Front Light Photography: A Complete Guide

by John Stapel

a complete guide to front light photography

What is front lighting in photography? And how can you use front light to capture stunning photos?

In this article, I break it all down for you:

  • What front light is
  • When you should use front light (and when you should avoid it)
  • How to work with front light to create the best images

Front light photography is powerful, it looks great, and it can certainly level up your portfolio – so if you’re ready to become a lighting master, then let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:

What is front light photography?

Front light illuminates the subject from the front, which means that the light itself generally comes from behind the photographer. In other words, the light travels over the photographer’s shoulder and impacts the subject head-on.

Because front lighting hits objects directly, front-lit photos tend to feature limited shadows and eye-catching, in-your-face subjects. Here’s an example front-lit image; pay attention to how the front of the hook is bright and lacks shadows:

Note, however, that front lighting can come from high above the subject, far below the subject, or on a level with the subject. The angle of the front light source will determine shadow strength and positioning. While a scene that’s front-lit from the subject’s level will feature limited (or zero) shadows, a scene that’s front-lit from high above will generally have more noticeable shadows (e.g., shadows below a portrait subject’s nose and chin).

Monk with a camera front light photography Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/5.6 | 1/320s | ISO 200

When should you use front light?

Because front light produces minimal shadows, front-lit photography tends to look flat and lack depth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re looking to create deep, three-dimensional images, side light – which comes from beside your subject and features lots of shadows – is often the better choice.

On the other hand, front light is great for capturing two-dimensional abstract shots:

textured yellow and rust front light photography Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/6.3 | 1/640s | ISO 200

It’s also good for many types of nature photography – including bird, wildlife, and macro photography – as it tends to clearly illuminate the subject and the background.

I’m a particular fan of using front light in portrait photography:

Akha woman portrait front light photography Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/5.6 | 1/250s | ISO 200

Front lighting makes skin look smoother, particularly when the light is filtered and soft – while side lighting has a tendency to emphasize skin blemishes and wrinkles.

Plus, when a subject is front-lit, it’s easier to capture a well-exposed image.

Why? Front light tends to be very even, so your camera won’t struggle to determine proper exposure settings. For this reason, if you like to use your camera on an automatic or semi-automatic exposure mode, front light will often get you great results.

woman wearing a straw hat front light photography Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/11 | 1/160s | ISO 400

Tips and techniques for front light photography

In this section, I share my key tips and tricks for front light photography settings, lighting choices, and more.

1. Use open shade for front-lit portraits

As I explained in the previous section, front lighting is great for portrait photography. However, you need to be careful when doing front-lit portraits; unless you’re working on an overcast day or late in the afternoon, a bright sun will produce all sorts of unpleasant shadows. It’ll also cause your subject to squint.

My recommendation? Maintain the front-lit direction, but move your subject into open shade. Position your subject near the edge of the shade, but don’t let them step over the shadow line; that way, their face will be softly illuminated and they won’t need to squint, but you’ll have plenty of bright light to work with.

By the way, you should also pay attention to reflective objects. Light can reflect off the ground, nearby cars, or building walls, and by positioning your subject near these reflective light sources, you can get beautiful effects.

Finally, if you’re stuck shooting with harsh midday light and you cannot move your subject into a shaded area, I encourage you to bring in some artificial lighting. A flash, an LED panel, or even a reflector will reduce hard shadows and add some shape to your subject.

happy teen boy front light photography Nikon D800 | 55mm | f/11 | 1/125s | ISO 200

2. Trust your camera’s exposure recommendations

As I emphasized above, front lighting is very even – which means that, when you point your camera at a front-lit subject, you’ll generally get a good exposure reading.

Of course, your camera can still make mistakes, especially when you’re shooting very light or very dark subjects. But overall, front lighting makes for easy exposures, whether you’re using Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority mode, Auto mode, or even Manual mode.

So when you’re working with front lighting, don’t stress too much about exposure adjustments and exposure compensation. Instead, review your images for exposure problems, but let your camera do the heavy lifting!

two hill tribe women in Thailand front light photography Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/4 | 1/640s | ISO 400

3. Don’t be afraid to turn your subject

Front lighting can produce flat images.

And while flat shots can look interesting, many types of photography thrive off of three-dimensionality and depth.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution:

If your shot is looking a little flat, then just turn your subject. This works great for portraits, and it’s also a good trick for shooting products and certain still-life subjects.

Of course, you don’t want to turn your subject too dramatically, but go for a subtle turn and see what you think. If you’re working with a portrait subject, ask them to turn slowly, and carefully watch how the light and shadows affect their face. (You may only need a slight turn to create a more three-dimensional photo!)

4. Pay attention to the light height

The height of the light source will dramatically affect your photos, so whenever you’re doing front light photography, you must pay careful attention to the light’s position!

Note that this is true for natural light and artificial light – though you do have more control over a flash or LED panel. If the sun is positioned too high or too low, you’ll often need to wait a few hours or come back another day, but if you don’t like the height of your off-camera flash, you can simply raise or lower the light stand. Make sense?

So when you’re using a flash or continuous light, experiment constantly with the light height. And as you work, watch how the light position affects shadows and creates different effects.

You’ll also need to watch out for unpleasant reflections. When shooting shiny subjects, for instance, a light positioned on a level with the subject will reflect right back into the camera lens, producing a distracting highlight. To avoid these reflections, try moving the light higher, lower, or (slightly) to the side.

teen girl dressed as the mad hatter front light photography Nikon D800 | 105mm | f/16 | 1/200s | ISO 200

5. Shoot during the golden hours

Afternoon front light can look nice, but if you want to really level up your photos, I encourage you to shoot during the golden hours – that is, the hour or two after sunrise and before sunset when the sun is low in the sky and the light is a beautiful golden color.

For one, the low sun produces very even front light, which offers minimal shadows and highly detailed results.

Plus, the light is more diffused – that is, softer – during the golden hours, so the shadows that do appear on your subject will look far more flattering.

And warm, golden light pretty much always looks incredible:

man at the market during golden hour front light photography Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/5.6 | 1/160s | ISO 400

Front light photography: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about front light, when you should use it, and how you can adjust your settings and scenes for the best results.

So head out with your camera and do some front lighting practice. See what you think of the results. Carefully watch your subjects and review the images as you work. Pretty soon, you’ll be using front light like a pro!

Now over to you:

When do you plan to use front lighting in your photos? Have you taken any front-lit photos you’re proud of? Share your thoughts – and photos! – in the comments below.

Front Light Photography: A Complete Guide