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.

Fig. 1

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.

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.

Fig. 2

A diffuser serves the same function as cloud cover. With it, you can reduce the harsh shadows and highlights in a shot.

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.


Fig. 3

With the model’s help, a diffuser and reflector control the too-harsh sunlight

Now shadows are much less pronounced and highlights are toned down, so the image has a less-distracting contrast ratio overall.

Fig. 4

The modified sunlight eliminates deep shadows, cuts harsh highlights, and gives the image a nicer contrast.

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.

Fig. 5

Here I’m using the sun to advantage by placing it behind the model to create a halo around her head.

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.

Fig. 6

Here I’m combining rear sunlight with a reflector.

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

Colored reflectors can add a bit of tint to an image, but don’t overdue it

There’s nothing tricky to using a reflector. Think of it like a billiard shot: Imagine a line coming from the sun and bouncing off the reflector onto your subject.

As you move the reflector, you should see more or less light play on your subject’s face. It can be a subtle change, so move the reflector on and off to see where the light is filling in shadows. If you don’t have stands or an assistant, you can even have your subject hold the reflector for you. Once you’ve positioned your reflectors, take some test shots and pay attention to shadow areas and skin tone.

With more experience, you’ll recognize good portrait lighting. Cloud cover, tall buildings, trees, and other objects can often create a soft, diffuse light that’s ideal for portraiture.

The next time you’re tapped to take a headshot, don’t just put your subject against a wall and take the picture. Try to find some sunlight, and then manipulate it to handle the shadow and highlight areas.

The available light in this alley was very good for portraiture, without any modification.

The available light in this alley was very good for portraiture, without any modification.

Once you’re done shooting and are have transferred your portraits to the computer, check out another of my articles, “Smooth Operator: Make More Flattering Portraits,” for even more tips.


Ben Long

Ben Long is a San Francisco-based photographer, writer, and teacher. The author of over two dozen books on digital photography and digital video, he is also a senior contributing editor to Macworld magazine, and a senior editor at His photography clients have included 20th Century Fox, […]

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