I love to photograph textures on sand, rocks, and mud. Side lighting is essential for bringing out these textures. Contrary to popular belief, direct sunlight is not necessary for creating side lighting. Here are a few example of how we use side lighting to photograph textures.
I took this shot just before sunset in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. The sky is heavy with deep, blue clouds – but an opening in the clouds at my left shoulder allowed soft, evening light to dance across the dunes. Notice how I’ve used that light to bring out the textures in the rippling sand. When the sun is high in the sky, the soft shadows disappear and the ripples get lost in the brightness.
Take a look at one of Varina’s photos (above) from the same park. This shot was taken around mid-day under heavily overcast skies. The light is filtered through the heavy cloud layer and lacks any directional lighting. This image shows a completely different kind of light. Can you see how the side lighting in the first image enhances the ripples in the sand? Varina’s shot is beautiful for different reasons… it’s a stark, minimalistic representation of the scene where texture is less important than form.
The best time to look for side lighting is during the early morning or late evening hours. Side lighting occurs even after sunset and before sunrise. Here is a photo from Shoal Bay Australia that shows subtle shadows and textures on the left-side rock. This image was taken before the sun came up but the light was strong enough to create textures on the rocks. A key advantage of using side lighting before sunrise or after sunset is that the dynamic range of the textures is controlled which eliminates the need for complicated post-processing.
The same technique works when the sun is low on the horizon, on overcast days, or when you’re shooting in the shade. This image from Paria Canyon in Utah was shot in late afternoon when the west canyon wall was enveloped in shade. The light bouncing off of the rocks on the east side created subtle textures throughout the image.
So… the next time you find yourself trying to showcase texture… remember that side lighting does not always require direct sunlight. Reflected sun light or glow created after the sun has gone below the horizon can also create subtle side lighting that can be used to showcase textures.