Light: It’s Why Some Covers Just Don’t Look Right

Light: It’s Why Some Covers Just Don’t Look Right

Greetings all,

Still need another week to get a few reviews prepped, so I thought I’d talk about book covers.

Last time, I talked about font and text. I’ve seen a lot of great covers ruined because of text, but this time, I’d like to point out the subtle things about light that make an image feel more realistic.

Usually, when someone looks at a cover, and it just feels wrong, it’s because the light is off. Most untrained eyes won’t be able to note the shadows are going the wrong way or the center of interest isn’t separated enough from the background. What the viewers do notice though is a general feeling of “not right.”

As I normally do, I’m not going to call out covers I think did it wrong. First off, it’s not very nice. Second off, I’m much more invested in showing off covers that did it right.

So I’d like to take a look at a few covers and explain how the light made the image work.



This cover is an example of controlled shadows, and well done rim light. The rim light is the bright light surrounding the subject. What it does is separate the subject from the background. It helps the character leap off the cover. It adds dimension to the cover.

The key light (the main light making it so we can see what’s going on) is coming from above the subject. The brim of the hat casts a shadow down over the bridge of the subject’s nose.

Notice how the face is lit. The artist used the light from that wand (or staff or whatever) to give his face a little detail. That’s a nice touch, and a good understanding  of light. That staff light acts as a fill light. Fill lights soften shadows or remove shadows depending on what the artist wants. Not that there are shadows. Shadows are important. An image without any shadow is called flat. No one wants a flat image. In terms of lighting, this image does everything an artist should do.


This image also stands out because of its light. 51Lo1Tak-HL

Notice this also has rim light. I teach my students, “Everything is better with a backlight.” I tend to believe in that to an obstinate degree.

This technique is called split light. The light comes from the left. Note the face has two sides: a lit side, and a shadow side. What’s really important is that same rule (left side brighter than the right) holds true to the whole body.

Also notice that the subject stands out from a clean, back-lit background. When artists understand light, they can make an image feel three dimensional even though they work in a two-dimensional medium.

So when you’re hire an artist, look at their work. Are the shadows consistent? Does the subject stand out from the background, or does the subject look pasted onto the background? Are there highlights (a spot on the subject that is brighter than the rest)? These questions will help you find the more talented artists from the newer ones.

Thanks for reading,