B&W Black portrait by Headshot London

Lighting Tips For Portrait Photography

The best ways to use lighting for a perfect portrait

For the professional photographer, the need to understand how to use light and shadow in composing an image is paramount.  And nowhere more so than in portrait photography, where bright light or nuanced shade can change the tone and mood of the picture and the appearance of your sitter.  Learning to use light effectively calls for a combination of technical know-how and creative insight – and will make a real difference to the quality of your work.


Lighting basics

Understanding the behaviour of light in relation to solid objects is essential for every type of photographer.  When light hits a surface it will be either reflected, refracted or absorbed, depending upon the quality of that surface.  Being able to use these behaviours to create contrast or illuminate detail is the basis of the photographer’s art.  In portraiture, studio lighting can be controlled to manipulate the contrast of the image; for any given size of light source, moving it further from the subject will result in a higher level of contrast and a lower intensity of light.  In this way, the photographer can reduce the brightness for a more flattering result to the sitter.


Light colour temperature in portrait photography

Colour temperature is a property of light and refers to the balance between the three primary colours, red, green and blue, that make up the light spectrum.  Pure white light has these three in equal balance but in different lighting conditions the colour balance varies – for example, the change in light quality as one moves from indoors to outdoors.  To control these differences, photographers use different film types or colour correction filters; modern digital cameras often have balance adjustment built in, while further adjustments to colour temperature can be made with photo editing software.


Understanding contrast

An intense beam of light hitting a subject will produce a high contrast image of distinct areas of light and dark, sharply delineated.  However, if your light source is more diffused, the light will fall onto the subject from differing angles and the result will be more graduated, with softer edges between light and dark.  You can vary the contrast in your image by changing the size and intensity of your light source, moving it closer to or further from your sitter.  High contrast will give a hard, dramatic effect while a low contrast will be more flattering, with a softer finish.



To soften contrast in your image, you will want the light to fall on your subject from a variety of different angles rather than from a single, intense beam.  This softening effect is known as diffusion, and its intensity can be varied by varying the distance between the light source and your subject.  This effect is governed by the Inverse Square Law: the intensity of reflected diffuse light is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the light source and the subject.  In practical terms this means that the intensity of the light increases at a greater rate (by a factor of two), the shorter the distance of the light from the subject.


Choosing the right light for your portrait photograph

As has become clear, the choice of light source for a portrait photograph can make an immense difference to the final result.  As the photographer, it will be your responsibility to make sure you use the right source of light to achieve the desired result, so first you need to consider what sort of image you’re aiming to take.  A corporate headshot needs to present a smart and professional image of your sitter, whereas an artistic portrait needs to hint at something of the character and life of the subject, and may be dramatic, bright and colourful or cloaked in shadow.


Once you have an idea in your mind of what you want to create, you can start to assess which particular form of light will best suit your needs.  You could opt for natural light from the sun, either by taking the picture outside or in a studio with large windows or skylights; this will generally result in a flattering and naturalistic portrait.  However, natural light can be difficult to control and manipulate, so more often a portrait photographer will opt to use artificial light within a studio setting, choosing from constant light sources, speedlights or strobes.  Strobe lighting is most often used for portrait photography as it offers higher levels of control, low heat generation and lower power consumption than fixed light.


So, to sum up, learning how to utilise light to create the effect you want is one of the most important factors in successful portrait photography.  Just as an artist selects brushes and colours, as the photographer you will use light as a tool to portray your subject as required – be that a straightforward headshot or a more artistic or enlightening study.


(c) Headshot London Photography Agency


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