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by Bart Arondson

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In this comment to a question about composing landscape photographs, Esa Paulasto says

About the direction of light, whenever you have a choice in it, have the light come from left side.

I have never heard this before. What is the basis of this suggestion? Does it apply to just landscape photography, or is it also meant for, e.g., portraiture?

Is it something somehow meant to be universal, or are there cultural implications (for example, is it linked to left-to-right written languages)?

And finally, as we know, all rules are meant to be broken. What are the consequences of breaking this rule?

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The Rembrandt lighting question has most examples with the light coming from the left as well, so it might be useful in portraiture as well. Other than that it might have something to do with left/right-handedness (giant leap here, I know) as right handed people prefer a light from the left. That side is not obstructed by the hand/arm that is working (writing, drawing, cutting, etc...). Maybe this preference carries over to what (right handed people) like to see on images. –  Bart Arondson Mar 4 at 13:27
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You might want to ask an art historian, as the predominance of light coming from the left predates photography. –  Matt Grum Mar 4 at 14:08
    
I found some evidence that a sample of random participants chose to light abstract objects from the top left, but this doesn't really answer the question. After all, many of our guidelines for composition are based on the idea that it's better to do doing something other than the obvious. –  mattdm Mar 4 at 15:02
    
This question had been circling in my mind for a few months, and I had planned to ask it myself. Only that I never got the question ready to post. As it now happened, instead of asking, I ended up answering it myself. Either way, I've now got the answer I wanted, and that answer is the one you posted, not my own answer. Thanks, good stuff :) –  Esa Paulasto Mar 5 at 5:05

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There is a Wikipedia article on top-left lighting, which cites as its primary reference the papers Where is the sun? and Is light in pictures presumed to come from the left side?. These papers support the conclusion that people prefer lighting from the left when resolving a convex-concave ambiguity, although the second notes that the correlation is weak (especially compared to a strong preference for light coming from the top).

The Sun/Perona paper notes that about 77% of paintings from a large random sampling from several museums tend towards left-lighting, which is interesting, but not a value judgment, and I think it is very wrong to take this kind of thing and make it a rule. Esa states the matter as a prescription: "Whenever you have a choice in it, have the light come from left side", but I think it's more likely just that "When it doesn't really matter, people creating art have a tendency to choose top-left lighting."

But maybe the old masters were on to something (and just got it wrong 23% of the time). I didn't do a comprehensive study, but a quick glance over the works of impressionists like Degas, Renoir, or Monet show that they certainly didn't hold this guideline sacred. So, while it may indeed be true that older paintings tend this way, I don't think it would necessarily hold up with a different sample set.

And, all of that isn't photography. Edward Weston certainly never got the memo, and he's perhaps most famous for a photograph with abstract, convex shapes.

Pepper No. 30

Weston's other famous work doesn't seem to tend towards left-lighting either. But of course, that's just one photographer. To get a better sample, I went through Life Magazine's online collection The Best of Life. There, direction seems to be evenly split between a) predominantly-left light, b) predominantly-right light, c) ambiguous or mixed lighting, and c) dramatic back or front-lighting. If anything, there's a slight preference for light from the right to light from the left.

I also looked at Richard Avedon (who seems to have slightly more portraits lit from the right than from the left in his portfolios online), Diane Arbus (no consistent directional pattern), Henri Cartier-Bresson (lots of interesting light and shadow, no sign of following a rule), Elliot Erwitt (about even), Annie Leibovitz (again, about even), and of course Ansel Adams (and still, no pattern of left-lighting).

Going a little more contemporary, Dave Hill's online portfolio actually seems pretty slanted towards light from the right. Or, every enthusiast-photographer's lighting guru David Hobby (of Strobist) — this clearly is not one of his considerations.

I think that if putting the light to the left made photographs better, one of these people would have caught on.

So, I put forth that while you might want to follow this suggestion in product photography (and particularly when you want to make the form of an abstract shape obvious rather than mysterious), there is no general rule.

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@EsaPaulasto - Actually, no: Weston's Pepper 39 is a last-ditch, if-this-doesn't-work-I'm-giving-up desperation attempt to get adequate fill on an object with interesting organic shapes. The galvanized funnel in which the pepper sits was the last thing left to try. The story behind the photo has been told many times. Left-side highlighting is merely a convention born of the scriptorium and the natural light studio; we read it slightly better in the abstract because it's a convention. (And the counter-example of vertical flipping only proves that we don't live in a bottom-lit world.) –  user2719 Mar 5 at 0:45

I don't believe there is any universal cognitive bias toward light coming from the left, probably originates from westerners who are used to reading left to right, and thus prefer things to be left aligned.

