Direction of light in photography: how to use front lighting

For the last part of our series on using the different directions of light in photography we’re taking a look at front lighting portraits. More specifically:

  1. The benefits of front lighting photography
  2. The pitfalls of lighting from the front
  3. How to use front light

But first…

What is front light?

Front light is the easiest direction of light to control, so it’s the lighting direction that we all start out using. It’s also the most common lighting direction in photography.

How to use front light to light a model on the beach

I used natural light only from the setting sun behind me to front light the model

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 use natural light, or artificial light, such as speedlights or strobes in a studio, the same facts on the direction of light 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 in photography.

It’s very different when lighting from the side as the light skims across the surface of the subject, highlighting any and all textures.

2. Pitfalls of front light

Front lighting is not as dramatic as either side light or backlight, so can be a bit dull in comparison. Because there are minimal shadows, the form of your subject is not highlighted.

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 and we’re used to seeing the world this way.

Not every subject needs drama. This is when front light is perfect.

3. How to use front lighting

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 which gives form and definition to their facial features.

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.

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

Obviously, when photographing 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 shine directly into your subject’s eyes, which is uncomfortable. So they’ll struggle to keep their eyes open and look into the camera.

The sun as front light for butterfly lighting

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.

Using front light at golden hour

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.

Front lighting at golden hour

If the sun is too high in the sky, 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).

This leads to my next point about front lighting. Full sun, just like a speedlight or studio strobe, can benefit from a little light manipulation.

Manipulating front light for portraits

Diffusing front light produces soft light and softens the shadows it casts on your subject, making the light much more flattering when direct light is too harsh. Two ways to manipulate light for diffused light portraiture are:

  • 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.

So you can completely block the light with a solid object, or diffuse the light by using a semi opaque object to block the light, but allow some of it through. Diffusing front light is the easiest way to control the amount of light on your subject.

For this reason, I’d never photograph outdoors without bringing along a handheld 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.

Diffusing natural front light

If you don’t have a handheld light diffuser with you, positioning your subjects in “open shade” is a great way of diffusing (softening) the light. An example of open shade for photos is the shade underneath a tree.

Position your subject with their back towards 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 diffused and a lot softer.

Diffusing artificial front light

When photographing indoors with artificial light, using a shoot through umbrella or softbox light modifier diffuses light before it reaches your subject.

I use Profoto studio lighting and accessories for off camera flash indoors and outdoors, 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.

Photography umbrellas

I’ve recommended these photography umbrellas in particular as they’re very versatile to use as shoot through umbrellas and reflective umbrellas.

Advantages of umbrellas:

  • Really quick and easy to set up and take down
  • Light to carry

Softbox light modifiers

Softboxes are another very effective way to diffuse artificial light.

Every studio lighting brand has their own range of softbox light modifiers for diffused lighting. The size and shape of the softbox (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.

Using artificial light and natural light together

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.

Reflecting natural front 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 say “of some sort” is that you don’t necessarily have to buy a reflector. Anything that reflects light is a reflector. You could use a:

  • White sheet
  • Piece of white card
  • Piece of card wrapped in tinfoil

If you want an easy-to-pack and convenient to use solution, check out the reflectors I recommend below.

Reflected artificial front lighting

Using a flash you could aim your light at a reflective surface to bounce the light back into your subject, for example, a:

  • White wall
  • White card
  • Reflector
  • Umbrella interior

When you use an umbrella to reflect light, you point your light into the umbrella to be reflected back to your subject.

This is not a shoot through umbrella, as mentioned before, but a reflective umbrella, with either a 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.

Just be aware that when using artificial light with natural light, you need to be careful with balancing 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

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about front lighting photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait lighting tips have helped you to understand how to use frontal lighting share that too.

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