The most fundamental idea to grasp about photography has almost nothing to do with a camera, it has to do with light. Photography is capturing light. None of the fancy new camera features or expensive gadgets can help produce a brilliant image more than the ability to best use the light around us.

There are three general categories of lighting conditions: front, back and side.  If you’ve ever shuffled around on a mountain summit and forced your subjects to squint into the sun, you’ve played with changing your available lighting.

Each of the lighting conditions can produce stunning images, but the key to realize is that your camera does not know which type of lighting you’re looking at, so you’ll need to give it a hand on occasion. I’ll showcase an image from my collection with each lighting condition and discuss any special considerations required.

Front Light

The most basic type of lighting is front lighting. This occurs when the photographer has his or her back to the sun, and the scene in front of them is evenly illuminated. Because the entire scene is bathed in the same light, contrast (the difference between the darkest and lightest areas) is usually relatively low. In these situations your camera does an excellent job rendering the scene, and adjustments are typically not required.

Front Lit Cherry Tree © Erik Turner

In the example, the cherry blossoms are lit directly by the sun, which came from behind me as I took the picture. Because of this the cherry blossoms are all evenly lit, and bright enough to be on par with the bright sky behind.

As stated above, the advantage of front lighting is that the camera operation is usually straightforward. Additionally, front lighting of large scene in the early morning and late afternoon allows the colors to be fully saturated and yield dramatic images (more on this type of lighting in future articles). The disadvantage to front lighting is that it tends to downplay the texture of your subject because few shadows form and shadows create a sense of depth.

Side Light

Side lighting occurs whenever the scene is being lit from the camera’s right or left side. Contrast is often relatively high because areas in the sunlight are bright, and shadows are relatively dark. Camera adjustments are sometimes needed, the nature of which depends on the portion of light and dark areas in your image. Future articles will discuss ways to evaluate the type of adjustment necessary. Briefly, if the scene contains more “dark” areas you will need to tell the camera this by dialing in a negative (or fraction less than 1 on some models) exposure compensation. You should reference your camera’s manual to learn how to adjust the exposure compensation.

First Light on Monitor Ridge © Erik Turner

In the example, Monitor Ridge on Mount St. Helens is receiving its first glimpses of light. Because of my position relative to the ridge and the sun, the light striking it is side lighting. This allows a great amount of depth to be shown. If the same ridge were viewed such that it was front lit, the actual shape of the ridge might get lost in snowy hills before and after the ridge. The side lighting allows the main subject, the ridge, to show up clearly.

Back Lighting

The last major type of lighting is back lighting. Whenever the sun is behind your subject, you are dealing with back lighting. Most often this will result in your subject being rendered as a silhouette. The contrast is large, and your camera will likely struggle to capture the image you see yourself. Your camera will try to render everything in the scene correctly, not knowing that you mean for your subject to be a silhouette (which requires darker exposure) Your camera will overexpose the scene due to bright back lighting. Similarly to when a side-lit scene was dominated with dark areas, you will need to dial back your exposure compensation, basically telling the camera its OK to have some large darker areas in the image.

Backlit Tree © Erik Turner

In the example a colorful palette of clouds are a backdrop for a silhouette of a tree along a nearby ridgeline. The exposure compensation (also known as EV for exposure value) was dialed back to -1 in order for the tree and the foreground to remain relatively dark. By doing this, the sky is then maintained at its natural saturated state as well instead of being washed out, as it would be if the scene had been overexposed.

Stay tuned for more articles that will introduce the basics of capturing images out in the wilderness! To see more examples of photos in various lighting conditions, feel free to check out my other images on my website.

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