dramatic portrait with color side light

2023 Essential Guide to Side Light in Portrait Photography

October 13, 2022

Regarding portrait photography, side light is one of the most important things you can use to create stunning photos. This guide will discuss everything you need about side light in portrait photography. 

We'll cover how to use side light to create depth and dimension in your photos and how to use it to create beautiful shadows and highlights. So whether you're just starting in portrait photography or you've been shooting for years, this guide is for you.

What is Side Light in Photography?

Side lighting is a lighting method that directs a light source from one subject's side to the other. Depending on how the light is used, this can create several different effects on a photo. Side lighting can add depth and dimension to an image when used correctly. It can also create beautiful shadows and highlights that add interest and drama to a photo.

Why Should Use Side Light in Portrait?

There are several reasons why side light is such an important tool for portrait photographers.

1. Form and Dimension Definition

One of the most important functions of side light in photography is that it can help define a subject's form and dimension. This is because side light creates shadows, which you can use to create the illusion of depth.

side light portrait of man's face

Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash

For example, if you were photographing a person's face from the side, the side light would create shadows on the side of the nose and under the chin. These shadows would help define the face's shape and give it a three-dimensional look.

In contrast, if you were to photograph a person's face from the front using direct light, no shadows would be created. This would make a face appear flat and two-dimensional.

2. Using Side Light to Create Mood

One of the reasons you might use side light in portrait photography is to create mood. Light is a powerful tool that you can use to convey a wide range of emotions, from happiness and joy to sadness and despair. When light hits a subject from the side, it can create shadows. 

These shadows can give a portrait a sense of mystery or drama, making it more interesting and engaging. Alternatively, side lights can create a softer, more romantic mood. It all depends on how you use the light.

Additionally, side light can help accentuate certain facial features, such as the cheekbones or jawline. By carefully controlling the direction and strength of the light, you can create various effects, allowing you to capture portraits that are truly one-of-a-kind.

3. Highlighting of Texture

girl's soft side light portrait

Photo by isco on Unsplash

Another reason to use side light in your portraits is that it can help to highlight the texture of your subject's skin. When light hits the skin from the side, it creates shadows and highlights that can accentuate the face's natural contours. This can be especially useful if you photograph someone with beautiful, flawless skin. Using side light can help accentuate the natural beauty of your subject's skin, giving them a stunning, radiant glow.

4. Increase Depth

Side lighting can also be used to exaggerate the depth of a scene. When side light hits a subject, it creates shadows that can help to create the illusion of depth. This is especially effective in landscape photography, as it can help to add a sense of scale and grandeur to a photo. You can also use side light to accentuate certain features of a landscape, such as mountains or cliffs. By carefully controlling the direction and strength of the light, you can create various effects, allowing you to capture truly one-of-a-kind photos.

When to Use Side Light?

Now that we've covered some reasons why side light is so important, let's talk about when to use it.

One of the most common times to use a side light is during the golden hour. The golden hour is the time just after sunrise or before sunset when the sun is low in the sky and casts a warm, golden light. This is an ideal time to use side light, as the warm light will create beautiful shadows and highlights on your subject.

Side light can also be used when you want to add drama to a picture. As we mentioned, side light can create stark shadows and highlights that give a photo a sense of tension or drama. If you want to add some emotion to your photos, side light is a great way to do it.

low key portrait with side light

Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

On the low-key portraits side, light is also often used in low-key portraits. Low-key portraits are mostly dark photos, with only a few highlights. This type of photo is often used to create a sense of mystery or suspense.

When you want to convey emotions, side light can also be used when you want to convey certain emotions in your photos. For example, side light can be used to create a romantic mood by softening the shadows and highlights. Alternatively, side light can create a more dramatic mood by accentuating the shadows and highlights.

Side lighting is used to highlight a product's contours. A side light that hits a product can create shadows and highlights that help define the product's shape. This is especially useful when photographing things like jewelry or clothing.

Side light is also good for capturing reflections and glistening effects. When side light hits a reflective surface, it can create a beautiful glittering effect. This is often used in product photography to make products look more appealing.

When Not to Use Side Light?

Side light isn't always the best choice for every situation. There are some times when side lights can make a photo worse.

harsh side light portrait

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

Hard side lights will not produce a soft look for you. To create even lighting, back your subject up with the light behind them so that all areas of their face are lit equally well without being too harsh on one area in particular.

You may be using natural light and have no control over how the light hits your subject. To highlight the other side in this situation, utilize a reflector or extra lighting.

3 Tips for Portrait Side Lighting

1. The Best Side Light Placement Is at a 45-Degree Angle

Set the light at a 45-degree angle to the subject. After that, request that they tilt their heads slightly or entirely to one side. As a result, just one side of their face will be illuminated, creating a striking contrast between the two.

It's crucial to remember that capturing your subject's face from the light or shadow side might change the way they seem. Certain features of their face may shade others. Additionally, it may give them a rounder face.

It is not advisable to use diffusers if you want to increase the contrast as much as possible. You may make a hard sidelight by using sparse, far-off lighting.

2. Face Lighting for Softer Side Lighting

man's black and white portrait photo with side light

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

If you want to create a softer side light, try illuminating your subject's face. This can be done with a reflector or an artificial light. Position the Reflector Below Your Subject's Face If you're using a reflector, position it below your face. This will bounce the light onto their face, creating a softer side light.

Use an Artificial Light; if you want more control over your side light, use artificial light instead of a reflector. This will allow you to adjust the intensity and position of the light to get the perfect side light for your portrait.

3. Use a Fill Light

Fill light is a secondary light used to "fill in" the shadows created by the main light. This helps to create a more even lighting overall and can help to make your subject look more flattering. There are two ways to use a fill light: you can use artificial light or reflect natural light onto your subject.

To use artificial light, position the light so that it's pointing towards your subject's face. You'll want to experiment with the intensity and position of the light until you get the desired effect. If you're using a reflector, position it to reflect light onto your subject's face. Again, you'll want to experiment with the position and intensity of the reflector until you get the desired effect.


Side light is an important element in portrait photography, and it's something you should experiment with to see what works best for your shoots. In this guide, we've outlined everything you need to know about side light to start using it in your work. We hope you find this information helpful and inspiring.

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