portrait photography lighting basics

Great portrait photography lighting is a topic that could fill a dozen textbooks or a 20-part video series. Rather than get overwhelmed we're going to start you with the basics of photography lighting that you can use for portraits as well as all the photographs you ever take.

wedding portrait lightingFlash gun provided main and fill lighting.

It's my goal to provide you with good quality content and inspiration to take your portrait photography to the next level and lighting is maybe perhaps the most vital and lifelong skill you can master. Okay let's dive right in.

the 3 basic CONSIDERATIONs of portrait lighting

1. the number of lights you use

Nowadays I rarely use more then 2 lights for portrait photography. It's simpler that way. Fashion and glamour photographers usually use quite a few more than that, but for now, here are the basic 4 type of lights that I learned about in photography school long ago.

single light source portrait lightingBalanced main and fill lighting

  1. MAIN LIGHT, also called the key light. This is often an umbrella light or a soft-box.
  2. FILL LIGHT. This is sometimes not an actual light, but a reflector bouncing light from the key light. The fill light is usually placed on the opposite side of the subject from the key light.
  3. ACCENT LIGHT, may be a hair light or a skim light that provides separation for the background. Some portrait photography lighting set-ups will use several of these.
  4. BACKGROUND LIGHT. This may be a light aimed at a backdrop or at the scenery in the background.

You don't have to use all four types of portrait photography lighting. In fact, I usually use 2 and sometimes just one. In the photo below, I wanted a low lighting ratio between just the two lights that I used, a main light and a fill light.

Soft light baby photoSimple Soft Lighting

I positioned the single main light, up high and to the left of my subject and added a single fill light, behind and to the right of the camera to light this newborn. The lighting ratio between the two lights was low, giving me a soft flat lighting appropriate for the subject.

2. the characteristics of light

Light can be harsh or soft, broad or narrow, big or small, direct or indirect. A big, "soft" light will produce shadows with more gradual change to highlight areas. Smaller light sources will produce sharper edged transitions from the shadows to the highlights.

3. the  lighting ratio

high lighting ratio example

When the lighting ratio is high there is a big difference in the amount of light that is hitting the lit areas compared to the amount of light that is hitting the shadow areas.

A low lighting ration means there is not a big difference between the amount of light that is hitting the lit areas compared to the shadow areas.

Here's a more detailed explanation of lighting ratio.

You now have access to articles on indoor portrait photography, outdoor portrait photography, elements of lighting, lighting styles and portrait lighting equipment. All these topics are covered on this website. 

Search for a new topic on this site:

You can use this search box here or go to the list of lighting articles below. But first I want to explain how it all began.

HOW I GOT HOOKED on photography lighting

Portrait photography lighting is a subject near and to my heart and has been since I created my first portrait when I was 9 years old.  Yes, I know what you're thinking, but stay here with me for a second.

You see what happened is that I got bit by the photography bug when my fourth grade class took a trip to the zoo. My parents gave me a plastic Kodak film camera to use at the zoo. 

Most of the photos  I got bak a week later were pretty, blurry, not well composed and the lighting was not good. But there was one that wasn't like the rest. Yes, there was one photo that came out perfect. It was a candid portrait of my 4th grade teacher. The lighting was just perfect and I didn't know it at the time, but it would influence me in some strange way and I became a portrait photographer.

Lighting in Photography. This is a simple article written to illustrate the impact the direction of the light has on bring out the features in your subject. But before you click, I have a warning. I picked a very UN-interesting subject to photograph for the article.

Photo Lighting - using mannequins to practice. The impact that the direction, quality and intensity of the portrait lighting has on the human face. The mannequins stay in the same position with the same expression.

Outdoor Portrait Photography. I do my best to find a good location with excellent natural lighting when doing family portraits outdoors. Here are 4 family portraits where the lighting was almost ideal. In three of them I used large white reflectors to improve the lighting just a bit.

Photography Lighting. A diverse mix of lighting in 5 different photos. One of the photos shows 5 different appearances of the same object due to the lighting.

Photography Lighting Kits. You now have many photography lighting kits available. Digital cameras are really sensitive to low light situations and you can use non-flash lighting to super lighting in your portrait photography.

5 styles of portrait photography lighting

The following video was made by TheSlantedLens. 

It does a great job of explaining the 5 styles of portrait photography lighting used for indoor portraits. These include Rembrandt, Split, Broad, Butterfly and Loop lighting.

You don't necessarily have to use the same kind of lights as depicted in this video to mimic these portrait lighting styles. I learned to follow them closely while taking a portrait photography course my freshman year in college, but I rarely use them now that I take portraits for a living.

With indoor portrait photography I tend to have my models change their head position frequently and that will change the lighting style if the lights are not moved as well.

The other things that have a big impact on your portrait photography lighting is the amount of fill light that is filling in the shadows as well as the amount of diffusion that you main(key light) and fill lights have. The amount of fill light light affects the lighting ratio as well as the contrast you will get in your final lighting set-up.

Don't get me wrong. These 5 portrait photography lighting styles are important to learn. Equipment has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but peoples faces are pretty much the same.

Keep shooting. Keep learning. Keep improving.

Article published by Bruce Lovelace


Bruce is the publisher of Better Digital Photo Tips. Read more on the About Page. He's been known as The Traveling Photographer ever since he started his location photography business in 1994.

View some of Bruce's photos on Instagram.   Visit the Facebook Page. Watch him on YouTube.  Bruce runs photo workshops for kids and adults, and provides one-on-one photography coaching.

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