How to use side lighting in photography – direction of light

In our second tutorial on the direction of light we’re looking at how to use side lighting in photography for dramatic effect with basic lighting techniques for portrait photography. Specifically:

  • different types of lighting for side light,
  • position of the light source
  • and how to control lighting conditions for the different effects of side light

What is side lighting in photography?

Side lighting is quite literally what it says on the tin. Portrait photographer use side lighting to light a subject’s face from the side of the subject to create form and define facial features for dramatic images. 

We’ll get into the angles of side light and how they affect facial features in a moment.

How to use side lighting in photography

To work through how to use side light for a dramatic portrait, I’ve divided my portrait lighting tips into three parts:

1. Types of side light for portrait photography

  • Different types of light for side lighting portraits
  • Side lighting angles for portrait photography
  • Examples of different types of side lighting

2. How to make the most of side light

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

3. Why use side lighting for portraits?

  • Defining form and dimension
  • Creating mood
  • Texture
  • Exaggerating depth
Flat light minimises shadows
Flat light image shot with natural light on an overcast day, after the sun had slipped below the horizon, which is why there aren’t any shadows

1. Different types of light for side lighting portraits

Side lighting techniques are about defining your subject with lighting from the side of your subject, regardless of the light source. Natural light photographers can use direct sunlight, indirect sunlight or window light to side light subjects.

Artificial lighting sources for side light include off camera flash and continuous light. 

How to use artificial light as a side light

With artificial light, move the light around to either the 4 or 8 o’clock position (with your subject at the center of the imaginary clock) and you’ll see the shadows forming on your subject.

If the light is at either 3 or 9 o’clock, as it would be with a split lighting pattern, 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.

How to use direct sunlight as a side light

Because with natural light portrait photography outdoors you can move your subject, but not the sun, you have to position them in relation to the position of the sun.

Time of day is very important when lighting with direct sunlight, because of the height of the sun in the sky. For example the midday sun would not work for side lighting as it’s too high in the sky. Golden hour is the best time of day for side lighting, because of the low angled sun.

You’ll also need to bear in mind the background. If the sun isn’t in the right position you’ll have to go back at a different time of day when the sun is in a better position for the background.

how to use side light
Lit by indirect natural light from the side by a large window fitted with sheer material to further diffuse the light. This is also an example of short lighting as I photographed her from the shadow side of her face (details below)

How to use window light as a side light

Window light is a lovely soft source of light when the sun isn’t shining directly through the window. For an even softer light, hang sheer material in front of the window to diffuse the light. The closer your subject is to the window the softer the light will be.

Place your subject sideways to the window and then adjust their position for different angles of side lighting. The height of the window and exactly where you place them in relation to the window determines the type of lighting pattern.

When using window light pay careful attention to where shadows fall on your subject’s face and make sure to capture catchlights from the window reflection. Without catchlights in the eyes a portrait can be lifeless.

Side lighting angles for portraiture

In portrait photography you can choose from four side lighting setups depending on how dramatic you want the image to be. The angle of the light in relation to the subject is key for creating these different types of portrait lighting patterns, namely:

  • Rim lighting
  • Split lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Loop lighting

You can see examples of each lighting style further down.

In addition to using different angles of light to create different lighting patterns, in portrait photography you also need to decide if you should photograph a subject from the shadow side or the lit side of the subject. When lighting people from the side, at about a 45 degree angle to the subject, you can either slim or widen faces with lighting depending on which side is closest to camera.

To help you picture this lighting setup, imagine the subject is in the middle of a clock, the key light (main light) would be either half way between 3 and 6, or between 6 and 9 on the clock (see lighting diagram below).

  • Photographing from the shadow side of the face (short lighting) slims faces
  • Photographing from the lit side of the face (broad lighting) widens faces

Clock showing angles of side light

Examples of side lighting

Refer to the lighting diagram above when I mention light placement for these side lighting examples of portrait lighting patterns.

Rim lighting

I used my Profoto B1X strobe as the main light in the 3 o’clock position for butterfly light and the setting sun in the 2 o’clock position as rim light for the golden highlights.

Direct hard rim light from setting sun

Split lighting

For this shot I used just natural light from the setting sun coming directly from the side of the model in the split lighting position at 3 o’clock.

split lighting with natural light

Rembrandt lighting

Here I used natural light in open shade of a spectator stand to create a soft light Rembrandt lighting pattern. The tell tale sign of Rembrandt lighting is the triangle of light below the eye in the shadow side of the face. There was also a window behind the model to camera left, creating a soft highlight on her right side.

Rembrandt lighting techniques for natural light and flash photography

Loop lighting

You can see from the nose shadow that I used loop lighting with direct sunlight from the setting sun somewhere between the 4 and 5 o’clock position.

High contrast shadows caused by low angled sun to the side
Shot just before sunset with natural light. The low angled sun shining from the side creates shadow on her cheek closest to camera for short lighting and a shadow from her nose to her cheek. This adds three dimensional form to the image and defines the shape of her face.

