Direction of light – how to use side light in photography

In our second tutorial on direction of light we’re looking at how to use side light. Specifically, where to find it or how to create side lighting, as well as when and how to use it.

But first…

What is side lighting?

Side lighting is quite literally what it says on the tin. It’s lighting a subject from the side of the subject.

Obviously, this is quite a broad area, but we’ll get into the angles of side light and how they affect an image in a moment.

how to use side light

To work through how to use side light, I’ve divided these lighting tips into three parts:

1. Why use side lighting?

  • Defining form and dimension
  • Creating mood
  • Texture
  • Exaggerating depth

2. Tips on making the most of side light

  • Controlling the background
  • Adding drama to an image
  • Instilling serenity in an image

3. Actually using side lighting

  • Using the angles of side light to define subjects
  • Side lighting in portraiture

Flat light minimises shadows

Shot with natural light on an overcast day, after the sun had slipped below the horizon. Therefore there are no shadows.

1. Why use side lighting?

Before we get into how to use side light, let’s start with why you would want to use it in the first place.

Defining form and dimension

We are used to defining the form of an object by its tonal range of light to dark. This is how our brain deciphers what we see around us.

When lighting an object from the side, there will be a light side and a dark side to the object. These shadows define its three dimensional structure, which then persuades our brain to see the flat image as three dimensional, because we can see its form.

Further reading: How form in photography brings subjects to life

REASON NO. 1:  use side light to show objects in an image as three dimensional.

High contrast shadows caused by low angled sun to the side

Shot just before the sun set. The low angled sun shining from the side creates shadow on her cheek closest to camera and a shadow from her nose to her cheek. This adds three dimensional form to the image. It defines the shape of her face.

Creating mood with side light

Mood is affected by the type of light in an image and, as side light adds texture to a subject (more on this in a moment), we need to consider what feeling we want to convey with the type of light that’s visible in the shot.

When we have a a clear blue sky and bright sunshine, shadows are crisp and clearly defined. This is referred to as hard light.

The harder the light, the more defined the contrast will be between light and shadow.

On an overcast day, shadows are faint and fuzzy and this we refer to as soft light. If you live in the UK, you’ll also be used to non-existent shadows! It doesn’t get any softer than that.

To manipulate the tonal range (range of light and dark) in the same way as clouds vs clear sky affects shadows, we have a few options:

  • If we don’t want dark shadows, we can use a reflector as a fill light on the shadow side of an object to bounce light back in and lighten the shadows.
  • Alternatively, we could use a diffuser between the light and the subject to partially block hard light hitting the subject.

Further reading:

Light quality and quantity of light – essential knowledge

How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Cloudy day photography natural light tricks

REASON NO. 2:  light is everything to photography, the type of light and how you use it dictates the mood of the image.

Side light in black and white photography

Speaking of texture

Side lighting is a favourite of landscape photographers and wildlife photographers, as the direction of the light brings out textures in the subject. Texture is an essential consideration of well thought out composition. Light skimming across the surface of a rock face will cast all the nooks and crannies into shadow.

Equally, side light on a fluffed up bird having a bath will highlight the ruffled feathers and accentuate any flying water droplets.

In portraiture, side lighting adds mood to an image. It also defines the subject’s face and adds depth.

Using side lighting in the golden hour makes the most of the low angled sun for texture and mood. This is the best time to use side lighting when photographing with natural light outdoors.

Because side light exaggerates textures by creating shadows it’s very effective in black and white photography.

Further reading:

How texture in photography composition adds interest

How to see and shoot black and white photography

5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

REASON NO. 3:  texture makes an image palpable and interesting. The viewer feels that they are there, seeing the subject with their own eyes.

Texture is highlighted by the side lighting

The side lighting in this shot emphasises the texture of the model’s top, as well as the blurred reeds behind her. The color of her eyes comes alive, because of the light coming from the side.

Exaggerate depth

In photography, most of the time we’re working to separate our subject from the background, to make it stand out and draw the viewer’s eye.

Side light on the subject exaggerates the depth in an image by separating the subject from the background. It does this by defining the contours of your subject.

