Front light is one of our most basic light forms.
Nicéphore Niépce used it for his first ‘heliograph’ made in 1826 or 27. An 8 hour or more exposure taken through an upstairs window of his Burgundy estate.
Front light was the staple light of George Eastman’s Kodak. The small aperture and low sensitivity meant that bright light was indeed the order of the day.
The (in)Famous “Sunny Sixteen Rule” relies on bright sunshine—a couple of hours after sunup and before sundown— to give correct exposure.
I admit to still using a variation of the Sunny Sixteen, when I shoot in M for Manual on the D500. Normally I use ISO400, and f/5.6 on the 500mm PF with a shutter speed of 1/2500-for white birds 1/3200. The good old Reciprocity Rule at work before your very eyes.
My dear old Mum’s favourite photo-adage, “Keep the sun over your left shoulder dear”, is just another variation on that theme.
Front Light in sunny daylight gives beginners several advantages:
The subject is evenly lit.
No heavy shadows to spoil the colours. The shadows fall away behind the subject.
Colours are rich and expressive.
Metering is easy, or just the Sunny 16.
The form and shape are lost in a flat looking surface.
A uplifting, bright mood is established.
And of course a couple of disadvantages:
Lack of Drama (most times)
Lack of form and shape because of the loss of shadows
Hard for subject not to squint as they peer toward the bright light.
Birds tend to look away for the same reason, and perhaps because it’s easier to see prey in the bird’s front light.
So on any given day in the field, my first choice is Mum’s Rule. But of course it depends on the mood I want.
Light coming from behind the subject robs us of rich colour and often detail.
So it is not without consequence that EE and I were out at the Western Treatment Plant on a sunny afternoon.
We found the Black Kite sitting conspicuously on a branch high on a tree near the roadway.
We slowed and stopped, the light was coming from behind the bird and the most we really could see was a shape in shadow.
I glanced in the rear view mirror and several cars were coming up behind us. We had stopped well off the road, so there was plenty of room to pass. To my surprise, they too stopped, several cameras with people attached got out, some cameras stayed in the cars with the windows wound down. A few shutter clicks, and quick ‘chimp’ at the results, and the vehicles moved on looking for something else to record.
I didn’t have to see the results to know they had a black, Black Kite. All shadow, no detail.
After the dust settled and with the bird still in good view, we moved up the roadway about 75m, and the Kite was now in “full front, sunlight”, dial in the sunny 16, and increase the shutter speed slightly to keep the highlights in the feathers, wait, wait, wait for a head turn, there is the eye catchlight. Click. Job done.
I know in the field, the excitement of seeing a bird is more than enough to make a record shot. I’ve got half a disk-drive full of them. But getting the best colour, or mood or feel takes a few moment to consider the vision that I have of the results, and then making the necessary steps to work to achieve that.
Do I always use front light? No, is the loud reply. But it is my light of choice if I am after those rich feather colours and details
PS: For Nikon Users Only. Canon and Sony users, move along-nothing to see here. 🙂
Over on ArtfromSience web site, Ed Dozier has an interesting test series on the Auto Focus on the D500, D850, D6. His methods and conclusion bring some interesting thoughts to the accuracy and how to get the best out of it, of the Nikon AF system. Hope it helps.
Optimizing Autofocus Efficiency in Nikons