Direct lighting in photography (tips and techniques)

Direct lighting in photography is a portrait lighting technique that allows light to fall directly on the subject, without interruption. It’s the opposite of indirect light, which is flat light with no shadows.

Direct lighting, from a single light source or multiple light sources, appears at first to be the most straightforward lighting for portraits. Put simply, with natural direct light you let sunlight fall on the subject. For artificial direct light, you aim the flash or constant light directly at the subject without anything between the light and the subject.

However, because it’s very obvious in photos, the challenge with direct lighting is:

  • Knowing which lighting direction (front, back, side top, bottom) to use for a particular look and to flatter your subject
  • How to control the light for flattering results to either reduce deep shadows and bright highlights, or embrace the high contrast nature of direct lighting

Direct lighting photography using golden hour sunlight

I took this natural light portrait using the late afternoon golden hour sunlight from the front of the model. Further down I’ve included other very different looking images from this photoshoot even though the model stayed in the same position

Effects of direct lighting in photos

Direct lighting in portrait photography significantly impacts contrast and shadows in an image. Because shadows add depth and dimension to an image, they make a two-dimensional photo feel more three dimensional.

  • High contrast of direct light makes it difficult to capture a well exposed portrait, depending on your camera’s dynamic range. Even with a high dynamic range you might get bright spots (specular highlights) on your subject’s face, causing overexposure and loss of detail in the highlights.
  • Hard shadows are dramatic, but can be unflattering if they’re in the wrong place or are too strong for the mood and subject. The gradual transition from dark to light with soft shadows is better for defining a subject’s features.
  • Texture created by direct light adds interest to photos, but can be unflattering on skin that isn’t smooth.

Direct lighting photography – light sources

Different types of lighting produce different results and, because direct light lands directly on the subject, it’s far more obvious than indirect light. With direct lighting photography there’s less room for error than with flat lighting (the ultimate indirect light).

1. Direct natural light

We know that natural light is light that comes from the sun. However as photographers we need to pay attention to how light varies depending on:

  • Time of day
  • Weather conditions
  • If you’re photographing indoors or outdoors

Direct lighting weather

Direct natural light is full on sunshine, which can be very challenging for portraits.

Disadvantages of direct lighting with sunlight:

  • Harsh on skin, particularly older skin, showing every line and blemish with harsh shadows and bright highlights
  • Uncomfortable for your subject to face into the bright light, so they might screw up their eyes, which won’t look good in photos
  • Creates dark shadows under your subject’s eyes (aka racoon eyes) at certain times of day, especially at high noon when the midday sun is high in the sky

Remember to set the appropriate white balance for the weather.

You can avoid the challenges of direct light by photographing with the diffuse lighting of overcast skies or in open shade on bright sunny days. However, if you learn to use the hard light characteristic of direct light on a sunny day to your advantage, you won’t be restricted by weather conditions.

Biker on a mountain road in early morning golden hour

We were on the mountain before sunrise so that we’d be ready for the warm direct light of early morning golden hour

Best time of day for direct natural light

Photographing with natural lighting at different times of the day creates different moods, because the color and harshness of sunlight changes as the sun moves across the sky. For example:

  • The warm light of golden hour has a romantic, upbeat mood
  • The harsh, white light of the midday sun creates deep shadows with sharp edges for a dramatic mood

Golden hour is the best time of day for photographing with natural direct light. This is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. Lighting conditions during golden hour suit portrait photography, because:

  • Light is softer, and therefore more flattering for skin
  • The color temperature of the light is warm for great skin tones
  • The low angle of the sun is ideal for portrait lighting as it’s a flattering angle

Biker on a mountain road before sunrise

This was the first photo of the day, before the sun came up over the mountain, so it’s lit with indirect light which was flat and far less interesting than the image above. Note also that the color temperature of the light is much cooler

Photography equipment for controlling natural direct lighting

Direct natural light can be difficult to control, so I suggest using:

  • A polarizing filter fitted to your lens to reduce reflections and glare on shiny surfaces, such as water and leaves, and enhance colors in photos. However, it also reduces the amount of light entering the lens, so isn’t suitable for low light photography without a tripod.
  • A reflector to bounce light into your subject’s face to fill in shadows and reduce the strong contrast of direct sunlight for a softer look. If you don’t have a reflector, use white foam board, or reflected light from a white wall to lighten dark areas. If you don’t happen to have a handy white wall at your disposal, go with plan A – handheld reflective surfaces of some sort, preferably white.

2. Direct artificial lighting

Artificial light includes flash, such as speedlights and strobe lighting, and constant lighting such as LED lights. It also includes artificial ambient light such as streetlights, house lights, flashlights etc.

The advantage of artificial light over natural light is that you have total control over light intensity and direction. Plus, with powerful battery powered flash you’re not restricted to studio photography only.

