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Photography Lighting

What is Side Lighting in Photography?

September 6, 2023 by

In this guide, I’ll be diving into everything you need to know about side lighting.

After reading this guide, you’ll understand the definition of side lighting, why it’s popular, ten tips to use side lighting, and lots more.

Let’s dive in!

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Table of Contents

What is Side Lighting in Photography?

Side lighting, in essence, is a method used in photography where the light source illuminates the subject from the side. This technique enhances the subject’s shape and form by creating strong shadows and highlights.

It is sometimes also called split lighting.

And just like contouring makeup that adds depth and shape to your face, side lighting adds depth to your image, making subjects appear rounder and more three-dimensional.

It’s ideal for showcasing form, texture, and the 3D quality of the subject.

Think of side lighting as the friend who always shows your best side. Just as highlighting your best features can bring about a flattering photo, side lighting works in the same way for any subject you’re capturing with a camera.

But imagine using that makeup without blending it well—you’d leave harsh lines, right? Similarly, side light can create strong shadows on the portion of the subject facing away from the light.

But don’t fret! Reflector boards or supplementary lights can come to your rescue, bouncing light back onto the shadow areas, much like a makeup sponge blends your makeup, leaving no harsh lines.

Ever experienced how the soft, wavering light from a campfire makes everything seem more atmospheric? That’s kind of what side lighting does with photography.

From landscape snaps where it adds depth and softens light for a more atmospheric image to product shots where it enhances details with depth and catchlights, this technique can create unique moods and effects.

But, here’s a fun twist. Side lighting can also create a silhouette effect—like when you stand with the sun setting behind you, everything in front appears dark, right?

By backlighting the subject and darkening the foreground, you can create the same effect in photography.

Oh, and if you’ve noticed the beautiful play of light and shadow that painting your room with a side lamp achieves, you’re on the right track! Simple light sources like flashlights or desk lamps can also be used to achieve side lighting.

Ultimately, side lighting is a dynamic and versatile technique, and with a dash of creativity, you can experiment with it to create striking photographs that convey emotions from drama to soft gentleness, depending on your desired effect.

side lighting photography example
side lighting photography example

Why Is Side Lighting A Popular Technique In Photography?

Why is side lighting a popular technique in photography? Well, let’s consider this: You’re standing in a room full of sculptures, and a light bulb hanging directly overhead is the only source of illumination.

While you can see the sculptures clearly, something will be missing.

You won’t be able to appreciate the depth, the fullness, and the real beauty of the sculptures.

Now, switch off the overhead light and turn on a lamp placed on one side. Suddenly, the sculptures come alive!

The shadows created by the light falling on one side reveal the form, volume, depth, and texture of the sculpture. That’s what side lighting brings to photography.

Side lighting, often referred to as “rim light” or “hair light,” works much the same way, bringing depth and dimension to photographs.

It adds a lovely visual weight to your subject and emphasizes the threedimensional quality of the form.

When you’re aiming to create dramatic shots by accentuating shadows and highlights, side lighting is like your dependable old paintbrush.

How to Use Side Lighting in Photography – 10 Tips

Here are the 10 tips I like to follow when I have the opportunity to use side lighting in my photographs.

1. Understand Side lighting

The first side lighting photography tip is to first undertand side lighting.

Just like learning anything new in life, the first step is to understand what it is before using it effectively. I listed the definition of side lighting and why it’s popular in the previous section.

To recap, side lighting occurs when your light source is to the side of your subject — creating a distinct shadows and highlights.

2. Choose the Right Time of Day

The second side lighting photography tip is to choose the right time of day.

The quality of your side lighting will vary depending on what time of day you’re shooting at.

For example, during golden hour, which occurs shortly after sunrise and before sunset, you have a softer and more flattering sidelight.

The time of day will also influence the angle of the light which can also create long shadows within your image that will add further dimension.

side lighting during golden hour
side lighting during golden hour

3. Position Your Subject

The third side lighting photography tip is to position your subject.

I recommend experimenting with the position of your subject relative to your light source.

If you have the light directly to the side of them at a 90 degree angle then this will create the most contrast between highlights and shadows.

If you position your subject at a shallower angle and have the light source be a bit more on the front or the back, then there will be a more subtle effect.

Depending on the mood you’re going for, see which angle you like best!

side lighting at 90 degrees
side lighting at 90 degrees

4. Use Reflectors or Diffusers

The fourth side lighting photography tip is to use reflectors or diffusers.

The purpose of using a reflector or diffuser is to soften the light if it is too harsh.

In order to use a reflector, you’ll want to have the reflector point towards the subject on the opposite side of the light source. I personally like have the reflector up and point it down at the subject.

So for example, if the side light source is on you’re subject’s right side of the face, you’ll want to have the reflector pointing at your subject’s left side.

The reflector will bounce light back onto your subject so there isn’t such a harsh contrast from the side lighting.

using reflector during sidelighting
using reflector during side lighting

5. Create Depth and Texture

The fifth side lighting photography tip is to create depth and texture.

If you are looking to emphasize texture in your photos, then side lighting is a must.

Side lighting is great for emphasizing textures such as a textured wall or details on a person’s face (great for beauty photography).

Also, if you don’t want to capture the text on a person’s face, then this is also a great tip to keep in mind that you’ll want to avoid a very harsh side lighting contrast and use a reflector as mentioned in the previous tip.

side lighting and texture
side lighting and texture

6. Capture Silhouettes

The sixth side lighting photography tip is to consider capturing silhouettes.

If you are feeling more creative, then similar to backlighting in photography, side lighting can be great for capturing silhouettes.

