Types of light based on the position of the light source

A source of light can be in any position relative to the object being shot. For the sake of clarity, we have adopted five main terms for the different types of lighting

Top lighting when the source of light is above the object being shot. Bottom lighting – when it is below the object. Side lighting – when it is to the side. Front lighting – at the front, and back lighting or contre-jour, when the source of light is behind the object which we are shooting.

Top lighting

In nature top lighting is combined with hard contrasting light because when the sun is at its highest in its zenith, its rays pass through the thinnest layer of atmosphere and the light is brightest and strongest. This creates strong contrasts and shadows on the one hand and on the other the top position of the light source directs the shadows downward. This is a particularly unfavourable combination which is why this type of lighting is considered unsuitable for most scenes. It has a particularly detrimental effect in portrait photography because the eyes remain sunk in their deep orbits and the nose casts an ugly shadow over the upper lip. Of course, top lighting is not a condition occurring only in nature, we can achieve the same effect with an artificial source of light and it will look just as bad. Unless it is a special sought-after effect. Like this photo of Ronnie James Dio, where the top light was deliberately chosen in order to create a fearsome skull-like look.

“Die Young”, Ronnie James Dio, Pentax K10, Sigma 70-300/4-5.6

Unless you are heavy-metal performers on the stage, however, you would hardly want to look like that.

This is the reason photographers say that noon on a sunny day is not a good time for taking photos and it is best to keep those cameras in the bags.

Although that is not absolutely true.

Noon on a sunny day is a good time for photos near pools with water – oceans, seas, lakes. When the sun rays fall vertically on the water surface they penetrate to maximum depth and illuminate what is under the water – stones, seaweed, sand. Water becomes almost transparent and has a different hue. That is, if you are using a polarizing filter which can reduce the reflections on the surface.

Bottom lighting

There is no bottom lighting in nature. There is no way the sun could shine from below. Perhaps there may be some exceptions, like when the rays of the sun are reflected in some puddle or there is a mirror on the ground.

However, we can produce such lighting in the studio. It is used not only in photography, but also in theatre, cinema and television. Its stylistic effect is adding a funny or scary aspect to a scene. Since we are not used to seeing things illuminated in this way in our everyday life, the effect is quite unusual.

Side lighting

If upper lighting is the most unfavourable combination for shooting, then side natural light would be the most favourable one. There is a reason why photographers prefer to shoot early in the morning or in the evening, when the sun is not yet high enough or is already down low over the horizon and its rays fall slantwise on the objects. There are even applications for your phone such as Phototime, which tell you what the best hours for shooting are for the respective season and geographic latitude. This is usually in the morning around sunrise and in the evening around sunset.

The side light produces side shadows which make a two-dimensional image seem to have actual relief and volume and look three-dimensional.

Under natural conditions side lighting is also combined with semi-soft light because the rays of the sun travel through a larger area of the atmosphere and is further diffused by the vapours and particles in the air. The larger layer of the atmosphere absorbs the blue spectre and light becomes warmer and softer.

Front lighting

We use the term front lighting when the angle of the source of light is the same as the angle of shooting. A typical example of front lighting is the inbuilt flash in the cameras.
The main problem with front lighting is that all the shadows are hidden behind the object. Objects have even fewer shadows than with soft lighting and scenes illuminated in this way look flat.

This is why we have a saying that ‘the flash is the enemy of the photographer’. If we count only on a direct flash as a source of lighting, we cannot achieve a good quality image.

Difference between soft and front lighting

As you can see, the use of a front flash is not recommended. Because of these considerations and in an attempt to avoid front lighting many photographers with on-camera flashes with bounce and swivel heads point their flash up towards the ceiling or to the side. The idea is to avoid direct front light onto the object. The light is pointed in another direction where it will meet an obstacle and will be reflected back to the object but it will be already diffused and coming from another direction and not directly from the front.

The front light can be used in ‘fill in’ mode when we have another source of light as the main one for the object and the background, but the shadows are too dark and we would like to lighten them up.

Back (contre-jour) lighting

We use the term contre-jour light to refer to a source of light located behind the object being shot. Usually in this case we have a more pronounced graphic view of the scene with objects appearing as silhouettes.

This depends to a large extent on light metering.

The light metering mode – evaluative or spot (on the object), will determine the ratio between back light and reflected light. If we meter a single spot (area) in the shadows, the background will burn, but we will have more detail and colour in the dark areas.

Both pictures make use of contre-jour light, but the light metering modes are different. The photo on the left uses entire field metering, while the photo on the right – spot..

Contre-jour portraits are very effective and often photographers use precisely this type of lighting. This type of photo is characterised by weaker contrast and pleasing warm colours. The back light produces ‘auras’ around the contours of the objects.

When shooting with an old lens without MC coating the back light will often result in flares which instead of being a defect can be used to produce an interesting effect.

Any transparent and semi-transparent materials look very good under back light, because light passes through them and they shine in the photo.

Recently photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing.
Susan Sontag