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Side Lighting: Add Depth & Dimension to Your Photos (2024 Guide)

Black and white portrait photo of a young woman with side light effect

Side lighting isn’t just for movies; it’s your secret to elevating everyday photos from ordinary to extraordinary. Simple yet powerful, this technique adds depth and drama with ease.

I’ve prepared an in-depth guide on the side lighting photography technique to help you effortlessly infuse your shots with cinematic quality and captivating dimension.

Let’s dive into it.

What is Side Lighting in Photography?

Side lighting in photography refers to a technique where the main light source illuminates the subject from the side.

This approach creates a mix of shadows and highlights across the subject, enhancing textures, shapes, and features, which adds a dramatic and three-dimensional effect to the photo

This lighting technique is ideal for both color and black-and-white photography, side lighting can reveal intricate details and elevate the visual impact of your photos by introducing depth that flat, frontal lighting often fails to achieve.

Here are two examples of photos taken with side lighting photography technique:

Two portrait photo examples using side lighting technique.
Two portrait photo examples using side lighting technique.

How to Use Natural Light for Side Lighting Techniques in Your Photos

Applying side lighting in photography often relies on the simple yet effective use of natural light.

The optimal approach involves positioning your subject at about a 45-degree angle relative to the light source, be it the sun outdoors or the soft light from a window indoors.

This angle ensures a balanced interplay between light and shadow across the subject’s features, enhancing textures and imparting a dynamic, three-dimensional effect to your images, without completely plunging one side of the face into shadow.

Diagram showing how to position subject relative to the camera to achieve side lighting photography effect.
Position your subject at about a 45-degree angle relative to the light source.

For outdoor photography, the sun can be your main light source. Position your subject so that the sunlight hits them from the side, creating interesting patterns of light and shadow. Early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is lower in the sky, is ideal for softer, more flattering side lighting.

Indoors, a window can serve as a perfect natural side light. Place your subject near the window, ensuring the light illuminates one side of their face or the object you’re photographing. This can add depth and character to portraits and still life shots, revealing details that front or overhead lighting might flatten.

Two portrait photos of a kid near the window. Indoor portrait photography of a child

Tips to Make the Most of Side Lighting in Your Photography

  • Subject Positioning: Move your subject to experiment with how the side light falls on them. Even small adjustments can significantly impact the mood and look of your photo.
  • Camera Settings: In manual mode, adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to complement the natural light and the effect you’re aiming for. Pay particular attention to how these settings influence the interplay of light and shadow.
  • Observe the Shadows: Shadows are integral to the appeal of side lighting. They can add depth and intrigue, but be mindful of their intensity and position so they don’t detract from the subject.
  • Use Reflectors: If the contrast between the lit and shadowed sides is too stark, a simple reflector can soften the shadows, balancing the overall exposure without losing the side lighting’s dramatic effect.

5-in-1 Photography Reflector

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Practicing with side lighting, especially using natural light sources, will enhance your ability to see and shape light in your photography, elevating your images with compelling depth and dimension.

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How to Create Dramatic Portraits with Side Lighting Using Natural Light

Side lighting is a game-changer for portrait photography, casting shadows and highlights that sculpt the subject’s features, creating depth and drama that flat lighting can’t achieve

This technique can turn a simple portrait into a compelling narrative, emphasizing expressions and contours to tell a deeper story.

black and white portrait photo of a male sitting and smiling

Here are some actionable tips to help you harness the power of side lighting in portrait photography:

  • Choose the Right Environment: Indoor settings with a window or outdoor locations during the golden hours provide the ideal soft side lighting. The directional light during these times casts gentle shadows and highlights, emphasizing facial features and expressions.
  • Position Your Subject: Align your subject so that one side of their face is illuminated by the light source while the other side remains in shadow. This contrast highlights the contours of the face and adds a layer of depth to the portrait.
  • Mind the Shadows: The magic of side lighting lies in the balance between light and shadow. Ensure that the shadow side is not too underexposed, which might lose detail. If needed, use a reflector to gently fill in the darkest areas without diminishing the dramatic effect.
  • Experiment with Angles: Slight changes in your subject’s position or the angle of the light can dramatically alter the mood of the portrait. Encourage your subject to turn their head or adjust their posture while you observe the changing interplay of shadows and highlights.
  • Focus on the Eyes: In portrait photography, the eyes are often the focal point. Ensure that at least one eye, preferably the one closer to the light source, is well-lit and in focus. This draws the viewer in and adds life to your portrait.
  • Capture Emotion: Side lighting can accentuate the emotional depth of a portrait. Engage with your subject to elicit genuine expressions. The play of light and shadow, combined with a sincere expression, can make for a truly striking portrait photo.