You’ll want to position your subject between your camera and the light source and this will create a strong outline.

This is great if your subject is a dancer and they strike a side pose.

side lighting silhouette
side lighting silhouette

7. Shoot in RAW

The seventh side lighting photography tip is to shoot in RAW.

Using side lighting in photography can result in lighting conditions that can be challenging, especially if you are a beginner.

Because of this, I recommend shooting in RAW as it gives you more flexibility in post-processing in order to adjust your exposure, shadows, and highlights.

8. Experiment With Shadows

The eighth side lighting photography tip is to experiment with shadows.

Shadows can be a great way to add drama and intrigue to your images. They can also enhance the mood of your photos especially if you’re going for a dramatic, serious, or moody look.

For example, let’s say you’re taking a portrait photograph of a person outdoors during the golden hour. The side lighting from the setting sun creates strong, elongated shadows.

side lighting shadows
side lighting shadows

9. Watch Your Background

The ninth side lighting photography tip is to watch your background.

Since side lighting creates a strong contrast between your subject and the background, you’ll want to be mindful of the background elements in your image.

For example, if you have a dark background, then your subject will stand out — and if you have a busy background then that might distract from your main subject.

10. Practice and Experiment

The tenth side lighting photography tip is to practice and experiment.

Similar to any photography technique you are trying to learn, practice is key.

Be sure to remember that it takes experimentation and practice in order to be fully comfortable with the technique.

When you want to practice side lighting, be intentional and go out on a session telling yourself you want to use it.

Don’t give up on yourself and over time, you’ll find that you’ll develop an intuition for using side lighting effectively.

When Should Side Lighting Be Used In Photography?

The simple answer would be – it depends.

Side lighting is versatile and can be utilized in almost any situation, depending on the effect you’re aiming for.

It’s like a Swiss army knife in your toolbox of photography lighting techniques.

Portrait Photography Side Lighting

Let’s say you’re into portrait photography.

Side lighting can be your best friend.

It highlights the bone structure, facial features, and the body shape, similar to the way morning sun outlines hills and valleys in a landscape.

And just like how a makeup artist uses contour to shape and define the face, side lighting can create impactful depth and dimension in your subject.

Be careful though, we wouldn’t want distorted facial features!

In this instance, you might need to adjust positioning, use diffusers or add some supplementary lighting.

Building drama more your style? Remember watching those old black and white film noir movies?

The shadows cast by side lighting creates that mysterious, dramatic effect. Imagine you’re the director, and you want to add suspense to your scene, side lighting is your go-to.

side lighting portrait photography
side lighting portrait photography

Product Photography Side Lighting

How about food or product photography? Side lighting works well here too.

Picture a glossy new smartphone lit from the side, casting gentle shadows that emphasize its sleek contours or a beautiful plate of artisan pastries with side light bringing out the texture and crispness.

side lighting product photography
side lighting product photography

Landscape Photography Side Lighting

And not to forget landscape photographers, there’s a reason why the golden hours of sunrise and sunset are so loved!

When the sun is at an angle, the side lighting creates a natural contrast that can make your landscape shots breath-taking.

It’s much like when you look across a lake at sunset, seeing the ripples in the water highlighted beautifully.

Remember though, as with any powerful tool, side lighting should be used judiciously.

It’s like hot chili – a little can add spice, but too much can overwhelm the dish.

It’s a good idea to experiment with side lighting – sometimes it can create a unique effect, other times overly harsh contrasts. Try different light sources, like the flash on your camera or even a simple desk lamp.

side lighting landscape photography
side lighting landscape photography

Who Can Benefit From Using Side Lighting In Photography?

Well, pretty much any photographer who wants to transform their work from flat and one-dimensional into vibrant, textured, and undeniably beautiful – that’s who.

Think of side lighting as your secret ally, a skilled makeup artist who knows exactly how to highlight the best features of your subject.

Whether you’re a portrait photographer wanting to beautifully illustrate facial features, body shape, and bone structure, or a product photographer aiming to highlight the intricate details of your merchandise; side lighting can elevate your pictures to a whole new level.

Consider yourself having a dinner in a fancy restaurant. Imagine you’re photographing a mouth-watering, well-plated dish.

You could go overhead with your lighting, but how about side-lighting?

It can cast an attractive glow on the dish, emphasizing the glisten of a medium-rare steak or the vibrant hues of a poke bowl, creating reflections and enhancing colors.

And when it comes to landscape photography, side lighting is like the hero in a dramatic movie, adding depth and a sense of atmosphere to your images.

Just like how the dawn casts the first light across a valley, using side lighting during sunrise or sunset can add depth, create a sense of atmosphere and giving a natural contrast that makes your audience stop scrolling and start admiring.

If you’re a fan of creating powerful silhouette effects, side lighting will be your best mate.

With some proper backlighting arrangement, you can darken the background while putting the spotlight on your subject, creating an eye-catching silhouette right at the center of your frame.

Side lighting, with its shadowy charm and dramatic flair, is suitable for more than just portraits, it can deliver stunning results in various types of photography like still life, food, and product.

Experimentation is the key to figuring out what fits your style best.

All you need is some simple light sources like flashlights or desk lamps, and voila! You’ll unlock a completely new dimension to your artistry.

Side Lighting FAQ

What are the disadvantages of side lighting photography?

Side lighting photography can create strong shadows that might obscure important details or features in the subject, potentially leading to an uneven distribution of light and distracting from the overall composition.

Is side lighting flattering?

Side lighting can be flattering as it highlights textures, adds depth, and imparts a sense of dimension to the subject, but it can also reveal certain imperfections or create dramatic effects that might not suit all types of subjects or desired aesthetics.