Photography Cheat Sheet: Working with Directional Light Outdoors

If you’re thinking of shooting in the bright outdoors anytime soon, this photography cheat sheet will give you some ideas on working with directional light.

Landscape photographers typically prefer shooting either early in the morning, or during the Golden Hour for its soft, gorgeous light. But there’s more to it than just avoiding the hard light during most of the day. Knowing how to work with directional light from the sun will help you get the results you need from these outdoor shoots. Let this quick tutorial and cheat sheet be your guide for your next practice!

The cheat sheet below by Digital Camera World explains how the direction of the light coming from the sun greatly affects and determines the end result of your outdoor photos. While there’s no right or wrong direction to have the light in, it’s helpful to know how the shifting positions of the sun (and where you shoot relative to it) will affect your photos. This can help you plan your shoots ahead of time.

The tutorial and cheat sheet explain the kind of results you can expect when the sun is behind you (front-lit), ahead of you (back-lit), or to the side (side-lit). The frontal lighting produces the evenest illumination across the scene. The colors of the sky and the elements of the scene are most vibrant in this lighting, but since it doesn’t produce shadows, form and texture may not be prominent. When you shoot into the sun, you’re capturing a back-lit scene, putting emphasis on the shadows. There are two ways you can work with this shadowy situation. You can either expose for the brightest part of the scene to get a silhouette, or crop in and expose for the shadows to get a softly-lit image.

Lastly, shooting side-lit will produce the most dramatic results, as it will produce both illuminated and shadowed areas in the scene. A plus side of this directional light is it creates a strong 3D look to your images. It will also produce strong colors in the best-lit parts, and accentuate texture and form in your landscape photos.

If you’re into outdoor portraiture, you may also want to learn how to add soft directional light to your portraits.