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The direction of light is very important in determining the success of an image. Whether the subject is lit by flash, room light, or illuminated by the sun, if the angle is wrong, the photo will fall short. Front light falls squarely on the subject. This direction of light is very flat. Shadows fall directly behind the subject creating dark and awkward voids. Backlight is known to produce silhouettes which limits the ability to capture detail. Sidelight hits the subject at a ninety degree angle. The result is an image with strong highlights and shadows.
Front light can be beneficial with certain subjects. Wildlife is a great example. Whenever I teach a wildlife workshop, I tell my participants to aim their shadow toward the animal. The more straight on it is, the more direct the front light. Backlight can be dramatic and create mood in an image. If a subject’s outline is easily identifiable, a silhouette offset against a vibrantly colored background can produce a gorgeous photo. But for scenic photography, the best light is sidelight.
Sidelight for scenics is beneficial for many reasons. To begin, the sky behind the subject will have maximum polarization. This allows the sky to pop off the page as the colors and tones become rich and saturated. A polarizer will always have its greatest effect at a right angle to the sun. Side lit subjects are lit at this angle. To determine the angle of light at sunrise or sunset, face the direction in which your shadow is falling. Turn ninety degrees to your left or right of this direction and you’ll experience side light.
Another benefit of sidelight for scenics is it gives dimensionality to your subject. The shadows and highlights that are revealed create a three dimensional illusion in a two dimensional photograph. The stronger the sidelight, the more shape, form, contour, and texture is revealed. In scenic photography, these elements are of great magnitude. Without them, the image looks flat and shapeless. Depending on the subject, the textures that are brought out via side lighting can even be the main focal point of the image.