The Light Way to Take Portraits

James Maynard - April 27, 2013 | Lightroom, Lightroom Tips, Photography Gear, Photography Tips, Portrait Photography, Technique, Tips

Lighting your subject plays an essential role in portrait photography. Like taking any other kind of photo, the way light bounces off your subject before entering your camera lens will make a world of difference to the quality of the final photos.

Professional photographers use a number of expensive lights, strobes and flashes to create the perfect lighting conditions. Most of us don’t have that much time, space or money. However, no matter what your level of proficiency, or level of dedication to the hobby, you can take better portraits by taking time to arrange your lights properly. Fortunately, each light serves a single purpose, so you can easily mix-and-match for different shots and conditions.

The main light you will use is called, not surprisingly, the main light, or key light. If you are using a flash, this should usually be considered your main light source. You should get your flash off the camera – portraits taken using a flash that is sitting on a camera tend to look flat and lifeless; the light comes off the camera, bounces directly off the skin of the subject, then directly back into the camera. Flashes attached to camera bodies are also the leading cause of red eye – eliminate both issues with the use of an off-camera cord, preferably 12-24′ long, or by using a wireless flash trigger. By moving the flash off-center, you will be able to bring our bone structure and skin tone in a way impossible to do with a flash attached to a camera.

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Try a fill light or reflector – if you have a second light, position it on the opposite side of the camera from your keylight. Aim it so that it softens the shadows from your main light. If you do not have a second light source, you can fill in with a piece of white poster board, with a small hole in the middle, attached to a tripod, and fastened with a washer and nut. Aluminum foil can be used to create an even more reflective surface, and the board can be moved in and out and/or angled toward the model to create different effects.

Most of the time, we want the background behind our subject to be easily passed over by the viewer’s eye. Sometimes, however, the background plays a vital role in the composition of the photograph. If this is the case, the third light you should consider using is called a background light. This lights up just the background, bringing out detail behind the model.


Notice how the well-lit background tells the viewer a lot about what these people are doing, as well as lends us some insight into their life. This picture would not be nearly as intriguing without the well-defined backdrop. Photo by Jon Sullivan. Public Domain Photo.


Some photographers like to use a kicker light, although the use of these lights has fallen out of favor lately. Positioned slightly behind and above the subject, A kicker light will create the halo-like effect that was so prominent in 1980′s school photos.

How you use the lights within these parameters is up to you as the artist, however, there are a few well-established styles which you should explore.

The first of these is called split lighting, and it is created by having your key light off to the side of the subjects face, and about at the same height, while they look down the barrel of the camera. This will create an effect where one side of the face is lit, while the other is in darkness.

Want to get reduce the visibility of wrinkles in an older model? Position your keylight above and behind the camera, which will smooth out imperfections in skin.

Want a scary look? Try lighting from below. This is a classic technique which was extensively used in the silent horror films of the earliest days of movie-making. Here, you may want to forgo the use of a fill light or background light, in order to make the shadows (and thus, the creepiness) even more pronounced.

Or, have the model looking just off-camera, in a 3/4 position, and light the more-exposed side of her face. Although this style of lighting can be flattering for some people, it can tend to add the appearance of pounds, so use wisely.


This is the classic 3/4 pose. Notice how the main light is positioned on the side of her face that is showing more toward the camera. Photo by Paolo Neo. Public domain image.


When in doubt, start with two lights, each positioned 45 degrees above and to either side of the model. This lighting style is known as the Rembrandt effect, which is quite often pleasing to the viewer.

Remember that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflectance, so any light that you aim at the subject will bounce back at the same angle, and could create glare, especially if your model is wearing glasses. Position your lights accordingly.

After taking the shots, then remember to fix the blemishes and light in tools like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. The new spot healing tool in Lightroom 5 is great to remove lines under the eyes or stray pieces of hair.

Like everything else in photography, you should experiment and try different things. What works for you in one situation may not work for someone else another time.

Try paying more attention to your lighting the next time you do portrait photography – you may be glad you did!