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Side light in photography: All basics to know

Side light in photography enhances your photos with atmosphere and a remarkable sense of depth. But what exactly is side lighting? And how can you utilize it for optimal results? In this article, we will focus on its definition and benefits, explain when and when not to use it, show you how to use it, and offer some tips for your photography project. Let’s dive right in!

Two final images of using COLBOR CL220 to create side lighting in portrait photography

examples of side lighting in photography, COLBOR light used

What is side light in photography?

Side lighting is a photography lighting technique where light is cast from one side onto a subject. This results in one side being illuminated while the opposite side remains in shadow. The angle at which the side lighting is applied varies based on the subject's or the light source's position, but it fundamentally involves lighting only one side of the subject. This technique is commonly employed to enhance contrast in an image and emphasize the subject's details.

What is side lighting in photography used for?

  • Create depth
  • Add dimension
  • Set a dramatic tone
  • Define a subject’s features

What are its benefits?

Side lighting finds wide application in cinematography and various photography genres, ranging from portraiture to landscape photography, owing to its several benefits.

Enhance dimension: In flat images like photographs or film frames, our minds interpret three-dimensional subjects through the interplay of shadows, highlights, and varying tones. Frontal lighting diminishes this tonal range, while side lighting accentuates it, lending greater depth to the subject or scene.

Establishe dramatic ambiance: Side light in photography contributes to setting a dramatic tone. In both cinematography and photography, creating a dramatic atmosphere hinges on contrast. The interplay of light and shadow in side lighting intensifies this contrast, heightening the mystery and theatricality of an image.

Highlight subject’s features: Besides enhancing dimension, side lighting emphasizes a subject's features and textures. With the light coming from the side, even the tiniest details cast shadows, making them stand out more. This technique is particularly favored by landscape photographers, as side lighting during the golden hour—when the sun is rising or setting—makes landscapes appear more interesting and well-defined.

Enhance depth: Additionally, side lighting introduces depth and distinction to an image. When a subject is illuminated from the side, light wraps around them based on the light source's angle, effectively separating them from the background. This enhances the subject's dimensionality, ensuring they stand out vividly against the background rather than appearing flat. By incorporating a backlight or rim light, side lighting can elevate images to achieve a distinctly cinematic quality.

COLBOR CL220 is placed to the side of the subject to create side light in photography.

When and when not to use side light for photography?

As aforementioned, side lighting has the ability to enhance dimension and depth, highlight features, and create a dramatic mood. The fact is that not all photography projects require these benefits. Here are some situations where side lighting plays a big role or is not favored.

When to use:

  • Highlight textured surfaces: Side light in photography is effective for emphasizing textured surfaces because it creates shadows that accentuate the volume and details of the texture.
  • Landscape photography: Side lighting can enhance landscapes such as dunes and waves, adding a three-dimensional effect that brings out their natural contours and shapes.
  • Create horizontal shadows: Side lighting is ideal for producing long, horizontal shadows across the frame, which can enhance composition and add depth to the scene.
  • Accentuate features in portrait photography: Side lighting is beneficial in portrait photography as it accentuates the subject's features, adding character and depth to the portrait.Using side lighting, you can create a dramatic look in any type of picture, from portraits to food photography.

When not to use:

In general, side lighting is not recommended for beauty or glamour photography. For these styles, front lighting is preferable as it provides even illumination, helping to minimize facial imperfections such as acne or open pores.

Additionally, if you aim to achieve a flat image with a soft appearance, side lighting should be avoided. Instead, opt for backlighting or front lighting to create the desired effect.

How to create side lighting in photography?

It can be simple to create a side lighting setup in photography, but the specifics can vary based on several choices.

Choose suitable light source to offer side lighting

To effectively utilize side light in photography, it's essential to control the light's position and/or your subject. An artificial light source is ideal for this purpose. Simply use a flash or continuous light source and position it to the side of your subject. There are numerous options to explore.

For beginners, continuous lights are more user-friendly since they allow you to see the lighting effect before taking a photo. In contrast, the impact of an off-camera flash can only be assessed after snapping the picture.

With LED constant light, you can endlessly experiment with different setups without taking numerous test shots. You can adjust the light's position and observe how the shadows shift. This helps you quickly gain a solid understanding of side lighting effects.

Adjust the angle of side light in photography to create different effects

Different angles of side lighting produce different effects. 90 degree side lighting photography is a classic side lighting setup choice. It positions the light perpendicular to the subject, known as split lighting. This results in a subject divided into light and dark halves.

Alternatively, side lighting can be achieved with a key light angled at 45 degrees to illuminate one side of the subject. This approach is common in traditional three-point lighting setups, where it is complemented by a fill light and backlight. Despite not being directly head-on, the key light still counts as side lighting because it is directed towards one side of the subject.

Experimenting with various angles of side lighting is crucial. Even subtle adjustments can significantly alter the appearance of your subject.

Decide between soft and hard lighting for different moods in side light photography

Another decision that influences your final lighting setup is the type of side light you choose. Essentially, the quality of light refers to whether it is direct and harsh, or diffused and soft.

A direct and harsh side light is ideal for creating high-contrast photography and dramatic effects. On the other hand, if you aim for a more flattering or vibrant side-lit shot, opting for softer, diffused side lighting is preferable. This choice also plays a significant role in setting the mood and tone of the image.

Use a fill light to gently brighten the shadowed side

Utilize a fill light to gently brighten the shadowed side of your subject. If you appreciate the side light effect but require a slight increase in exposure, a fill light will achieve that purpose effectively.

COLBOR CL220 is used with a softbox to create soft side lighting in photography.

Side light photography tips

Side light is a commonly used lighting technique in portrait and landscape photography. Here are some tips for you to better use it for stunning results.

Use a 45 degree angle for the best side light in portrait photography

Position the light at a 45-degree angle relative to the subject. Then, instruct the person to turn their face slightly or fully towards one side. This positioning will cast one side of their face into shadow, while the other side will be brightly illuminated, resulting in a high-contrast effect.

This lighting setup is particularly effective for emphasizing specific facial features such as wrinkles, a strong jawline, or well-defined cheekbones. For maximum contrast, avoid using diffusers and instead opt for small, distant light sources to achieve a harsh sidelight.

Achieve a gentle side light on the face to reduce the contrast

In some cases, you may want to minimize the contrast between both sides of the face. If you still prefer using side light in photography, consider adding an additional light source to illuminate the opposite side of the face. Alternatively, softening techniques such as using a softbox or reflectors can also create a softer look.

When working with natural light, adjusting the subject's position can also help. By avoiding direct sidelight and moving them closer to the camera's axis, the light becomes more even and less harsh.

Pick the right timing to achieve optimal natural side lighting in landscape photography

In landscape photography, your lighting is entirely dictated by external factors beyond your control, such as weather conditions and the sun's position in the sky. Your task is to maximize the current lighting conditions to your advantage.

To capture side-lit landscapes, timing is crucial: aim for sunrise or sunset, when the sun hovers just above the horizon. This period not only enhances depth in your images but also naturally introduces contrast, which is beneficial in various landscape scenarios. Imagine the enhanced beauty of forests or mountains with shadows accentuating their contours. Side lighting also reveals sunlight filtering through tree leaves. This adds a unique and slightly ethereal quality to your landscape compositions.