Various photography lighting guides state that when light is positioned above a face it looks natural, but when positioned below a person it looks unnatural or even "creepy".

My own comparison using 3D software

This is sometimes used deliberately in movies to evoke fear.

cc-by photo by Travis Pawlewski - Flickr

The universal principles of design say that this is because we evolved on planet earth with a single sun, which is always above us.

But there are plenty of natural situations where light could come from under us. Such as being reflected off the ground, snow, or water, or just sitting around a warm campfire.

CC-by photo by Ville Miettinen - Flickr

I'm just curious if there are any known psychological reasons why lighting under a face might look unnatural or "creepy"? Or could it be that it's such a staple of horror movies that we're primed to perceive it that way?

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    $\begingroup$ It may seem creepy due to the way it alters the face. In the first example, the women with the normal lighting looks timid and non threatening, but when the lightning is changed, her facial features are also changed(the way we perceive them), giving her a more sinister look. $\endgroup$
    – User
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah that seems likely. Another theory I've just heard is that it makes the face resemble a skull (black eyes, black nose hole). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 2:29

1 Answer 1


There are situations as you mentioned where light can be from below, but they are extremely rare in our evolutionary past. Fire is quite recent: remove that one. Reflections from water or snow would require very strong light from above, so those are essentially removed as well. I think the creepiness comes from the unfamiliarity. Also see the Uncanny Valley, which describes similar feelings in response to near-human representations https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

A good test would be with non-human animals. Do they find bottom-lit faces fear-inducing?

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    $\begingroup$ Good points! I think unfamiliarity is likely. It is indeed rare to see in everyday life, especially with no light from above. Thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 4:29

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