Portrait photographers like David Ziser and Clay Blackmore taught me very early in my career that great portraits are almost always short lit, and that made me happy. Knowing that a simple technique could give me a leg up in making great portraits was music to my ears. Unfortunately, I didn’t really understand what that meant for a long time. Once I realized exactly what short lighting is, I saw that almost every photograph of every subject, from landscapes to libraries, is likely to be more successful if it’s short lit.
What is short light?
When you look at a person (or a building, or a mountain) straight on you see both sides of her face equally, the left side and the right side; this is the front view. When she turns her head to either side, you now see less of one half of her face. The side you see less of is the short side, and the side you see more of is the broad side. In the image up top, I see less of the left side of Kinsey’s face, and more of the right side of her face. Her left side is the short side, her right side is the broad side. Get it? It helps me to look at her ears (imagine where they are if covered by hair).The ear I can see is on the broad side, the ear I can’t see is on the short side.
So, in order to make short light, I need to shine the light on the short side of her face. That means the light is to one side, and my camera moves to the other side. See, lighting the short side is really about moving my camera.
In this image, the light is to the left of the camera, and it’s lighting the short side of Lindsey’s face. But, if I moved the camera to the left, then the light would be on the broad side of her face. The broad side is always the side the camera is on, and the short side is always the other side. So, if Lindsey doesn’t move and the light doesn’t move, then moving my camera changes which side of the face is lit. Referring to the ears, if I see the ear that’s in the dark, then I’m lighting the short side, and it’s always flattering and always likely to make a person look good.
What about landscapes?
What’s this got to do with landscapes and architecture? Well, we talk about the face of a building and the face of a mountain, don’t we? If you want a formula that is likely to make any landscape or architecture look more interesting, short light it. But how do you light a whole building or a mountain? Remember from above that if the subject doesn’t move and the light doesn’t move, then moving your camera gives the appearance of lighting the short side.
Face the building: which side has shadows on it? Place you camera on that side. Shoot into the shadows, and you’re lighting the short side. (If it helps, when you’re facing the front of the building you can imagine ears on the sides). If the front of the building is the shady side, you may want to consider shooting it at a different time of day or season. Simply shooting into the shady side of a building will help your pictures of commonly photographed places look great.
Short lighting is dramatic and character rich and all the beautiful images in your mind are probably short lit with the light coming from the side. This is the inside of the New York Public Library, shooting into the shadows, light from the side.
Photographers always talk about shooting at sunrise and sunset. This isn’t because they like to photograph the sun edging the horizon all the time, it’s because the light is low and coming from the side and allows for short lighting. When you go out to shoot landscapes, place the sun to the side and slightly behind your subject. I live in the northern hemisphere, so in the summer I shoot facing north at sunrise and sunset, and I shoot to the South in the winter at sunrise and sunset and this puts me in position so that the sun is lighting the short view of the landscape. This bridge in Portland has skinny sides, but I’m standing on the Southwest side, shooting to the Northeast as the sunsets in the Northwest so that I see the shadows; the light is on the short side.
Oftentimes, especially when travelling or on vacation, you find yourself in a beautiful place at the wrong time of day. Placing yourself so that the sun is lighting the short side of the building will still yield the most striking images. I found myself driving through Rhyadh at 2:00 in the afternoon when I passed this incredible mosque. Even though the sun was high, I waited until the car was on the shadow side of the building (and in Rhyadh traffic, this took ages) and then shot when the sun was lighting the short side of the building, revealing shadows striping the dome and the dark side of the minaret.
Wherever you go in the world, whatever your subject, if you identify the side the light is shining on and place your camera on the other side, you’ll be lighting the short side and making a flattering image. Do this for buildings, for mountains, and especially for people and I think you’ll find that more of your pictures are keepers.