Giving Portraits the Right Light

In today’s article, we’ll take a look at the main lighting types for portrait photography. Sounds dry? It’s not. You’ll learn the difference between hard and soft light, how to make sharp shadows work for and not against you, and the most common beginners’ mistakes involving lighting.

Light is photography’s very foundation. Light has several properties that are important for photographers. One of them is “temperature.” Light temperature is the root of white balance, which we’ve written about before—see White Balance: Why It Matters, What to Do.

Another property of light is its hardness. In other words, how scattered the light is. Clouds are nature’s great light-scatterer. So you could say a cloudy day is a soft-light day. Meanwhile on clear bright days, the light is hard (and throws hard shadows). Below we’ll teach you to deal with both hard and soft light.

Then there’s yet another property: intensity. It determines how much light is reflected off a photographed object. That reflection is what you’re respecting when you adjust exposure settings like aperture, speed, and ISO (or let your camera do it for you).

Soft vs. Hard

Portraits are all about soft light, right? Yes, but not quite. It depends on what kind of picture you want, or more precisely what look you want. If you want a soft-looking picture, then yes, choose soft light. But if you want a hardcore picture, then go for hard light. Here’s a practical example. Doing a portrait of a child or a pregnant woman? Go for soft light. Capturing the grim expressions of a football team? Shooting a tense event instead of a portrait? That deserves hard light.

Illumination Basics

One thing stays the same whether you’re taking pictures with studio equipment or outdoors under natural light. It’s this: when you stick to the right steps, you’ll have good light in your photo. There always has been and always will be one real main light—the sun. It shines down from above, of course. So if you have a main light in your studio that lights your model from above and slightly in front, your other lights should just be supplements to that. Outdoors you can use the Sun as your main light and add nothing but backlighting. Or you can switch that around! You can make the Sun your supplemental light—your backlight—and use an artificial source (an external flash, etc.) as your main one.

Backlighting

Backlighting is lighting a model from behind. It helps to create a contour. It’s up to you how wide that contour on the photograph’s subject will be. To regulate it, alter the angle of the light. Backlighting also optically separates the subject from the background. This makes your picture feel more three-dimensional and dramatic. If you have a chance to use it, use it.

Backlighting is giving this portrait’s subject a nice contour. Photo: P. Šrámek.

Backlighting is giving this portrait’s subject a nice contour. Photo: P. Šrámek.

The Three Portrait Lighting Types

Again, in nature the main light is the sun, and it shines mainly from above, though it does also shine from the side in the east and west. Take this into account in your lighting setups. When taking pictures in a studio, stick to having one main light. When setting up lights, always illuminate with just one. First illuminate the model with the main light, then turn it off and illuminate with the backlight. If you also use supplemental lights, wait to use those until the end.

1) Lighting from above—the most common

The sun normally shines from above and is the dominant light for a photographed scene. It makes just about everyone looks good, because it’s the way they’re normally lighted. `It illuminates the whole face evenly and emphasizes the shape of the face, and especially cheekbones.

The foundation of portrait photography is the eyes. They should be illuminated. The most common mistake here is to leave the eyes (or the lips) in shadow. Nobody looks good when lighted this way, because the core of the portrait—the eyes—is lost. The simple solution is to ask the model to raise their head. This illumination trick can leave a shadow on the subject’s neck. But that doesn’t really hurt the photo.

Thanks to lighting from above, this portrait has details on the whole face. The model has no shadows in their eyes, or from their nose. Photo: Majo Eliáš.

Thanks to lighting from above, this portrait has details on the whole face. The model has no shadows in their eyes, or from their nose. Photo: Majo Eliáš.

An example of bad lighting. The model has shadows in their eyes, as well as a nasty nose shadow that’s encroaching on their lips.

An example of bad lighting. The model has shadows in their eyes, as well as a nasty nose shadow that’s encroaching on their lips.

2) The Triangle

This is an unusual way to do lighting: it demands you use hard light. Lights are placed above and beside the model. The goal is to make a triangle of light appear on one half of the model’s face. To achieve it, join the nose shadow with the shadow on the side of the face. The most common mistake when going for this effect is to fail to join the nose shadow with the face shadow. Another one is to let the nose shadow cover the mouth. But the worst mistake is when the light triangle doesn’t illuminate the model’s eye. Remember, the eyes and the lips form the expression in a photo. So make sure that shadows do not encroach on these main sources of expression.

The interplay of shadows and light create a triangle of light on the left side of the model’s face. The shadows do not extend into the lips, and the nose shadow is connected with the shadow on the left cheek.

The interplay of shadows and light create a triangle of light on the left side of the model’s face. The shadows do not extend into the lips, and the nose shadow is connected with the shadow on the left cheek.

The nose shadow is not connected to the cheek shadow. The light feels distracting and imbalanced.

The nose shadow is not connected to the cheek shadow. The light feels distracting and imbalanced.

3) From the Side

This lighting is something you’ll mainly see at sunrise or sunset. It only illuminates half the face. The other half is in shadow. The most common mistake with this lighting type is to position the side light too high up. This creates a unpleasant shadow under the eye. If you aren’t able to position the side light so that it doesn’t create a shadow under the eye, then go for the Triangle instead.

Light from the side is illuminating one half of the face; the other is in shadow.

Light from the side is illuminating one half of the face; the other is in shadow.

Here the light is coming from slightly above rather than the side. This is leading to unpleasant eyelash shadows.

Here the light is coming from slightly above rather than the side. This is leading to unpleasant eyelash shadows.

Know Your Model and Adapt

Study the facial features of your model to find out what kind of light will suit them the best. One of the above-mentioned lighting types will certainly be a good match. By the way, don’t forget: for portraiture, use a portrait lens—that is, a long lens. For other practical information on photographing models, see our article Indoor Portraits? Use Natural Light!

Last updated 26. February 2014

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Author: Majo Elias

I’ve been taking pictures since 2004. When I was starting out, I photographed almost everything. Later my style solidified and I began photographing people almost exclusively. At the moment my main genres are fashion and advertising.

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