Photography Focus: Understanding Directional Lighting

Controlling and manipulating light is a key way that you can elevate your images. Learning how to use lighting properly can help you create different styles and moods in order to achieve the image you want, which in turn can make a huge difference is your photography. Directional lighting is a great place to being playing with light, so you can start taking your images to the next level!

Let’s focus on directional light to in order to create images full of drama, mood and interest.

Old church — Shoot through the day as light changes

Photo via Craftsy instructor Alan M. Thornton in the online photography class The Essentials for Understanding Light.

No matter what type of photography, you focus on lighting is the most important element to make your images have interest, focus and depth. Lighting helps to define the center of interest and even plays a major role in the composition.

Matt Armendariz puts it plainly in his book, Focus on Food Photography, “Simply stated, you cannot have photography without light. Even the origin of the word itself includes the Latin word for ‘light.’ And next to the food, light is the most important aspect to food photography. It illuminates the subject, it shines through objects, it washes over and bathes the plate, or it peaks through and highlights only selected areas”

So what is directional light exactly? Directional light is essentially having your light source coming from one direction. Here are some interesting ways you can play with this method of light manipulation.

Creating mood with directional light

In world of food photography, there is a trend in dark, moody images with low light and deep shadows.  The light highlights just a part of the subject and falls off quickly to create contrast and interest. It looks as if these images were all shot at dusk but the truth is by understanding how light works you can manipulate the scene in order to create any mood.

In this style of photography, directional light is key. With one light source and the object set near the light, the light falls off quickly creating more dramatic lighting — brighter highlights and darker shadows. The multiple light sources or the object pulled far away from the light source the light wraps around the image giving it a softer, less dramatic light.

The closer your light source is to the subject, the more contrast and intensity you will get. The further away, the softer the light will become — the shadows will soften, as the light has more of a chance to wrap around the image.

Dealing with multiple light sources

In my house, where I shoot, I have large west-facing windows as well as north-facing windows. Most of my walls are white, which creates bounce, so I’m essentially getting light in every direction. This is great for bright, soft images without a lot of shadows and contrast, but sometimes I want to mix it up and create images with deep shadows and intensity that comes from directional lighting.

Light coming in from multiple directions in a kitchen

Light coming in from multiple directions

When that is the purpose, I need to focus on blocking out my light, so that one light source remains. This could also mean finding a different location in the house to shoot when I want to create a different mood with the light.

One day on a whim I decided to shoot a messy, process shot in my kitchen. It had never occurred to do so before because the light in the living room was so much “better” or brighter. But, our kitchen has a narrow window that runs the length of the counter, creating a striking band of light. The light falls off quickly because it is so close to my subject, which creates lots of shadows and a lot of contrast — the light hits the part of the subject closest to it, then quickly turns the rest into shadows.

Using directional light to photograph tomatoes

I don’t always like to shoot in the kitchen because it’s often too messy to shoot and the surface isn’t what I want often. It’s also quite small. So, instead I’ll move into the space with a lot of light but block off much of it with modifiers and narrow the light down to one source.

The other key factor here is where the light is coming from. Move your subject around to in order to determine where you want the light to come from. For example, I find back lighting much more dramatic than having the light coming directly in front of the subject. In fact, it’s very rare that I shoot with the light in front. I prefer side or back light. But the only way you can figure that out for yourself is to experiment.

Back lit photo of tiny heirloom tomatoes

Back lit photo

Photo of heirloom tomatoes  with the light source just off to the side

Light source just off to the side

I will say that with backlight you may need to use bounce to light the subject in front, so that the light from the back doesn’t completely block out the front of your subject.

Inexpensive modifiers

You don’t need to break the bank to change the light — great photography on a budget is attainable. Most of the time, I just use the first thing I see to use to block the light. Large sheets, table cloths or shower curtains work well to cover large windows. The darker the fabric the more effective it will be. Large rolls of paper are also effective. You can find these online or at local photography stores.

I also use a lot of black poster board. Two or three taped together makes a great blocker of light, as they are able to stand up on their own.

Using directional light to photography tiny tomatoes

Light blocked with a child’s chalkboard and a tablecloth

Directional Light

Final image with light coming from one source — all other sources blocked

You can also play around with some screens of various shapes and sizes as they will still allow some light to come through giving your image a soft, diffused light.

If this leaves your mind reeling or you would like more ideas for how to modify, shape or direct light be sure to check out the class, The Essentials for Understanding Light. In it you’ll learn how to modify or shape your light, manual settings on your camera to affect light and how to create mood by setting the direction of your light.

How do you play with directional light in your photography?

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