case of lighting from a 45 or 90 degree angle.

F11A1258b 1

You can see the reflection of the reflector used to bounce light back into this man’s face.

A flag is usually a piece of black fabric that can be used to block unwanted light and create shadows (shadows mean a sense of depth remember?) on the subject’s face. To use a flag properly, you will need somebody or something that can hold it. That is the way I use all kind of flags in the field. I have used my hat (which I was holding in my left hand) to shadow an overexposed forehead numerous times, or using the help of an innocent bystander that was asked to stand in one spot for a moment, to create a shadow when needed.

Exercise #1:

Christmas (or just after it) is the best time to ask for a favor. Bring your favorite friend, family member, or pet, and position it in front of a window. While moving your subject, practice the concepts of frontal, back, 90 degree and 45 degree lighting setups. Examine the images, and get a deeper understating of how light direction will affect your portrait.

Exercise #2:

Reflectors are effective and fun to use. You can buy yourself a reflector, or prepare one with a small piece of cardboard and a simple aluminum foil.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National,, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

  • varunkarthick
  • pete guaron

    Oded, looking at the last photo (including the detail of the subject’s eye) and your explanation, I couldn’t help feeling that the reflector has made him look as though he has a cataract in his eye. I think that’s a rather unfortunate side effect of “helping nature”. I still prefer “natural” light. I do from time to time have to accept that flash or floods or something is simply unavoidable, but that doesn’t make me “like” it.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Agreed that in this instance the reflection in the man’s eye can be disturbing, but it does help to explain the point about using reflectors. However, it is not necessary to have the reflector in a position that is reflected in your subject’s eye – in fact it is often said that that there should only be one ‘catch light’ in the eyes of a portrait. But it does not invalidate the use of a reflector entirely.
    You have observed that well, so learn from this, and you can avoid that happening in your next shot!

  • SteveR

    It seems to me that the only people who notice catchlights are photographers. Have you ever noticed the “catchlights” in someone’s eyes when you were in conversation with them? What about sitting across the table in a restaurant – did you notice the large catchlight from the adjacent window? My guess is that you haven’t. If a reflector can improve the lighting on the subject and make it a better photograph, who cares about the catchlight?

  • Joe Edman

    StevenR – catchlights are VERY important in portraits. You wouldn’t notice them missing while talking to someone because the light is constantly shifting all around them. Once you take that still image and spend a few seconds looking at the same lighting, a missing catchlight sticks out like a sore thumb. Try it. You will see what I mean.

  • oldclimber

    Sometime in the 1970’s there was an especially photogenic oak tree in Yosemite, and a friend told me about watching numerous folks eagerly shooting it in its fall colors; then, at some crucial moment likely later afternoon, a car pulled up at the turnout, some guy with all sorts of bounce reflectors jumped out, and he (perhaps with some assistants) proceeded to set them up around the tree, oblivious to the other people. A key moment with broken streaming sunlight lit the tree up in luminous glory, the pro (apparently a NatGeo person) got his perfect shot (later seen in the mag) then packed up and took off, leaving the rest behind. This is enhanced natural light, to raise shadow areas into Kodachrome’s limited contrast range; amateurs naively think this is cheating, but it is not – what is revolting is the behavior of the pro. Keep a perspective on respecting not only the art, but other photographers, and the environment we call our resource.

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