Mastering Shadows in Indoor Portrait Photography

In a studio portrait session, it is sometimes difficult to position lights in order to achieve the photographer’s desired effect. When harsh shadows appear on one side of a model’s face, many photographers will set up a second light on the opposite side of the model as a fill light, but this only complicates the problem by adding additional shadowing. In this helpful tutorial, Mark Wallace demonstrates how to properly control portrait shadows without adding that second light:

Heavy shadowing on one side of a model’s face occurs when light is blocked by the model’s nose and cheekbone, due to the angle of the light in relation to the model. While adding a second light seems like a good solution, Wallace proves that it is by no means an ideal fix, since it creates a ‘butterfly shadow’ on either side of the nose.

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Diagram of two lights used to control shadows.

mark wallace control portrait shadows

Using two lights creates a ‘butterfly effect’ around the nose.

Instead of adding an additional light, one solution is to move the key light to be more on-axis with the camera. This does alleviate facial shadows, Wallace explains, but it also creates heavy shadowing behind the model, so photographers will need to move the model away from the background and illuminate it separately.

how to control portrait shadows

Diagram of one light moved closer to the camera.

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Moving one light closer to the camera fixes the facial shadows but creates hard background shadowing.

Wallace’s second solution is guaranteed to make every photographer’s shadow-less portrait dreams come true without creating any additional challenges. He counsels photographers to change from a hard light source to a soft light source by adding a light modifier, like a soft box or umbrella. Then, photographers should move the light back towards its original location and position a reflector panel to reflect existing light into the shadowed areas near the nose and cheekbone.

mark wallace how to control shadows

Diagram of one soft box light and one reflector panel.

adorama tv mark wallace controlling portrait shadows

Using one soft box light and one reflector creates slight facial shadows without creating background shadows.

In the end, Wallace encourages photographers to keep it simple.

“The thing that you shouldn’t do is start adding extra lights to try to get rid of those shadows because you’re just going to be causing yourself problems… Start moving that key light to see what position of light will do for you. If that doesn’t get you where you want to be, then start modifying that light, making it a larger light source, moving it closer to your subject, using maybe a soft box or an umbrella, and you will find that you will get much better results.”

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