Golden hour direct light and indirect flash light portrait in city

I positioned the model to capture the out of focus city behind her and used direct light of the evening sun behind her to bring out the rich color of her hair. I then added flash, diffused by a softbox, to light her from the front. You can tell this from the soft shadow of her nose. Note how the sunlight picks up the texture of her skin as it skims over her cheek to camera left. I wouldn’t use this lighting setup for an older person, unless I wanted to highlight lined skin

Using artificial light for direct lighting photography

  • On camera flash is the most basic form of direct artificial lighting. It can be your camera’s inbuilt flash or a speedlight fitted to the hotshoe of your camera. However, it’s very unflattering light for portraits, so rather don’t use it for direct lighting portraits.
  • Off camera flash, such as a speedlights or strobe lighting, is better as it’s not attached to your camera. With off camera flash you can place your light anywhere for different uses: as a key light to light your subject, as fill light to fill in the shadows, or for rim light and backlight to separate your subject from the background.
  • Light bulbs and LED lighting are continuous lights that can be used to create a warm or cool light depending on the type of bulb you use. Like flash, constant lights can also be used as the main source of light, as a fill light, rim light or backlight.

Learn to combine off camera flash with natural light outdoors for dramatic lighting in outdoor photo shoots. This way you can decide on your background and position your lighting where you want, instead of having to wait for the right time of day to use a location.

Lighting equipment for direct flash photography

Direct lighting with flash is often referred to as using a flash bare bulb, because no light modifiers are added to soften the light. In fact, the only modifiers you’d use are to focus or increase the intensity of the light, such as a reflector dish or snoot.

Quality and quantity of direct light

Understanding quality and quantity of light in portrait photography will make a big difference to how you use light, particularly direct light.

Quality of light

Light quality refers to the hard or soft characteristic of the light. Most times indirect light is soft and direct light is hard. However, if a soft light is too far away from the subject, it becomes hard light.

Loop lighting pattern from direct light of sun

I used direct sunlight for this image – note the sharp edges to the nose shadow, indicating a loop lighting pattern. Plus, the direct light really brings out the texture of her hair beautifully.

Hard light

Hard lighting is direct light and is great for creating a dramatic effect with strong, defined shadows and highlights. If handled skilfully it can also be flattering for the right subject. Hard light is used more in fashion photography than portrait photography.

For additional power, fit a reflector dish to strobe lighting to focus the light for stronger shadows.

Soft light

Soft light is indirect light as it’s created with reflected light or diffused light by using light modifiers such as a softbox or photography umbrella to soften the light.

In portrait photography soft light is used most often, because it’s flattering and doesn’t create harsh shadows or spectral highlights on the subject’s face.

Quantity of light

Quantity of light is more familiar and straight forward as it’s the amount of light falling on the subject.

We cater for it by adjusting aperture, shutter speed and ISO camera settings for the correct exposure to avoid overexposure or underexposure.

Directional lighting techniques for direct light

Direct lighting can be used from different directions for directional lighting. If you’re confused…

The difference between directional lighting and direct lighting is that directional lighting is light coming from a specific direction and can be direct light, reflected light or diffused light. Direct light is uninterrupted light falling directly on the subject.

Different lighting directions include:

  • Front lighting
  • Side lighting
  • Back lighting

Golden hour direct light portrait in field

I used the early evening sun and directed the model to angle her head to create a butterfly lighting pattern for this natural light shot. The light was very bright so I asked her to close her eyes, then briefly open them when I said so that I could quickly capture the image without screwed up eyes

Front lighting

With front lighting, the light is directly in front of the subject.

Front lighting portraits produces a flat and even lighting effect, with minimal shadows. However, if you raise the light slightly so that it points down towards the subject, you’ll create a butterfly lighting pattern, which is flattering and interesting.

Butterfly lighting creates a shadow below your subject’s nose in the shape of a butterfly (apparently, but I don’t think it looks like a butterfly). On slim faces the subject’s cheeks will also be in shadow.

Natural light portrait using direct sunlight from the side

I changed my position from the image above to photograph her from the front with the direct light of the sun from the side

Side lighting

Side lighting portraits is ideal for creating depth and texture by placing the light source to the side of the subject so that it skims across their features. This makes side lighting dramatic, with strong shadows and highlights.

Portrait lighting patterns that use side lighting include:

  • Split lighting
  • Rembrandt lighting
  • Loop lighting

Changing the height of the light and it’s position from directly to the side to more towards the front of the subject changes the lighting pattern. This changes the shadows on the subject’s face, particularly the nose shadow for different effects.

Black and white backlit portrait with rim light


Backlighting a subject creates a halo of light around them, with a bright outline and darkened features by positioning the light behind the subject. It’s ideal for creating drama in portraits. However, more often than not you’ll need a second light source (either another light or a reflector) to light the subject from the front.

Rim lighting is a form of backlighting that creates a rim of light around the edge of the subject from behind and to the side.

A hair light is a form of rim light that lights just the subject’s hair and shoulders to create separation between subject and background.

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