2. Tips when using side lighting

How to make the most of side lighting in portrait photography.


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 number for a shallow depth of field, is one of the most popular methods for blurring it. A blurred background is less distracting and again helps to isolate the subject.

Side light in black and white photography

Add drama to a photo

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

If the light is too intense it’ll make the highlights too obvious, which draws attention away from the subject. By exposing for the lit side, the shadows are darker and make the image more dramatic looking. As mentioned before, you can lighten the shadows by bouncing fill light back onto the subject with a reflector, or with flash light.

The closer the light is to the axis of the lens, the flatter the light will be. Front lighting is the flattest type of lighting, so 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’ll 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’ll hit your subject flat on, front lighting them. So unless the light is high and pointing down to the subject, like butterfly light, there’ll be no shadow. No shadow equals no definition and a potentially dull image.

Add serenity to a photo

Do the exact opposite with lighting for light, airy, peace and serenity in photos.

Expose for the shadows to blow out the highlights and create a high key image. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, If the shadows are soft, the image will be peaceful.

3. Why use side lighting for portraits?

In portrait photography there’s a reason for choosing a particular way to light a subject – to create atmosphere and/or flatter the subject. So you need to know the impact of directional light on a photo:

  • Define form and dimension
  • Create mood
  • Add texture
  • Create depth

Side light defines form and dimension

REASON NO. 1:  use side light to make subjects in photos three dimensional

Light adds form to a subject and defines facial features by the way it casts shadows. We can see a subject’s form in photography defined by the tonal range of light to dark areas (highlights to deep shadows). This play of light and shadow makes a flat image seem more three dimensional, because we can see its form.

Lighting a subject from the side creates a light side and a dark side of the subject’s face. Where exactly you place the light will determine the pattern of light and therefore the dramatic effect.

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


Create mood with side light

REASON NO. 2:  the type of light and how you use it dictates the mood of the image

Mood is affected by the amount and appearance of shadows in an image and, as side light is directional light it creates shadows. So we need to consider what feeling we want to convey with the type of light and the quality of the light for dramatic effect. Quality of light refers to hard and soft lighting.

Hard light produces hard shadows with crisp edges creating high contrast that feels dynamic. Soft light produces soft shadows with a slow transition from light to dark and conveys deeper emotion.

Images with deep shadow, whether hard or soft, are considered moodier than images with minimal shadows, which feel more uplifting

For example with natural lighting:

  • When you use direct sunlight to light a subject on a bright sunny day, shadows are crisp and clearly defined. This is referred to as hard light and it creates harsh shadows. The harder the light, the more defined the contrast will be between light and shadow.
  • Light on overcast days, creates shadows that are faint and fuzzy and we refer to it as soft light

So to change the mood in an image you need to know how to manipulate the tonal range (light and dark) of shadow areas in an image. The same principles apply for natural lighting and artificial lighting.

Portrait lighting for emotional images:

  • To reduce deep shadows and create a lighter mood, use a reflector as a fill light on the shadow side of the face to bounce light back into the subject’s face and lighten shadow areas.
  • Darken shadow areas areas for a moodier look by placing negative fill (black material of some sort) near the shadow side of the subject’s face to absorb light.
  • Change the light quality from hard light to soft light for a more emotional mood by placing a light diffuser between the light and the subject. This will partially block and therefore diffuse hard light hitting the subject, and create soft lighting, just like when clouds block direct sunlight on an overcast day.

Portrait lighting for dynamic images:

  • Use a hard light source for hard lighting with crisp shadows for drama and energy
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.

Side lighting adds texture to photos

REASON NO. 3:  texture makes an image interesting

Side lighting is a favorite of landscape photographers and wildlife photographers, as the direction of the light brings out texture. Using texture in photography composition is a technique that helps to add a three dimensional feel to a photo.

  • Light skimming across the surface of a rock casts shadow into all the nooks and crannies, which creates texture.
  • Side light on a fluffed up bird having a bath highlights the ruffled feathers and flying water droplets.
  • In portraiture, side lighting defines the subject’s face as it skims across facial features and adds depth.

Because side lighting produces texture by creating shadows it’s very effective in black and white photography.

Isolate subject from the background
The woodland behind the boys is in shadow and, although busy, is blurred, so isn’t distracting. The boys are lit by a break in the tree canopy allowing light in, which isolates them from the background and draws our eyes straight to them

Exaggerate depth

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

In portrait photography, most of the time we work to separate the subject from the background, to make them stand out and draw the viewer’s eye. Side light is a good way to define contours and exaggerate depth in an image by separating the subject from the background. 

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 to define shape and add to the three dimensional feel of the photograph.

Subject separation increases when the light lands on your subject only and not the background. If the background’s in shadow and the subject’s 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.

Other tutorials in my Direction of Light series

Backlighting portraits – how to use backlight for eye catching photos.

Frontal lighting for portraits – discover the different ways to use the most common direction of light for portraits

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