Directions of light – Why you shouldn’t always look on the bright side

Tip 16 for Better Shoots by Heidi Rondak

“All you need is light”

PART 4: Directions of light – Why you shouldn’t always look on the bright side

By reading my last three tip articles you had the opportunity to gain basic knowledge about different kinds of light such as natural light, flashlights, and continuous light. By bringing reflectors and diffusers into play the possibilities of modifying light beams to be soft or hard, wide-angle or focused, direct or indirect are game-changing. However, there’s one thing left to be discussed: the effects of the light’s direction on the model and fashion. 

How the right light setup can sell your products better

The supreme discipline in photography is not only to light a scene and make it somewhat bright but to create a desired atmosphere in the picture by carefully choosing the position of the light in relation to the subject. The light’s direction and the number of light sources pointed at the model can have very different impacts on the face and your fashion. When we look at commercial photography we can oftentimes find bright and shadeless imagery that we sense to look rather ‘unnatural’. Yet this effect is used to give us the impression that the ad is a matter of something superior appealing to people’s pursuit of perfection. We instantly recognise the product and the call to action: buy it! And those who identify with the ideal shown there will act on it, especially when we’re dealing with products that are status symbols. Aside from creating a world of perfectionism, well-illuminated photography is popular in the commercial world for another simple reason: the products are displayed best when any shadow is dismissed. 

However in the era of bloggers and body positivity ideals have changed and so did advertisement, at least partly. More natural photography has become an important stylistic device for commercials in order to reach the audience in a personal way. While artificial looking photos would generate a certain distance and elusiveness to the brand, a personal connection between the customer and the model representing it is a new strategy that can be reached by more natural light situations and snapped instead of staged photos. At the same time, these campaigns are blending in the environment more and they run the risk of being part of the furniture instead of creating attention and interest. The character of the brand is getting noticed but the product blends in casually. So should you rather look on the ‘bright side’ and present your products in the proper light in order to convince your costumers to buy them? Not necessarily… 

“Convincing isn’t really possible in an age of customer control. Customers hold most of the cards today. They have good visibility into their choices, and they can easily share information with each other. Not only that, they don’t like to be sold. But they do like to buy. Your job shouldn’t be to convince customers to buy, but to help them buy what they want.” – Marty Neumeier, author of ‘The Brand Gap’

Which light situation is suitable for your campaign?

With a campaign, your main goal is probably to crack the identity and the gut feeling of your target group and convince its members that your brand is precisely for them. In my very first tip article of this column, I’m addressing how people respond to different image content. In the following, we are going to analyse the effects of different directions of light on a model and which impressions they create on the audience.

Frontal light from a high or low position

frontal light is likely to be connoted with an advertisement
for passport photos, the whole face is lighted

In the same way, as you can distinguish whether we are dealing with soft or harsh light you can find out where the light in a picture is coming from. That is to say that we’re having a closer look at the shadows, especially on the model. When both sides of a face are of the same brightness that means that the light must be coming from the same angle as the photographer – provided that the person is turning her or his face straight into the camera. Another help for finding out where the light is coming from (and with how many light sources a photo is taken) are the reflections in the eyes of the person. A rather small light source will produce a good contour around the face while a bigger one would flatten the face more. The advantage of positioning your light right in front of the model is smooth skin and good visibility of everything in the picture which is why this light setup is often used for beauty photography, advertisement, glossy luxury campaigns, and biometric passport photos. A similar effect can be reached by using two sideway lights of almost the same intensity and distance to the model. As you can probably tell from your own passport photos a face lighted this way looks a bit alienated. How can this be explained? – Simple: in everyday life, we mostly see faces that are not perfectly illuminated. Nevertheless, we observe them in their entirety whereby our brains help us. Now when we really don’t see shadows we automatically know that the light is ‘fake’ and throughout our lives, in a consumer world, we learned that these kinds of images are often of a commercial nature.

But when it comes to the height of the light source a few shadows can be added in order to create certain effects. High frontal light is for example very beneficial for female faces as it enhances the cheekbones. Furthermore, it creates a darker shadow under the chin and nose which is both sculpting the face to look more realistic. It can also add more shadows to the rest of the body resp. the worn fashion and make a photo more plastic than a light source which is approx. on eye-level. On the other hand, a rather unnatural light situation would be a light source lower than the face. It would lighten the parts of the face that are usually darker. And it might remind us of scary campfire stories told by someone holding an upward flashlight underneath his or her chin.

any light coming from below is taken in as a very unnatural light situation

Another specialty of frontal light is when it’s coming from the camera’s position for example when we’re using an attached flash on top of the camera. This light is likely to over-expose the person and dismiss all shadows on her or him. Depending on the distance to the background we either get a sharp drop shadow or complete darkness behind the person when she or he’s free-standing. We know this look from event photography and it has become very popular in the fashion industry too because it looks very spontaneous, imperfect, sincere, and cheeky which corresponds to the current zeitgeist.

