Photography Lighting Techniques: Not What You Think

We see a stunning portrait—maybe hanging on a wall somewhere—and we think, “Wow! My work doesn’t look like THAT!” Then we run out and spend thousands of dollars buying the latest equipment, books on photography lighting techniques, and so on. But it STILL doesn’t work! Here’s why…

black and white portrait

“Portrait, Hanoi, Vietnam” captured by Thomas Jeppesen (Click image to see more from Jeppesen.)

The best pros and amateurs alike all understand something about photography lighting techniques that many of us never really “get.”

What makes a portrait look amazingly real and pop off the page isn’t just the light—it’s the shadows. One key fact to always keep in mind is that shadows define form!

shadowy portrait

“Moment in the Morning Light” captured by Dietmar Chromik (Click image to see more from Chromik.)

One area of photo lighting education that is sorely overlooked and understudied is shadows. Most of us tend to over-light our photographs and thereby get rid of the shadows.

True, we can see the face, but it tends to be flat and lifeless. It’s not until we introduce shadow that our photo takes on a 3D feeling and looks like a real person getting ready to step off the page.

How to Study Shadows

Here is how to QUICKLY master this vital area of photography lighting technique:

  1. Get yourself a subject. Use a friend, relative, or just hire the kid next door.
  2. Sit them on a chair in a room that can be darkened. With all the lights on, look at them. Study their face. See how it looks? Now turn off the lights and make it completely dark.
  3. Take a flashlight (an actual flashlight, not some studio light) and have someone hold it at about 45 degrees to the side and above your subject. See how the light lets us see our model’s face? (At least we can see one side of it, but it’s really the shadow that defines the shape!)
portrait with shadows

“Quondam” captured by Sangeeth Sivan (Click image to see more from Sivan.)

  1. Now use a reflector of some sort—it could be a piece of white paper or cloth—and have someone hold it on the opposite side of the face from the light. Move it closer and further away. See how the shadow changes? Study it; take notes. It is this—the way we record the shadows—that separates the pros from the wannabes.

Really do this. In 15 or 20 minutes, you will learn more about photography lighting techniques and how to put pizzazz in your photos than you would ever imagine. Your photos will be forever changed.

About the Author:
Dan Eitreim writes for ontargetphototraining.com. He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. His philosophy is that learning photography is easy if you know a few tried and true strategies.

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2 responses to “Photography Lighting Techniques: Not What You Think”

  1. Gary Gromer says:

    Thanks so much for your insight on this. It’s so easy to make bright, flat photo’s. And playing with a light and shadows was a great tip.

  2. Lenny Wollitz says:

    An alternative to finding a live model… I bought a “practice head” with hair etc. that beauticians use when learning their trade. Works great and your model will not get bored while you learn so they will be more willing to model later… for real.

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