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Effect of direction of Sunlight on outdoor photography.

by Jayaram A S 4 months ago in how to

Illustrated with examples

Lord Buddha , India.

Disclaimer: All photos are taken from Author’s own collection.


“Photo” means light. It has originated from the word “photon”, used for the quantum of the wave of light in what is called as particle behaviour of light.

So, light is the most important parameter in photography. There are different sources of lights used for photography.

• Flash light – This is used mainly for indoor photography. Sometimes used in outdoor photography also, to avoid harsh shades resulting from direct sunlight.

• Bulb light or such artificial lights- these are also mainly used for indoor photography.

• Sunlight- This is the main source of light in outdoor photography. But we cannot fully control Sunlight because of cloud movements, rain and seasons and on. We can take the best advantage of Sunlight by using some basics of photography.

Direction of the sunlight:

Sunlight direction is one of the most important parameter. This will be very clear with the following examples.

A monument in Pondicherry, India.

Slightly different direction of light and its effect.

Architecture and monument are the most attractive and will be having historical value. So, taking photos of monuments will be from the beauty point of view and also from historic point of view.

Look at the photograph above. It is of the same monument, but taken at different times of the day and at slightly different camera angle. But the photos are appearing in a totally different way!

The above photo is very clearly showing the structure of the surface of the monument. The foreground is illuminated with bright sunlight. We can very clearly see the tiny flowers, the sky background, the trees are well illuminated and there is no shadow of the building. It was taken around 11:30 AM.

Look at the next photo of the same monument. This is taken at around 1 PM. Sunlight is very bright but we are not seeing any details of the surface of the structure, even though the whole building is still clearly visible. In the bright sunlight the background sky is little brighter but less blueish. The trees are visible again with the same bright light. The flowers are much more attractive.

Same monument.

All these differences are just in a matter of two hours. This will happen especially before noon and afternoon. Before noon, lighting is in a different direction and afternoon lighting is in another direction. This is important aspect is to be effectively understood and used while taking outdoor photographs.

Sky back ground:

For outdoor photography, especially for taking monuments and structures, the blue sky background with little clouds will be excellent.

A temple in Bangalore, India.

Look at the photo above. This was taken purposely 45° upwards inclination of the camera is 45° from the ground line, so that immediately after the structure a perfect blue sky background is seen with little clouds. Of course, we can edit the photos but if the initial photo is excellent then editing is not required.

Note: The photo with error with best editing will not be better than the best photo that is taken without any errors.

Effect of Seasons and sunlight.

Lord Buddha statue in India.

This was the statue of Lord Buddha in India. The direction of the sunlight in the background is matched in such a way that we are getting side lighting on Lord Buddha statue. This has highlighted all the structural details. If it were to be midday sunlight from the top, then the same statue would not have shown these details.

Here I just want to point out that the movement of the sun at any location depends upon the seasons. This is because the earth is tilted 23° from the axis of rotation. Hence the sunlight directions that we are going to get in a particular day will be totally different from the sunlight direction after three months or six months in the same location of the Earth. Hence we have to be careful while selecting the place of visit. If we want to take a perfect photograph of any such structures, the inclination position in a particular season is to be considered for a particular location on Earth.

Direct and diffused sunlight

The next two photographs will illustrate the effect of direct sunlight and diffused sunlight. Then direct sunlight is when there is no cloud and that will be on the structure or monument. The diffused sunlight is normally due to clouds covering the sun.

For many types of photography, even the diffused sunlight is excellent. For example, if you are taking a portraiture in outdoor or group photo, then the diffused sunlight will be ideal. Diffuse sunlight or direct sunlight to be used is to be decided, depending upon what particular thing we are looking at.

Glass House in Bangalore, India.

This is called Glass House, situated in lalbagh, a park in Bangalore, India. The shade of the tree has enhanced the grass cover and also induced the feeling of depth for the observer.

Same place at diffused sunlight.

Above photo is the same photo, almost from the same direction is taken in diffuse sunlight. Just to differentiate, there is a small flower bucket placed. Now the grass enhancement is very less the. Lighting is very uniform and depth is not at all predominantly seen. Also the sky color is not so blue compare to the previous photo. So these are all to be considered while taking outdoor photography

Exactly opposite directions of light.

Branch of a tree with back lighting

In the above photograph of a particular branch of the tree, exactly opposite directions of lighting is there.

When we say backlighting, the light is from the sun exactly opposite to that of the direction of the camera. So here you are seeing the branch of a tree in the form of what is called Shallotte, where the structure is not visible but only the black outline is visible. There are many type of photographs where backlighting is used to get this particular effect

Look at the next photograph in which the same tree taken from the same location but after 12 hours! That is, the sunlight is exactly 180° opposite to the previous one.

Same branch with front lighting.

Now observe the direction of lighting is along the direction of the camera. That means there will be a direct lighting on the object. It gives complete structural details compare to earlier branch of the tree where the sky background was only appealing. So this is a very important set of two photos clearly illustrating the effect of direction of sunlight in outdoor photography.

The next photograph is just a walking path of a hotel complex. See how effectively it is taken in the morning. It was around 10 AM when the sunlight was inclined approximately at 30° to the ground.

A walking path in a hotel, India.

See how effective it is in making the depth, almost appearing like a 3D. If the same photograph is taken in diffused lighting this effect will not be there.

Next one is the flower photograph where the particular midday sunlight directly falling on the flower is utilized to highlight the complete structural details. We can easily see a housefly sitting there and if we closely observe, we can see the structure of its wings. Such a structural detail is impossible in diffused sunlight.

Flower in bright sunlight.

Sparkling effect of sunlight.

Next photograph shows the effect of direct sunlight while taking the photograph of a lake.

Lake in a hill station, India.

There is the distant background, covered by tree below and clouds above. If that clouds were to be missing, then there would be a lot of light coming opposite to the direction of the camera, spoiling the beauty of the photograph. But at the same time, the sun is not covered by the cloud! Therefore we are seeing the sparkling in the movement of water. We can’t get this effect if it is diffused sunlight. Also we can’t get this effect if the direction of the sunlight is different.

When you click the next outdoor photo, try to consider all these effects. Best of luck.

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Jayaram A S

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