Sometimes I reflect back in time and today I thought about something that happened years ago at a major photography event in Florida. Clay Blackmore, a Canon Explorer of Light, and I were to conduct back-to-back lighting seminars in the same studio that day, so we decided we’d assist each other. As I observed Clay’s seminar, he shared some of the late Monte Zucker’s great lighting advice that I’d heard from Monte before but had forgotten.

Monte Zucker’s great lighting advice

Monte Zucker’s great lighting advice included the importance of side and back light in photography.

Before I get into what Clay shared that day, here’s a little background. While Clay is literally a living legend in the world of photography today, he was also a protégé to the legendary Monte Zucker. They spent 25-years working together as Clay started out as Monte’s assistant then co-educator and finally his business partner.

Clay’s clientele includes celebrities like Larry King, Forest Whitaker, Jenna Elfman, and Maria Sharapov as well as many others. Obviously, Monte was a huge influence that helped make Clay a photography master.

Window Side Light

Side light from a window can flatter your subject with a natural diffused quality.

Now Monte, often called the “Prince of Portraiture,” held Master of Photography and Photographic Craftsman degrees from the Professional Photographers of America. And Clay mentioned that day that Monte always taught him that the greatest photos are the ones where the main light comes from the back, or the side, not necessarily the front. I subconsciously remind myself of this lighting technique at all my photo shoots.

I personally knew Monte too, and along with other photographers around the world, we still miss him, his photography, and his wisdom. Monte earned the 2002 Photographer of the Year Award from the United Nations, that alone speaks volumes of his talent. He was one of the greats and before his death Monte “initiated the Zucker Institute for Photographic Inspiration, a charitable organization dedicated to inspiring at-risk youths through photography.”

On occasion, I think about conversations with Monte, but that day Clay spoke, I thought about some of my photos and sure enough, my better photos have a strong light from the side or back. I also remember Monte telling me at Photo Plus Expo one year about light from the back or sides and every time I pick up the camera to photograph someone, I immediately look at the light in a different manner.

If you’ve ever attended one of Clay’s events, you know it’s a great experience to watch and hear him spread the gospel of photography — obviously the best way to become a photographer is to practice your craft, but it’s beneficial to hear things repeated too. That’s why photography events in general are worth attending.

Hence, I’ll repeat it today, if you want to capture some great photos, look at the direction of the light, then ask yourself, “Where does it originate?”  If you see light coming from a nearby window, reposition your subject and place them near that light source and try to use that natural, diffused window light as the main light, but have it come from the side too.

If you’re outdoors and you place your subject underneath a tree to take advantage of the open shade, turn their back toward the sun and have your subject move back far enough where the sun falls on their hair and shoulders, perhaps to provide some nice accent or rim light, then fill your subject’s face in with light reflected from a SUNBOUNCE PRO or MINI photography reflector.

Sunset Flash Photo

Fill-flash or overpowering the sun with flash works great for sunsets.

If you’re can’t find that a big tree, hopefully you can capture a great shot with the subject’s back toward a sunset. Sunsets allow you to drag your shutter and increase your aperture value to match, or close your lens aperture a half to full stop and compensate with fill-flash, or even overpower the sun with flash to create great photos. If a sunset backlights your subject, your image will appeal to any audience and your subject will be happy with their photos.

Well that’s a photo tip for you today on photographic lighting. Hopefully the effectiveness of side and back light will stick in your head like it did to mine when I heard Clay speak about Monte Zucker’s great lighting advice. While Monte, also a Canon Explorer of Light, rests peacefully in a better light, his words of photography wisdom are not forgotten nor that day I spent with Clay at a major photography event in Florida.


Rolando Gomez is a professional photographer and author of five photography books that has traveled to 45 countries for assignments. The former soldier and U.S. Army combat photographer has taught hundreds of photography workshops for almost two decades. A 2016, 2017 and 2018 Top Writer for Quora, his partial credits include Newsweek, Parade, Playboy, Rangefinder, Maxim, Rangefinder, New York Times, Stars & Stripes, and various other publications.
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