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An In-Depth Guide to Lighting People

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Read Time: 6 min

Light is the foundation of photography, so when taking portraits, it's essential that you not only understand how the light is working, but also how to manipulate it to create the desired mood and atmosphere of the shot. We don't have time for a physics lesson here, but I'll aim to give you some hints and tips on how to approach lighting your portrait subjects in the most effective way.

What Do You Want To Achieve?

The first thing to establish is what you want to achieve in your shoot as it's important you know what techniques you need to employ in order to get the shots you want. Try gathering up a selection of images that you'd like to emulate and spend some time considering how those shots were lit.

Do they use natural light or studio lights, if so, how many and at what angles were they facing the subject? This will help you appreciate what is required for your own work and give you a far better chance of getting the results you want.

Photo by rennes.i

Natural Light

Utilizing natural light can be a very good option for achieving a more subtle and well, natural look to your portraits. One of my favorite natural light portrait techniques is to have the subject stand by a window and use the light coming in. You can control the amount of light by using blinds or curtains and also vary the proximity and angle of the subject to the window.

When working outdoors, you need to be careful that you pick the right time of day for your shoot as you want to avoid periods where the sun is high in the sky and the light is too bright and harsh to work with. Pick a time like early morning or later in the evening when the light will be warmer and not so bright and this will allow you to avoid over exposure and strong contrasts.

If need be, when working with natural light you can use a reflector to direct light. It will enable you to avoid having the subject facing the sun as you can bounce light from an angle onto their face.

Photo by Simon Bray

Studio Lighting

Using studio lighting doesn’t have to be a complicated affair. For some photographers it can be a daunting prospect to go into a studio and start using lighting setups when all they’ve used before is natural light, but there are so many advantages to using artifical lighting that you’d be foolish to not spend the time getting to grips with it.

The main benefit of studio lighting is the fact that you can control the light, it’s strength and the angle at which it’s facing your subject. This opens up a whole world of creative possibilities that just aren’t available when using natural light.

Maybe start out with a single light set to constant and experiment with placement in relation to your subject and see how it affects your shots. In this sense, you’ll still be able to achieve fairly natural looking shots, as a single light source is similar to the single natural light source, the sun, but in this context, you’ve got more control which you can use to your advantage.

Photo by Yarden Sachs

Angles of the Light

Once you've got the subject happily positioned, you can then have a go at moving the lights around in order to get the desired lighting affect. This way, you can actively control the angle and amount of light being cast onto the subject.

You'll find that only slight alterations will make a significant difference to the outcome of the shot, so don't start making drastic changes, just experiment, then shoot, then adjust, then shoot, ensuring you don't leave your subject standing for ages as you fiddle with lights!

Photo by Lizzie Harper

Multiple Lighting Set-Ups

Once you feel like you can control one studio light, try thinking about slightly more complex set ups using two or more lights. The possibilities here really are plentiful and it’s up to your imagination and what you want to achieve to dictate the positioning of the lights.

Have a search through other studio lighting tutorials here on the Phototuts+ site for multiple light set-ups that can really bring a portrait shot to life!

Photo by Alex Campos


When working with portrait subjects, you want to ensure that you are portraying them in the best possible way. This means aiming to capture their main features and character within a single shot, which takes a lot of skill and maybe a bit of luck.

However, to help yourself out, make sure you aren't using too much light and therefore flattening out the features of the face. It's important to have a variety of tones, dictated by the features of the face, which, if over lit, may well disappear and you'll loose that natural interest and depth from the shot.

Photo by kimadababe

Good Shadows and Bad Shadows

When using strong light sources it can be very easy to begin casting shadows on walls and ceilings. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as, when used intentionally, they can add a dark and moody feel to the shot. However, if you don't want them there, they'll contribute to your shots in a way that probably isn't very helpful, so just ensure you aren't casting any unwanted shadows!

Photo by Simon Bray

Angles of the Camera

Once you've set up and have you subject in position, even if its looking really nice, its important not to stick to that set up for the rest of the shoot. As well as varying the lighting angles, remember to alter you camera angles as well. Some photographers prefer to use a tripod, which is absolutely fine as it gives solidarity, but if your using studio lights, then you've plenty of light available in order to go handheld. Shooting from above, below, the side or head on will all portray your subject in a completely different way, so don't be afraid to roam around and find which camera angles work best for that specific shoot.

Photo by japrea

Connect with the Eyes

One of the golden rules of portrait photography is to ensure that you have a connection to at least one of the subjects eyes. Of course, there are some very good exceptions to the rule, but in order for the viewer to make the strongest connection with the subject you need to ensure that one of the eyes is visible.

The subject doesn't have to be looking into the camera, but if you're utilising studio lights and therefore a variety of shadows, tones and angles sometimes eyes can be obscured or not as clear as might be necessary.

Photo by rennes.i

Try It For Yourself!

So for those of you who were wary of venturing into the world of portraits and lighting, hopefully these few tips have given you an insight into how effective and simple techniques can be. To build up a bit of confidence, why not hire a studio space for a couple of hours, get a friend along and try a variety of lighting options using the available equipment. This will allow you to observe the variation in the results and give you a good idea of which set ups you prefer working with.

Photo by John Lemieux
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