Why I love side light the most

As a photographer, I think it’s an unwritten rule that we are all supposed to love backlighting. And it’s true, not much can equal that golden rim light and the way it makes our subject glow. But the truth is, I think side light is the best light.

I’ll be honest and say my definition of side light might be a little loose. I am not a stickler for having the light at a full 90° to the subject. As long as the primary light source is roughly perpendicular to the camera, I will consider it side light. In the image above you can see that the camera is not actually perpendicular to the window, but with the way the light is falling through the window, it’s clear that not only is that the primary light source, but the light is clearly falling from left to right across the frame. I love the dimension that side light brings, and it also is excellent at hiding things in the shadowy areas. Due to the inverse square law, the front of my face is catching the brightest light and the area to my back is in full shadow.

But, seeing the position of the window to the subject (in this case myself), you can see how there is no light coming from behind or in front of the subject. It is all coming from the left side of the frame. This can work out to split lighting, as the image below shows, but by having your subject turn their face in different directions, you can control how much light hits various areas to create different looks.

Side light can be soft as above, or harsh as the image below. Above, the light is quite diffused through clouds and trees, but in the image below, it is streaming directly on to my face and casting a harsh shadow on to the wall. I used this to my creative advantage to also show my profile in shadow, even down to my eyelashes.

Side light can create a beautiful three dimensional look to your subjects as the light falls over your subject and also creates lovely catchlights when the light is soft and diffuse. Remember, the larger the light source, the softer the light. In the image above I was sitting a very strong single sunbeam; the catchlight you can see is very small due to the small beam. Below, my dog Halley is sitting next to a very large window with very soft light, and her fur has become illuminated with highlights and shadows, giving much life to her face.

This year I have embarked upon a series of weekly self portraits, and I typically take them in the same window bay. The light changes in intensity and color throughout the year and I am able to do my own year long light study in that area. By altering the focal length and crop of my images, I am able to acheive a number of different lighting scenarios, but know that they will all primarily be side light and I can be ensured of that dimensionality from the position of the window to myself.

Here is another example of a harsh side light; I was sure to expose for the direct light on my skin to ensure it did not blow out, and I used the deeper shadows to my advantage to sculpt the light around my face.

I also often use side light for my macro work, particularly with water drop on flowers or to show off the depth of a double petaled flower.

My last example is set up quite like the first image I posted, except that my body is turned more square to the camera and only my face is turned. This is an example of short lighting, where the smallest side of the face is illuminated, and the widest area is in shadow. I find this type of light universally flattering for most subjects and is my preferred way to light people unless they are wearing glasses. In general you would probably be closer to a 45° light setup for a traditional portrait, but hopefully these examples show you how to work with the primary light source perpendicular to the camera.

I would love to know how many of you also love side light! Please leave me a question or drop me a note.

Follow along with my Project 52 in 2023

5 responses to “Why I love side light the most”

  1. BetsyJane Avatar

    I love your photography, black and white photos are almost always my favorite!

    I did have a question. What camera (digital) would you recommend as a first camera? I am interested in photography, and I have a film camera that I love (but film is a bit cost prohibitive). I am looking into possibly getting a camera because I want to start taking more photos, but not so much (at least not yet) that I would spend hundreds of dollars on a “good” camera. Are there any cameras in the $75-150 range that you would recommend?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Molly C. Avatar

      Oh, thank you so much! I feel like I struggle a lot with black and white, so I really appreciate your comment; my heart is with color photography. 🙂 Finding a decent camera for that amount might be a bit tricky; are you looking to shoot manually or to use it as a point and shoot? You can get a used Nikon 50mm for around $100, but finding a body to go with it for only $50 will be hard. Let me see if I can come up with something specific for you.


      1. BetsyJane Avatar

        I thought they were really dramatic and beautiful! I like color too, but my color pictures usually end up being overwhelming and distracting lol 😂 all of these photos were amazing!

        Manually, but point and shoot is cool too. With a point-and-shoot can you still adjust exposure, shutter speed, etc? (You don’t have to find something specific if you don’t want to, I’m not sure when I’m going to purchase one.) Also- this is going to sound dumb but I want to clarify- so you mean get a the 50mm lens? And then the body comes separately? I didn’t know they came separately.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Molly C. Avatar

        Yes, for a “good” camera, the body and lens are separate. A point and shoot would be all one piece. Some P&S cameras do allow you to change your settings (ISO/Shutter Speed/Aperture), but many do not. If you think you would really like to learn photography as a hobby, I would recommend saving a bit more, to say $400 or so, where you can probably get a good entry level dSLR and a lens. In the meantime, you can download apps like Camera Plus that will allow you to use your phone in manual mode. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. BetsyJane Avatar

        Ok, thank you for the advice! I will probably do that then. I appreciate the help!

        Liked by 1 person

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