Once there is a critical mass of artwork with this convention, then people from right-to-left cultures will still tend to follow the light from the left rule.

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I am an artist and a photographer. I do have a knowledge I got from my teachers at the art school which may answer your question regarding "why left oriented lighting is preferred"

Most of the artists in the history, including the academic photographers, designers, sculptors, studied nature to understand objects and light. Most of them studied pencil drawing on paper at least certainly in their early years. You will know when drawing a sphere or let's say an apple, if the light not used from the left, you will be smudging your shading along the way of drawing the darker tones. In other words, every layer of shading your object, you want to leave your drawing on your left. This is obviously for the right handed people. No need to argue and say right handed is better or worse, "studies suggest that 70–90% of the world population is right-handed" (Wikipedia). You may find my answer not likely true. But this is the reason why 77% of artworks from Louvre and Prado were left side lit.

I would say, only if it doesn't matter where the light comes from, and I have the complete freedom to chose, I also prefer left sided lighting.

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When you see a three dimensional object with your both eyes it is not hard to make out the shape and nature of that object. On a two dimensional photo or painting this is not so obvious. Our brain needs more data, or it starts inventing its own reality. What is up, what is down, what is near and what is far. From a two dimensional photo you can't really know all this.

An example. Here is a button, or a smooth flat stone on a table:

button

You see there appears to be a light source in the upper left side of the object. And respectively there is the shadow on the lower right hand side, near the table surface.

What happens, if we rotate this picture 180 degrees? Does the object in the picture just turn to be lighted from different light source? Or does the object itself change?

Let's see, the same picture, but rotated:

enter image description here

It appears there is a hole, or at least a dent, in the table surface. I'm sorry I could not produce better pictures, I'm not a drawer really.

This is what I learned in my long gone youth in my feeble attempts to learn to paint like artists: place your light source on the left side of your object to create an illusion of depth in your picture.

How to use it in photography?

In a typical photograph your brain has a lot more information to work on to produce an imitation of three dimensions for your mind's eye. No matter where the light comes from, we know a football is a round object on the ground, not a brown dent in the ground. However, when the information we see is conflicting; a ball lighted from low right direction, our brain has to recognize the object to give it shape. Most of the time this works well, and the ball stays round, but it is still something extra work to be done before we have the shape just right. It needs work.

Had you placed the light source on your left, top left side, then your brain has a much lighter work in processing the image. The ball practically pops out from the surface without much effort.

The real benefit comes in photographing strange objects. Something that your brain has no previous familiarity with. Take a photograph of a complex machinery. Processing the ins and outs is again not so very hard for the photographer, who has just seen the view in front of him, with his two eyes. The benefit of top left lighting is for the viewers of that photograph, who have no good idea of what is in the photo. Placing your lights in top left side makes it easier for them to understand what they are seeing.

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This isn't very convincing. Sure, it looks a bit odd to have the light coming from underneath, but that's because you turned the image upside down. There is little risk of that happening in a landscape photograph. What if you just flip it horizontally? –  mattdm Mar 4 at 13:42
    
I did read the answers to the question you linked. To summarize: for UI elements, top-left lighting is typical, and consistency is important. Another answer argues that the real reason is that this is Photoshop's default for a drop shadow. That seems reasonable for that domain, but you still haven't convinced me that it transfers in any way. –  mattdm Mar 4 at 15:05
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So, I disagree with you, but I do appreciate your taking the time to explain your meaning. –  mattdm Mar 4 at 16:21
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Flip both pictures horizontally and you'll have an equally strong argument for top-right lighting. In natural settings, the dominant light will be sunlight, which generally comes from above the horizon, but depending on time of day and compass facing, the lighting will be equally likely to come from the right or left. –  Russell Borogove Mar 4 at 18:58
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This may or may not be true but I can see the logic in the argument. As for photos of rocks with the lighting from the bottom making the photo more mysterious, isn't this an example of breaking the rules to make a more interesting photo? –  RedPython Mar 4 at 22:43

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