How to Express Portrait Emotion with Light

“The worst thing an artist can get is indifference,” claims veteran photographer Jay P Morgan. Most photographers share this sentiment. Ideally, you want your images to evoke some sort of emotion or idea. But it’s not immediately obvious how to go about creating the intangible in a single, still photograph.

You may not be surprised to learn that light is one of the single most critical tools in setting the stage for what you’d like to communicate. It can be used in a variety of ways to support and strengthen a subject (or directly contradict it):

When you’re considering what sort of lighting you should use to illuminate your image, take the following elements into consideration.

Ratios and Contrast

An image’s lighting ratio refers to the stop difference between the image’s darkest point and lightest point. The lighting ratio directly impacts the overall contrast of the shot. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, check out this article about lighting ratios explaining the ins and outs of the subject.

An image’s contrast plays a huge role in setting a mood. Lighter, flatter images most closely resemble the world as we see it through the human eye. For this reason, they are naturally a bit friendlier and more inviting. Darkness, on the other hand, makes us a bit uneasy. There’s a reason that people often fear the dark. Literally and metaphorically, it confines subjects and creates an aura of uncertainty.

image contrast compared

In the example above, it’s easy to see the differences between the two images despite the fact that each features the exact same model sporting the exact same expression.

Quality of Light

The quality of light refers to the degree of transition between highlights and shadows. This differs from a lighting ratio, as it refers to the gradation between the lightest and darkest points rather than the numerical stop difference.

As you can see from the image on the left (below), a hard light source such as a bare bulb strobe or direct sunlight creates hardly any transition between an image’s darkest and lightest points. This creates a moody, stylized effect. Sometimes hard light can be a bit unflattering, but in other cases it can be beneficial and add drama to an otherwise average image.

quality of light compared

Diffused or bounced light creates something entirely different. The transition between an image’s darkest and lightest points is more subtle, creating a photograph that’s much more open.


Artists of all mediums use color to convey concepts and feelings. Photographers are no exception.

Use color to your advantage while building your scene. Often times, adding color to can mean switching the white balance adjustments on your camera or sticking a gel over a light source. It’s also quite possible to manipulate color in depth in post processing.

color casts compared

As you might expect, cool colors can make subjects seem distant or foreboding. Warm colors, on the other hand, are often perceived as being cozy or comforting. When choosing the colors that are right for your shoot, it’s also worth considering the symbolism behind colors (e.g. red for passion, green representing envy, etc.).

Direction of Light

It may not seem like much, but even the direction of light can strongly impact the look and feel of a photograph.

Think of it this way—more often than not, we’re lit from above. The sun hangs high over our heads, and nearly every building is equipped with some sort of overhead lighting. Therefore, slightly angled overhead lighting feels right and makes us most comfortable.

directions of light compared

However, whenever you begin to deviate from the norm, your result becomes more surreal and, at times, more unsettling. The more extreme, the more it seems to defy the laws of nature. For this reason, “evil” or scary subjects are frequently seen on set being lit from below to create large, ominous shadows that obscure the face.

When all of those elements come together, it can build an emotional experience, regardless of what is being photographed. Working piece by piece, you create a visual message. Generally, you’ll want to remain consistent and choose effects that complement one another. However, the rules can be broken to emphasize a point. Either way, knowing what each piece brings to composition leads to strong decisions and a more thoughtful end product overall.

“The reality is, when you take all of these different principles and mix them up, you have thousands of options, which gives you the ability to create things that no one else has ever seen.”

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One response to “How to Express Portrait Emotion with Light”

  1. Ms. P. says:

    Excellent tutorial! Was searching for something to show my high school students and shows exactly what I was looking for.

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