few or no shadows on the model and a sharp drop shadow behind her are created by lights close to the camera

Lateral light position

A light that is positioned sideways from the model brightens one side of the face while the other half is more or less dark. Sometimes additional lights or reflectors are used to fill the shadows and prevent extreme darkness. They can also soften the look of the skin. However, the bigger the angle between the camera and the main light is the more skin and fabric structure you can see in the picture. You might, therefore, consider using a more frontal light on older faces than it is necessary for younger ones. Other effects of using lateral light are a higher three-dimensionality and therefore these pictures look more realistic and personal. As mentioned above this light situation is much more similar to what we see in everyday life and, therefore, it appeals to us as stronger and with more character. Additionally, as parts of the photo are darker the whole impression of the picture is moodier and therefore compelling. By toning the light on the opposite side the shady parts become even more interesting and you can create a whole new atmosphere depending on the colour you choose. If you’re looking for an approach to be close to your audience, regarding the light, you should probably identify with this setup. It is used for both haute couture and prêt-à-porter fashion as well as for portraiture. It’s neither forbidden to use it for beauty or jewellery photography as long as the shadows are cleared to a reasonable degree. 


Using backlight alone is not a real option if you’re willing to sell your stuff. It would just outline the model and what she or he’s wearing. However, adding it to one of the above-mentioned settings can breathe new life into the image. The look we get from that is overall very fresh and summerly because it suggests the sun is shining from behind. This effect is used e.g. for skincare advertisements and spring/summer fashion campaigns but also for winter and sportswear. 

Controlling the direction of daylight 

Unless you’re the Greek god Helios you’re obviously not able to move the sun around in order to control daylight. However, it’s simple to turn the model the way that the sun is shining down on her or him from the desired direction. The photographer might need to change her or his perspective as well then. By doing so, two problems can occur: either the sun is too high anyway (during midday) and the light situation doesn’t really change when the model or photographer changes their position. Or, by turning around, the background is suddenly a new one and this might not be what you wanted in the picture. Therefore there is one more option which I’d like to mention for the sake of completeness although I’m not an enthusiast of it: using flashlights outdoors. 

Artificial light can actually compete with the sun because its position is much closer to the subject. This way you can have the sun just brightening the surroundings while the new main light is lighting the model from whichever angle you choose. Unfortunately, most outdoor images with artificial main light can be detected as ‘fake’-looking because again sub-consciously people will notice that this couldn’t be the actual light situation on the spot. 

using flashed outdoors can look unnatural but it helps to deepen the blue tone of the sky

It’s a special case when you’re looking for a saturated blue sky in the picture because then it’s, in fact, necessary to draw on artificial lights. The reason is that usually, the sky is the brightest part in any picture resulting in baby blue or almost white tones. This is easier to handle when it comes to landscape or architecture photography because the photographer can use special filters or lower the overall brightness (through the camera settings) to darken the sky and capture more colour in it. But as soon as there’s a foreground resp. a person as a subject it’s necessary to make sure that she or he won’t look underexposed thereby. Artificial lights pointed on the model do a good job here – they’re the only way to capture a darker sky behind a well-exposed model photographically. 

More ways of using an extra light source outdoors are to just fill the shadows with it like reflectors would do or to add a nice effect like e.g. a backlight – maybe even a coloured one that can add e.g. a sunset look. Anyway, mixed light situations are always difficult to handle, especially because daylight is constantly changing on its own (you can read more about the characteristics and usage of daylight here) while flashlights aren’t.

A little more elegant way of bouncing extra light on the model is, as already suggested above, using reflectors instead. A metallic reflector can as well look a bit artificial due to the surprisingly high amount of light that it reflects while a white one is more subtle hence natural. On all accounts, reflectors add another light source to your image and on a sunny day, you can choose their position at a whim!

turning the model to or away from the sun helps to create other light situations on the face


The decision whether to go for a rather natural and realistic light look or with glamorous and artificial-looking photography in your campaign is completely up to you. Yet I hope my explanations and examples could help you to imagine the impact it will have on your customers. The feelings that you get by looking at images are certainly similar to those that other people have. Let this gut feeling be your guide when it comes to your decision. Of course, you don’t need to know a lot about light technology in photography – for that, you hire a photographer. But engaging with these details in existing pictures can get you inspired for your own campaign.

The next chapters are going to explain the roles and importance of a basic team and why you shouldn’t refuse to hire a professional model, a hairstylist, a make-up artist, and a fashion stylist. I’m going to exclude the photographer from this list – because I hope you already know how important she or he is for your shoot! (:


If you enjoyed reading this article, or you found it helpful in one way or the other, I would love to know (reach out)! You are also welcome to support my work and writing by donating whichever amount this is worth to you. I will thank you with lots of telepathic love and more interesting journal entries. Cheers!

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