Portrait Lighting Made Easy
- Position your light source at a 45-degree angle to the subject. Typically, the light should be about six feet away, though you can adapt this as needed.
- To help even out the light, place a reflector on the other side of the subject. This helps lighten the shadowed side of their face. You can also use a secondary light set to a lower light output.
- Have the subject turn their face as needed for the triangle of light to appear on their cheek opposite the light source.
- Position the light source at a 90-degree angle to the subject.
- Adjust the distance of the light to the subject to vary the intensity of light.
- Adjust the subject's positioning such that the transition from light to shadow is down the midline of their face.
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When I think of photography lighting, I think of the studio setup our family photographer had in the 1990s.
There were monolights and strobes. There were umbrellas and softboxes. There were stands everywhere too. I remember having to wait for what seemed like an eternity for him to adjust and move the lights to adapt the lighting for the shots he wanted.
Those childhood experiences in the portrait studio are part of the reason why I became a landscape photographer. Don’t get me wrong - I love a good portrait. But it all seemed far too complicated for my brain to handle.
But photography lighting has come a long way (this Kickstarter campaign for photography and video lighting is a prime example). This isn't to say that those kinds of portrait lighting setups aren't still in use or lack value. Far from it. But if you want to simplify the process and generate incredible lighting for your portraits, it's a much easier task with today's lighting technology.
It also doesn't hurt to learn a few things about basic lighting techniques and the characteristics of light while you're at it.
So, that being said, let's discuss a few things you can do today to make portrait lighting easier.
Learn Basic Lighting Techniques
As they say, knowledge is power, so arming yourself with a better understanding of basic lighting techniques will help you immensely as you seek ways to create beautiful light for taking portraits.
One of the most classic lighting styles for portraits is Rembrandt lighting. The hallmark characteristic of this lighting setup is a triangle of light on the shadowed side of the subject's face. You can see this in the image above - the purple triangle of light is illuminating the model's face above her left cheekbone and below her left eye.
To achieve this type of lighting is straightforward:
You can play with your positioning by shooting from the light side or the dark side of the subject's face to create different moods. But as far as lighting needs and setup goes, Rembrandt lighting is about as simple as it gets.
Photo by stock_colors via iStock
Another easy one-light portrait lighting technique is split lighting.
As the name suggests, this type of lighting splits the subject's face by illuminating just one side, as shown above.
To achieve this look, simply:
Again, this is a very simple lighting technique that can produce dramatic results!
There are many other lighting setups you can use, too. Check our guide on six classic portrait photography lighting setups for more portrait lighting ideas.
Simplify Your Lighting
The complex (and expensive) lighting setup I described in the introduction is not something you need to make gorgeous portraits.
In fact, there are lighting systems available that allow you to customize everything from the color and brightness to having the lighting react to the beat of music, all from your smartphone.
For example, the TEKE Reactive and Animated DMX Lighting System allows you to generate the ideal lighting for your portraits simply by tapping your phone's screen.
As DMX lights, TEKE gives you much better signal strength than typical Bluetooth lights. DMX also offers improved signal distance. Additionally, DMX technology puts other high-tech features in the palm of your hand, like synchronized complex gradient animations and pixel mapping. This is Hollywood studio type stuff that you can use quickly and easily in your portraits.
And where more traditional portrait lighting like strobes and continuous lights are perhaps not as portable as you'd like, TEKE is about as portable as a light can be.
They come in 20-inch and 40-inch options (shown above) so you can customize the sizing to your particular needs. The lights can be connected together and all controlled simultaneously from your phone as well to give you even greater flexibility.
You can hold the light in your hand, have an assistant do the same, or even put the lights in the hands of your subjects. They're lightweight, easy to handle, and durable, so, again, your creative options are essentially endless.
As I've mentioned, TEKE is wireless and controlled by your smartphone. The accompanying app is easy to use and intuitive, allowing you to add dynamic lighting styles, animated effects, and presets in mere seconds.
You can also use the app to create custom color palettes for future use. All you have to do is upload a photo (or video clip) that has the color scheme you like. Then adjust the selection points in the app, and TEKE will copy things like color temperature, hue, shade, and brightness of the selected pixels to create your new color palette.
TEKE, then, is really like a personal lighting assistant. It can be used for key lighting, rim lighting, or background lighting. It can be used to create low-key or high-key portraits. You can adjust the colors to create different moods in your portraits, all without having to move or adjust the original positioning of the lights.
In other words, by investing in a lighting system that simplifies the process, you give yourself that much more creative freedom to make portraits. With more of your attention on things like posing, framing, and composition, you will no doubt discover that portraiture is a simpler task. Plus, with a price starting at $139.00, you can get great portrait lighting without busting your budget.
But don't take my word for it...head over to TEKE's Kickstarter campaign to see why lighting systems like this are so impressive.
Understand the Characteristics of Light
Photo by svetikd via iStock
There are three basic characteristics of light that you need to be aware of:
By developing an understanding of how these characteristics influence your portraits, you'll be able to better control them, and thus create more impactful images.
Quantity of light is essentially the intensity of the light - how light or dark is the scene?
When taking portraits in very bright conditions, you'll find that the image might be overexposed unless you make adjustments, like lowering the ISO, using a faster shutter speed, or closing down the aperture.
The inverse is true when taking portraits in low-light settings. You might need to increase the ISO, slow down the shutter, or open the aperture to brighten up the shot. In other words, controlling the quantity of light is key to getting the look and feel you want in the portraits you create.
Photo by Juanmonino via iStock
The quality of light refers to its hardness or softness.
Hard lighting is highly directional and tends to be harsh, thereby casting shadows in your portraits. The split lighting technique discussed earlier often uses hard lighting to create that distinct and dramatic light-versus-shadow look.
Photo by Solovyova via iStock
Soft lighting is non-directional and usually comes from a diffused light source (like sunlight filtering through clouds on an overcast day). This type of light is smooth and flat, and eliminates the strong shadows you find in harsh lighting conditions.
As you can see in the sample images above, the quality of light can make a huge difference in how your portraits turn out.
Lastly, you need to think about the direction of light.
Photo by alvarez via iStock
The direction of light will affect the appearance of your portraits. For example, frontlighting, in which the light source is in front of the subject, creates a portrait in which the subject is very well lit and well-defined, but lacks much in the way of depth due to the lack of shadows.
Photo by CoffeeAndMilk via iStock
Backlighting occurs when the primary light source is behind the subject.
In this situation, the light helps separate the subject from the background, giving the portrait a more three-dimensional look. But since the primary light is behind the subject, using a fill light in front of the subject to help brighten up their face is necessary, unless you want to create a silhouette, as shown above.
Photo by MDBrockmann via iStock
Side lighting is also a popular option for portraits because it enhances the depth and three-dimensionality of the shot.
This type of lighting generates beautiful highlights and shadows, showcases the shape and form of the subject, and creates perhaps the most dramatic portrait lighting of the three directions.
Photo by CoffeeAndMilk via iStock
As noted in the introduction, making portrait lighting a simpler and easier task requires that you understand the characteristics of light and basic lighting setups. Having easy-to-use portrait lighting is certainly helpful as well.
Armed with the information in this tutorial, you have a good base from which to start creating dramatic, visually engaging portraits. And, again, to add gorgeous, easy-to-use lighting to your portraits, check out the TEKE Kickstarter!