What Is Frontal Lighting?

By Kent Ninomiya ; Updated September 15, 2017

Frontal lighting is the primary source of light in photography and video production. It is sometimes called key lighting. The purpose of frontal lighting is to illuminate the main features of the subject for the camera to see. Frontal lighting shines on the subject from behind the camera. This is usually at an angle of up to 45 degrees to the side and 45 degrees upward. Frontal lighting is used in conjunction with fill lighting and back lighting to create ideal illumination.

Identification

Frontal lighting is always the first light source considered in photography or video production. When shooting outdoors during the day, frontal lighting is usually provided by the sun. Indoors and at night, frontal lighting is provided by bright artificial lights. By definition, it is always shining on the front of the subject.

Features

The object of frontal lighting is to bring out features and details of subjects in photographs and video. It is always the brightest light used unless a special effect is being attempted. Frontal lighting should be strong enough to light up the subject without being so bright that it washes them out. Sometimes frontal lighting must be reduced to avoid flooding the subject with light and overexposing it. This can be accomplished by increasing the distance between the subject and the frontal light or reducing the intensity of the frontal lighting.

Function

For frontal lighting to function, it must always be placed behind the camera. This is so it illuminates the side of the subject that the camera sees. It is best to have the frontal lighting shining on the subject at an angle. If it is shining on the subject directly behind the camera, there could be a shadow of the photographer cast into the frame. As a general rule, frontal light should shine on the subject at an angle of about 45 degrees to the right or left.

Considerations

Photographers must also consider the vertical angle that a frontal light shines on the subject. If a line is drawn between the subject and the camera, the key light should ideally be at an incline angle of no more than 45 degrees. If it is any higher, it will cast some unattractive shadows on the subject. An example is when the sun is high in the sky. Sunbeams hit the brows above peoples' eyes. This creates a raccoon like effect around their eye sockets. Sunlight at sunrise or sunset is the most attractive since it shines at a low angle.

Benefits

There are many benefits to using frontal lighting in conjunction with fill lighting and back lighting. Fill lighting shines on subject at contrasting angles to frontal lighting. This removes shadows while maintaining the contrast that makes two dimensional pictures appear three dimensional. Back lighting shines on the subject from behind. It separates the subject from the background. This is important because bright frontal lighting can flatten a subject out and make them blend into the background.

About the Author

Kent Ninomiya is a veteran journalist with over 23 years experience as a television news anchor, reporter and managing editor. He traveled to more than 100 countries on all seven continents, including Antarctica. Ninomiya holds a Bachelor of Arts in social sciences with emphasis in history, political science and mass communications from the University of California at Berkeley.