- The benefits of front lighting
- The pitfalls of lighting from the front
- How to use front light
What is front light?
Front light is the easiest angle of light to control, so it is the angle that we all start out using. It is also the most common lighting angle in photography.
Light shining onto the front of your subject is front light. It’s that straight forward. Knowing how light behaves and then learning how to use it is key to great photography. This is slightly less straight forward, but not difficult.
Whether you’re using natural light, or artificial light, such as speedlights or strobes in a studio, the same traits apply.
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1. Benefits of front lighting
Lighting somebody directly from the front can be flattering on lines and blemishes. The reason for this is that the light is coming directly at the person’s face, so there are no shadows. This is referred to as flat light.
It is very different when lighting from the side as the light skims across the surface of the subject, highlighting any and all textures.
Read more here: Angles of light: how to use side light
2. Pitfalls of front light
If used correctly in the right setting, I don’t see this so much as a pitfall, however, but rather as differentiation. After all, you don’t always want dramatic light with every shot. Sometimes you just want a nice, open, airy, light feel to a photo. Not every subject needs drama. This is when front light is perfect.
3. How to use front light
Just because we’re lighting from the front doesn’t mean the image has to be dull or without form.
We can bring in some definition by having the light higher up, angled down towards the subject. The subject is still front lit, but the higher angle of the light causes shadows to fall downwards. In portraiture the shadows fall under the subject’s nose and chin. This light pattern is known as butterfly lighting, often called beauty lighting. Check out the cover of almost any fashion magazine to see it in action.
Butterfly lighting is a win win situation – the light coming from the front is kind on lines, but because we have some shadow, it adds definition to the face.
Obviously, if you’re shooting with natural light, you can’t just move the light. You can, however, be aware of where the sun is in the sky and position your subject accordingly. Just remember that when using front light, the sun will be shining directly into their eyes, which is uncomfortable, and they will struggle to keep their eyes open and look into the camera.
You can see the butterfly lighting pattern from the distinctive shadow under the girl’s nose. Shot late in the afternoon with the sun was behind me – natural light and no diffusion.
Shot with natural light and no diffusion. It was the golden hour, just before the sun sank below the horizon, but was still high enough to create the shadow beneath her chin, giving definition to her jawline.
If the sun is at the wrong angle, the shadows can be ugly, and will ruin the image. The golden hour is a perfect example of the sun being in a great position. The sun works as backlight, side light and as front light, because of its low position in the sky (and great colors, but that’s another subject).
Read more here: Golden hour: what is it and why is it so amazing?
This leads to my next point about front light. Full sun, just like a speedlight or studio strobe, can benefit from diffusion.
Diffusing front light
Diffusing front light softens the shadows it casts on your subject so is much more flattering when direct light is too harsh. There are two ways to diffuse light for portraiture:
- block the light
- reflect the light
Blocking front light
You could create your own shade, by holding something between your subject and the light. How much light you allow through depends on the opacity of the object you’re using to block the light.
For this reason, I would never photograph outdoors without bringing along a diffuser. Even if I’m not sure I’ll use it. My motto is: rather have it and not use it than need it and not have it.
If you don’t have a diffuser with you, positioning your subjects in “open shade” is a great way of softening the light. An example of open shade is the shade underneath a tree.
Position your subject with their back to the tree, facing the open in the direction of the sun. The light is still coming from the front, but it’s not hitting them directly, so the shadows are a lot softer.
When photographing indoors using artificial light, using a shoot through umbrella or softbox will diffuse the light before it reaches your subject. I use Profoto studio lighting and accessories, but you don’t need to spend a fortune. Here are some reasonably priced shoot through umbrellas that would work with speed lights used off camera, as well as studio lighting.
I’ve recommended these ones in particular as they’re very versatile. I’ll mention, in a moment, the other use for these umbrellas. Another advantage of umbrellas is that they’re really quick and easy to set up and take down and light to carry.
Every studio lighting brand has their own range of soft boxes to use for diffused lighting. The size and shape of the soft box (or any light modifier) you use will determine the way the light behaves, which is why there are so many options available.
With these diffusers, you’re getting all the benefits of front light, without the harsh shadows that you may not want.
Here I used a combination of natural light (the late afternoon sun behind her) and artificial light (Profoto B1x) with a large umbrella (Profoto deep white umbrella – large), as well as a front diffusion panel for extra soft light to light her from the front
USEFUL TIP: The closer your subject is to the light, the softer the shadows will be.
Reflected front light
You could also use reflected light to light your subject from the front. Light that is bounced, or reflected, off a surface onto your subject will be a lot softer than direct light.
If you’re outdoors using natural light, you would simply need to position your subject facing a white wall or reflective surface onto which the sun is shining. Alternatively, you could hold a reflector of some sort and angle the sunlight back onto your subject.
The reason I recommend a reflector “of some sort” is that you don’t necessarily have to buy a reflector. You could use a white sheet, a piece of white card, or a piece of card wrapped in tinfoil. Anything that reflects light is a reflector.
If you want easy-to-pack and convenient to use, check out the reflectors I recommend below.
Using a speed light or a studio light you could aim your light at, for example, a white wall, card or reflector, positioned to bounce the light back into your subject.
Alternatively, you could use an umbrella to reflect the light. In this instance you point your light into the umbrella to be reflected back to your subject. Not a shoot through umbrella, as mentioned before, but one with a with either white or sliver interior (and black exterior). To further diffuse the light, you could add a diffuser panel to the front of the umbrella, making it similar to a softbox.
If you’re using artificial light with natural light, you need to be careful with how you balance the light, as a really strong fill flash can look artificial.
USEFUL TIP: The bigger your light modifier, the more diffused your light will be and the softer the shadows will be.
Two things to remember when using a reflective surface to front light your subject:
- The shinier your reflector, the harder the light will be, so the harder the shadows will be.
- The color of your reflective surface will be reflected back onto your subject, which is why white is best as no color will be reflected.
You can read more about how to use reflectors here: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one
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