The subtle glow around the subject is similar to, but not as defined as when lit from behind. Side light is enough, however to create a sharp outline of the subject. This defines its shape and gives a three dimensional feel to the photograph.

The separation is increased if the light hits your subject only and not the background. If the background is in shadow and the subject is in the light, because the eye is always drawn to the lightest part of an image, the viewer will automatically be drawn to the subject.

REASON NO. 4:  side light separates your subject from the background and draws the viewer’s eye.

Isolate subject from the background

The woodland behind the boys is in shadow and, although busy, is blurred, so is not distracting. The boys are lit by a break in the tree canopy allowing light in. This isolates them from the background, so our eyes are drawn straight to them.

2. Tips when using side lighting

Speaking of backgrounds, that leads us on to how to make the most of side lighting.


To add to the separation and keep attention on your subject, you need to ensure that the background is as uncluttered as possible. Physically uncluttered, especially by light coloured objects.

As mentioned above, our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of an image first and then any other light patches.

If there’s a lot going on in the background, using a low aperture is one of the most popular methods for blurring it. A blurred background is less distracting and again helps to isolate the subject.

Further reading:  Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition


Add drama to a photo

For a more dramatic image, expose for the lit side of your subject, even if you’re photographing from the shadow side.

If the light is too intense it will make the highlights too obvious, which will draw too much attention away from the subject. By exposing for the lit side, the shadows will automatically be darker and it’s this contrast that adds drama to the image. As mentioned before you can lighten the shadows by bouncing light back in with a reflector, or with artificial light.

The closer the light is to the axis of the lens, the flatter the light will be – go wide for texture, drama and definition. In other words, the more to the side the light is, instead of being near you, the more dramatic it will be.

Imagine your subject is standing in the middle of a clock, facing you standing at 6. If the light is at 6 as well, it will hit your subject flat on, front lighting it, and there will be no shadow.

No shadow equals no definition and a potentially dull image.

Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

Add serenity to a photo

Do the exact opposite for light, airy, peace and serenity. Expose for the shadows.

This will blow out the highlights and create a high key image. If the shadows are soft (as we mentioned at the beginning), the image will be peaceful.

Further reading: What is high key photography, and how to master it

Clock showing angles of side light

3. Using side lighting angles to define subjects

Now we’re ready to get into the techniques of using side light. This is about defining our subjects with side lighting, regardless of whether it’s natural light or artificial light.

Wether you’re photographing landscapes, wildlife, portraiture or street photography, the angle of the light is key.

Defining subjects using artificial light as a side light

If you’re using artificial light, move the light around to either 4 or 8 (on the clock) and you’ll see the shadows forming on your subject.

If the light is at either 3 or 9, as it would be with split lighting, you’ll be at the extreme end of side lighting. Every little bump or dent on your subject will be accentuated by the light skimming across it.

Further reading: What is split lighting in portrait photography – how to use it and why

Defining immovable objects using the sun as a side light

The same thing applies if you’re using the sun to light your subject.

Obviously, you can’t move the sun, but you can wait for the sun to move through its natural arc if you can’t move your subject (mountains, buildings etc).

Defining moveable objects using the sun as a side light

If your subject can move, position it according to the placement of the sun.

Of course, you’ll need to bear in mind the background, so it might not always be possible. In which case, come back at a different time of day when the sun is in a position to shoot a better background.

Side lighting angles for portraiture

When lighting people from the side, at about 45 degrees (i.e. half way between 3 and 6, or between 9 and 6 on the clock), it’s worth knowing that photographing them from the shadow side (short lighting) or from the lit side (broad lighting) will change their look.

This is why lighting is so exciting and so important in photography! Without light there is no photography. Mastering light leads to excellence in photography.

Further reading: 

Short lighting and broad lighting for portrait photography

5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

If portraits are your thing and you’d like to hear more about lighting for portraiture, drop us your email address and we’ll keep you updated on all things portraiture. You’ll also receive our weekly bulletin of latest tips and techniques every Monday.


Other tutorials in the Direction of Light series:

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Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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