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Side-lighting: The Eye-opening Trick Guaranteed To Make Your Photos Awesome

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Getting awesome photos is not about spending money on expensive camera equipment. That stuff helps, sure, but someone with a cheap camera and a basic grasp of lighting techniques will take better photos than someone with a great camera and no idea about lighting. In this post we'll look at lighting from one side, using both natural and artificial light.

Window light

To prove my point about equipment, the photo above is one I took on my phone while I was out having coffee with a friend. We were sitting in a cafe in York that has a large window on one side, and because of the height of the buildings on the opposite side of the road the light that comes into the cafe is largely reflected rather than direct, which gives it a softer quality that is perfect for portrait photography. I've taken several photos of the same person in various outdoor locations using my expensive camera without getting a shot I liked as much as this one. The way that the face is illuminated from one side and the light gradually falls away gives a very pleasing effect of depth, and on most days you'll be able to achieve this effect in your own home. It's not just good for people either: the same effect works wonders for food or product photography.

Window light (and great textures, like an old wooden table) can add interest to everyday objects, like this shampoo bar, which I shot for Yorkshire Wellness Box. So the next time you see some nice reflected or diffused light spilling into your living room, take full advantage! (NB direct sunlight isn't ideal for this because it's too intense so the side facing the window will be too bright and "blown out". You can counter this by putting up a net curtain or just waiting for cloud cover).

Artificial light

Top professional studio photographers may have an array of lighting. Indeed you can buy lights that costs hundreds and even thousands of pounds. But you can achieve some nice effects using whatever you have in the house.

I submitted the image above as coursework when I studied photography several years ago, and at the time I owned no flashes and no dedicated photography lighting. So I pointed a cheap desk lamp in my face and took a picture and this was the result. You'll notice that because the light is not diffused and is quite close to my face (the lamp was only just out of shot) it gives a quite different effect to that in the cafe pic at the top of the post. The closer a light source is your face and the more intense the light is the quicker the light falls off, so the effect here is far less subtle. Which is not a bad thing, just a different thing.

So that's two different sources of light where, in both instances, the subject is lit from only one side. A world apart from your average headshot, which may be lit from two, three or even sometimes four directions but a very interesting departure, I hope you'll agree.

So dig out your lamps, stand by your windows, and get taking great photos!

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