Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Lighting for Portraits

OK, enough about the equipment, as always it is what you do with it that matters most. Most people, when they first get their two studio lights, set one up on each side of them and try to produce an even light with as few shadows as possible. This is a reaction to the years of frustration using flash on camera and getting those ugly shadows down the side of the face and under the chin. Yes of course you can eliminate such shadows with ease but you can also do a whole lot more.

Think of the two lights as a 'main light' and a 'fill light', then light the object (or person) with the main light first. Move it around to get different effects and see how the shadows fall. Then use the second light, on a lower setting or further away (see the inverse square law for more info) to soften the shadows you have created with the main light but not eliminate them altogether. Below are some examples of popular lighting setups.

Rembrandt lighting - one light Rembrandt lighting with fill

This first setup is called 'Rembrandt lighting' as it can be seen a lot in his paintings. The distinctive feature of Rembrandt lighting is the little triangle of light under the eye on the shady side. The light is higher than the head and well round to the left side, but still in front of the sitter. The picture on the right shows what happens when you add the second light, which is placed on the right near the camera, at about half power. You can see the setup for these two pictures above, they are the top two pictures in he diffuser section.

Side lighting Side lighting with fill

Pushing the main light further round to the side gives this second setup. The light is now more or less at 90º from the camera, the fill light hasn't moved at all. This type of lighting has a very bold feel and was used a lot for actors in Hollywood in the old black and white days, when tone and contrast was everything. Those old studio portraits are worth a look at, they have a very strong feel to them. Watch out though in this setup that you don't over-light a shiny nose.

Back lighting Back lighting with fill

The light is now behind the subject as in the bottom left photo at the top of the page. If I have three lights to play with, this can be an effective way to get some light into the top of the hair which can otherwise sometimes be too dark. Using only one front light means that we now have quite a flat light at the front with only a few highlights in the hair and on the cheeks.

These are just three lighting combinations you can use to get you started, the exact placement of the lights will depend on your subject, whether they have long hair or short, dark or light, what characteristics you want to enhance and what you want to hide, and so on. The important thing to remember is that, no matter how many lights you use, one is the main light and all the others are fills or effects, light the subject first with one light then add others as needed.

For more about portraits see my tutorial on portraits.

Other tutorials in this section


Introduction page.

camera icon
Available Light

Getting the best out of the sun.

camera icon
Using Reflectors

Filling in the shadows.

camera icon camera icon

Break away from the in-camera flash.

camera icon camera icon
Fill-in Flash

Soften those shadows.

camera icon camera icon
Red Eye Removal

A quick remedy in Photoshop.

camera icon camera icon
Studio Lighting

An introduction to indoor lighting.

camera icon camera icon
Inverse Square Law

A bit of Physics for those who feel the need.

camera icon camera icon camera icon
Back to the main 'Photography Tutorials' page
Learn Digital Photography with Geoff Lawrence eBook

If you enjoyed this page you might
be interested in my eBook
Learn Photography with Geoff Lawrence