How to Use a Hair Light for Portraits

Hair light, separation light, accent light, whatever you want to call it, the result is the same—separating your model from your background. In a small home studio, one light may be enough for portrait lighting, but adding a second light behind your model will really add separation and definition:

Using one single flash to light your portraits can look great, but there comes a time when you need to add a second light. Photographer Gavin Hoey shows us how using a second light can make a huge difference.

Equipment Used

Tips for Using a Hair Light

One light from the side will leave a deep black shadow on the non-lit side. If you’re shooting profiles against a black backdrop and lighting the face, then the back of the head—the hair—doesn’t get lit at all and just disappears into the dark background.

home studio accent light

Without a Hair Light

This is where the hair light comes in.

lighting diagram for separation light

Hair Light Placement

  • The second flash doesn’t need to be the same as the first one, it can be smaller, lower powered and not set in a softbox.
  • It needs to be on a light stand so you can raise it up to light the top of the hair and shoulders.
  • With your model in place, take some meter readings with a flash meter to know how bright to set it and take a few shots, adjusting the light to change the look and feel of the portrait. As you brighten the hair light, you’ll notice the image evening out.
separating model from background

Adding a Hair Light

Experimenting with the hair light and key light will allow you to be more creative and get your desired look, no matter the model’s hair color or background color. You can easily move the key light so it faces the background more and adds some detail to it.

If your model is doing something rather than just standing still, the lighting can enhance the action as well. In this tutorial, Hoey gets his model to blow bubbles, so we can see how the lighting affects that and really brings out the definition of the entire image.

portrait photography hair light tutorial

Repositioning the hair light brings out background details.

Next time you take a portrait, try adding a hair light to see how it changes the look of your images.

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