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This article is from March 2, 2009, and is no longer current.

Photography Tutorial: Get the Right Light

It’s been raining a lot here in San Francisco, and the fact that we need the moisture offsets only so much grey-sky depression. However, in addition to being annoying, persistent cloud cover is also a good reminder that, when it comes to lighting people, less is often more.
If you’re shooting portraits, lighting has more of an impact on your final result than anything else. Yes, it’s important to get subtle skin tones the right color, and sure, you might want to consider whether you want more or less depth of field, but it’s lighting that will do the most to make a person look more pleasing.
Of course, you can buy expensive lighting rigs or multiple flash units and concoct carefully constructed three-point lighting schemes. Using studio lighting (or multiple handheld strobes) definitely gives you the greatest control and flexibility. Or you can save yourself a lot of money and use available light.
The sun is a very good source of illumination for portrait shoots (as well as for agriculture and the general survival of life on the planet). What’s more, it’s a type of light that our visual system is attuned to. The only real problem with it as a portrait lighting source is that there’s too much of it.
Shot in direct sunlight, this image suffers from deep shadows and harsh highlights. Her eyes are lost in shadow, and every contour of her face casts a shadow. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Because she’s standing in direct sunlight, her eyebrows, cheekbones, and nose are casting dark shadows onto her face. This is usually the case when you shoot in direct sunlight. In addition to making eyes look sunken, noses bigger, and wrinkles and skin texture more pronounced, these shadows also make the image generally more contrasty, which can make it a little harder to read.
You can, of course, wait for cloud cover, but this isn’t always practical, and often comes with the risk of rain. What’s more, cloud cover can be too thick.
A better approach is to employ your own portable cloud in the form of a piece of diffusion material. Most camera stores carry collapsible diffusers. They’re a lightweight, easy way to reduce the contrast in a portrait.
To use them, place one between your light source and your subject — just as if a cloud had floated in front of the sun.
A diffuser serves the same function as cloud cover. With it, you can reduce the harsh shadows and highlights in a shot. Click on the image to see a larger version.

In the image above, I’ve mounted the diffuser on a pole. If you don’t have an assistant available, you can use a stand, which you should also be able to find at your local photo store.
To further reduce the darkness of shadows, you can bounce sunlight back up into the subject’s face with a reflector. You can buy disks that have solid white surfaces (or gold or silver) or get covers that go over a standard diffuser disk. In a pinch, you can use a sheet of white cardboard or foamcore as a reflector. Even plain paper will do if it’s not too windy.
With the model’s help, a diffuser and reflector control the too-harsh sunlight. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Now shadows are much less pronounced and highlights are toned down, so the image has a less-distracting contrast ratio overall.
The modified sunlight eliminates deep shadows, cuts harsh highlights, and gives the image a nicer contrast. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Reflectors are handy even without a diffuser. “Don’t shoot into the sun” is an oft-repeated photo tip, but shooting into the sun can be a good choice when shooting portraits. If you position subjects with their backs to the sun, you’ll get a nice halo of light around their heads. This is a flattering accent and separates them from the background.
Here I’m using the sun to advantage by placing it behind the model to create a halo around her head. Click on the image to see a larger version.

What’s more, because your subjects won’t be looking into the sun, you won’t have to worry about them squinting.
If you have a white reflector handy, you can bounce a little bit of light back into their faces to fill out the shadows.
Here I’m combining rear sunlight with a reflector. Click on the image to see a larger version.

A silver or gold reflector gives you a different color of light and usually bounces more than a white reflector. With it, you can cast a warm tint on an image and deliver a lot more light. These warmer reflectors are mostly too warm for me. I prefer to shoot in the raw format and adjust white balance to warm up an image. Also, you have to be careful with very bright reflectors, since they can make your subject squint.
Colored reflectors can add a bit of tint to an image, but don’t overdue it. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Go to page 2 for a few reflector tips and to see a great shot of the author.

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James Fritz is a Principal Program Manager: Content Tools and Workflows at LinkedIn.
  • RJ says:

    My father was a portrait photographer and he taught me about the classic styles of lighting faces, when and why they were used. I think he rolled over in his grave when I read this weak article. Who do you think this website is targeted at? Please show us that you know what short and long lighting is and why butterfly lighting is so glamorous. Look up the PPA and take a class for christ’s sake.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi there,

    thanks for these good tips about photographing with the proper light.

  • chef ron says:

    Why not just move the girl to a nice shadie area and avoid the direct sun light. Use just a little flash fill and “bang” you git an image.

  • Leikonik says:

    As RJ observed, this is not a very stellar article on portrait lighting techniques, but I suspect that that was exactly the purpose of it: just to give newbies an idea they may not know about, so that they may start experimenting and exploring on their own. I doubt any serious photographer with the knowledge of lighting techniques would think even for a minute that this article was intended for them…

    BTW, I imagine that this website is targeted for graphic designers and not necessarily photographers. Don’t you? So, articles like this one make more sense here than on any strictly photography-related sites.

    I am a photographer for almost 40 years now, so this article did not teach me anything. But sometimes, I find a piece of info, a tip or an opinion in one of those articles, that resonate with me and make me think. I guess, there is never too late to learn something new… even if your father has been a classic-portrait shooter. ;)

  • Anonymous says:

    Nice pict :)

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