Portrait Lighting Tips in Photography

Lesson #1: Window Lighting

Today, with digital cameras, effective window lighting is a more realistic option for the photo enthusiast.

Take your subject to a window—one without direct sunlight pouring in though—it’s too harsh! In the studio, pros position their main light to the their left, probably 90 percent of the time. So, find a window to your left with the reflected—or softer—light (as opposed to direct sunlight).

window lighting for portraits

“ojt” captured by Jan Michael Vincent V Castillo

As you turn your subject more and more away from you, and therefore toward the window, the shadowing will change on his/her face. You’ll see the lighting you like the most and use it. After all, you’re the artist now!

For more refined results, see lesson #2 about reflectors.

Advanced tip: Corner lighting. Find a window near the corner of a room with another window on the far wall. Although that second window cannot be repositioned like a reflector, it still can light the background and/or fill in the shadow area of the portrait.

Lesson #2: Reflector Lighting

You will need:

  • A 5-in-1 photo reflector
  • A light stand
  • An adjustable clamp

A reflector can be as simple as aluminum foil (crinkled) attached to a piece of cardboard. Use the dull side of the foil if sunlight is directly bouncing off of it. About 24″ x 24″ works if you’re mainly using it to photograph head shots. The 5-in-1 is great though, because it has white, silver, and gold surfaces to choose from. You can get softer, more diffused light off the white; more intense light off the silver; and warmer light off the gold.

Positioning the Photo Reflector

Either a helper can tilt the reflector until pleasing light is thrown into the shadows of the portrait, or you can use a light stand with a clamp.

using a 5-in-1 reflector

“Smile” captured by Dwayne Bent

Reflector lighting is more foolproof than strobe lighting, because you can’t overwhelm the natural, or ambient, light with the reflector light. And, by varying the distance of the reflector from the subject, the ratio of the highlights to the shadows can be controlled. You can flatten out the light, which is less flattering if facial shape is not conducive, or, you can make the shadows darker and, to a degree, you can vary the position of the shadowing by raising or lowering the reflector. Unlike with strobe lighting, you can actually see the light, so it’s particularly easy to learn by experimentation.

Remember, anywhere your camera goes, your reflector goes! Digital photography allows trial and error photography to a degree not possible in the age of film. But, if certain elements are never present, they’ll never appear in any image, so this is among the key professional photography tips, in my view.

As an example, using a white or light gray (neutral) wall as a reflector also works. I photographed a model in front of the Monte Carlo casino in bright, (and I do mean bright!) Vegas sunshine, and got glowing light that usually only occurs by using reflectors, coupled with beautiful light in the hair. In this case, the distance from a wall on the right was perfect for bouncing light onto the model’s face and keeping it in the proper ratio with the sunlight. Who says you can’t photograph into the sun?!

Also, photographing into the sun worked here because there was an arch above her that blocked sunlight from directly hitting the lens, which quickly wrecks photographs with something called flare.

Employ some of these professional photography techniques, and you’ll feel like you don’t need to be in Photography 101 any longer!

About the Author
Dan Burkholz has been a professional photographer for over a decade, creating images of thousands of subjects and over 300 weddings.

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