How to Create Dramatic Portraits with Side Lighting Using Artificial Light

Creating dramatic portraits with side lighting doesn’t always require natural sunlight; artificial light can be equally effective, offering more control over the intensity and direction of light.

Portrait photo of a young male using side lighting photography technique

Here’s how to achieve compelling results using artificial light sources:

  • Selecting Your Light Source: A single, strong artificial light source, such as a studio strobe or a LED panel, can mimic the directional quality of natural side lighting. For a softer effect, consider using a softbox or a diffuser to soften the shadows and highlights.
  • Positioning the Light: Place your artificial light at approximately 45-degree angle to the subject, ensuring that one side is well-lit while the other remains in shadow. This setup mimics the effect of natural side lighting, creating depth and dimension in the portrait. If you want to create a more dramatic looking portrait, position your external light at a 90-degree angle to the subject.
  • Adjusting Light Intensity: With artificial lighting, you have the advantage of adjusting the light’s intensity. Experiment with different power settings to find the right balance of light and shadow that complements your subject’s features.
  • Fill Light Techniques: To soften the contrast and reveal some details in the shadows, consider using a fill light or a reflector on the opposite side of the main light source. This will help balance the exposure without diminishing the dramatic side lighting effect.
  • Eye Contact and Expression: Direct your subject to experiment with different gazes and expressions. The direction of their look can significantly impact the mood of the portrait, especially when combined with dramatic side lighting.

I strongly recommend watching the following behind-the-scenes video, which shows the step-by-step process of creating a dramatic-looking portrait photo using artificial light in a studio.

Play Video about dramatic portrait photo using side light technique

Benefits of Using Side Lighting in Photography

1. Depth and Dimension

Side lighting casts shadows in a way that front or overhead lighting cannot, adding a sense of depth and three-dimensionality to your photos. 

This can make subjects appear more lifelike and tangible, as the interplay of light and shadow outlines shapes and contours, giving the viewer a more immersive visual experience.

side light photography portraits

2. Texture and Detail

One of the most striking benefits of side lighting is its ability to reveal texture. Whether it’s the roughness of an old tree’s bark, the delicate weave of a fabric, or the intricate details of a person’s facial features, side lighting accentuates these textures, making them a focal point and adding richness to the photo.

black and white portrait photo of an old lady with wrinkles

3. Dramatic Contrast

Side lighting naturally creates a high contrast between the illuminated side of the subject and the shadows, giving your photos a dramatic flair. This contrast can evoke strong emotions and create a compelling narrative within the frame, drawing the viewer’s attention and making the image more memorable.

high contrast photos side light

4. Atmospheric Mood

The directional quality of side lighting can be used to set the mood of a photograph. Depending on the intensity and color of the light, as well as the resulting shadows, you can create atmospheres ranging from mysterious and moody to warm and inviting. This makes side lighting an incredibly versatile tool for storytelling through photography.

5. Focus on the Subject

By highlighting one side of the subject while leaving the other in shadow, side lighting can naturally draw the viewer’s eye to the area of interest. This selective illumination helps isolate the subject from the background, reducing distractions and ensuring that the viewer’s attention is focused on the intended part of the image.

Black and white portrait photo of a young woman utilizing side light photography technique

6. Enhanced Volume and Form

Side lighting can enhance the perception of volume and form in a photograph, making it particularly useful for portrait and still life photography. The way light falls across a subject can emphasize the roundness of shapes and the fullness of forms, adding a lifelike quality that flat lighting often fails to achieve.

Conclusion: Side Lighting in Photography

In wrapping up our exploration of side lighting in photography, it’s clear that this straightforward technique holds immense potential to elevate your photos. By thoughtfully positioning your subject about the light source, you can achieve a compelling interplay of light and shadow that adds depth and drama to your images.

Experimentation is key. Whether you’re working with the soft glow of the golden hour or shaping light in a studio setting, each setup offers a unique canvas to highlight your subject’s best features. Adjusting angles, tweaking light intensity, and engaging with your subjects to capture genuine expressions will enhance the impact of your side-lit portraits.

So, take these insights, apply them to your work, and watch as side lighting opens up new dimensions in your photography.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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