It is all about the Light! PART 2

The importance of understanding Direct Light and its direction for creating stellar photographs

Pitigliano, Italy

Low, soft side-light & nice, intriguing shadows. Pitigliano, Italy. Tuscany Photo Tour

In PART 1, I wrote about Overcast Light and Open Shade and how this light in combination with good composition can produce great photographs. Today I will write about Direct Light and why the direction it comes from is so important. 

Direct Light

Direct Light can be harsh and strong but it can also be warm and soft – it all depends on the time of day. Typically, mid-day light is strong and harsh while during early morning and late afternoon, at sunrise and sunset, the light is warm and soft.


This photo of vineyards in Portugal’s Douro Valley was taken late in the day with the sun coming from the left as low sidelight, kissing the tops of the vineyards and creating wonderful compositional shadows and depth. I have seen plenty of boring mid-day photographs of these vineyards on the internet.

Douro Valley, Portugal

Low sidelight creating shadows and depth. Douro Valley. Portugal Photo Tour

With Direct Light I find that I can get great results at all times of the day. In my opinion, the best time of day to photograph this cypress grove near San Quirico in Tuscany is at sunset. The low angle of the light and its warmth create the shadows that are needed for accentuating the beautiful rolling wheat fields. 

Low sunset sidelight. Tuscany, Italy. Tuscany Photo Tour

Strong sidelight is also useful for accentuating texture in surfaces by creating mini shadows as in the image below taken in Céreste, France.

Cereste, France

Strong sidelight accentuates the texture of the stucco. Céreste, France. Provence Photo Tour


One of the biggest benefits of Direct Light is that it creates shadows. These shadow areas turn into compositional elements and a graphic part of the composition. In other words, they turn into shapes and can define and benefit the composition.  The photo below was captured in mid-April in Southern Moravia in the Czech Republic when the fields are at their greenest green. The direction of the light is very important here as it creates wonderful shadows and depth. If the sun were to come directly from behind me and illuminate the fields, this photo would not be successful. Proof again of the importance of the direction of light and correct timing.

Southern Moravia, Czech Republic.

Low angle backlight. Watch out for lens flare. Southern Moravia. Czech Republic Photo Tour

This use of shadows can be especially beneficial in landscape photography when photographing rolling and undulating terrain. The direction of the light and the position of the sun in relation to the composition is really important in these situations. Typically, you want to have the light at a lower angle, coming from the side or from behind to create pleasing shadow elements. The shadows add depth and shape to the composition.


Often, I will photograph with the light coming from behind the subject, also known as backlight. It is important to take caution with backlight and to especially pay attention when the light directly touches the front element of your lens. This can cause an unsightly flare in your photograph. Make sure to use the lens hood designed for your lens. Additionally, you may also need to hold something in front of your lens to block the sun from directly hitting the front element. I often will use my hand, hat, or preferably a small black travel umbrella which is also useful for shielding your lens from rain.

I captured the photo below from the Campanile above Piazza San Marco in Venice using a 400 mm lens to hone in on the activity below late in the day with the backlight adding interesting graphic shadows to the tourists.

Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy.

From the Campanile above San Marco Square. Venice Photo Tour

Direct Light mid-day without Shadows

When the sun is directly overhead at midday there will be no shadows. I typically do not photograph at this time but occasionally, especially if there are interesting clouds in the sky, I can still get pleasing images. This image below of “The Tree”, was photographed near high-noon. You’ll see no apparent strong shadows. The strength of this composition and the billowing clouds make this a successful photograph despite the lack of strong compositional shadow elements.

Field and oak tree, Tuscany, Italy

High midday light without shadows. Tuscany Photo Tour


Another way to use strong low and direct light is in the creation of silhouettes. I captured the silhouette image below at sunrise in the Camargue region of Provence, France. It is important here to not underexpose, so make sure that you review your histogram to make sure your camera’s light meter is not being fooled by the bright backlight.

Rider and horse at sunrise, Camargue, France.

Strong low-angle backlight creating a pleasant silhouette. Camargue, France. Provence Photo Tour

Low-angle Lighting and Atmospheric Haze

Another aspect of low-angle lighting situations is when there are particles of dust or moisture in the air which can create a very pleasing atmospheric haze. I captured this image from the top of Monte Lussari in the very NE corner of Italy at sunset with a long lens. It rained a couple of hours earlier and there was a lot of moisture in the air. This image is successful because of the combination of moisture and strong backlighting.

Monte Lussari, Italy.

Moisture-rich air and strong backlighting. Monte Lussari, Italy. Croatia, Slovenia & a Pinch of Italy Photo Tour


I love using direct light in my photography. The most important aspects to consider are the time of day and the direction of the light and the resulting shadows it creates. Those shadows can really add to the composition and make for very compelling and successful images.

Tuscan farmhouse

Early morning sidelight on Il Belvedere farmhouse. Tuscany Photo Tour