Light Reflections: 5 Ideas for Better Portraits

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First, a disclaimer: Like composition, lighting portraits is a subjective exercise. A setup that works for one situation may not work for the next, and lighting that one photographer adores might repulse another. Cultivating a personal lighting style involves an awareness of conventional approaches and willingness to go beyond what everyone else is doing. Study portraits made by photographers who you admire and try to reverse-engineer their setups. Better still—assist one in studio to get firsthand experience. The trick is to develop a system that can produce consistent results while being flexible enough to adapt when needed. This article covers a handful of tricks that should come in handy for all portrait photographers.

Above photograph © John Harris

Photographs © Cory Rice

A softbox and semi-circular silver reflector can add some punch to images.

1 Get in Shape

The best portrait photographers treat light the way sculptors treat stone. Modifiers are the chisels of this trade and they come in a variety of forms. Whether its origin is the sun or a strobe, hard light creates harsh shadows and challenging exposures that can make even the most photogenic faces look awful. When working in studio, umbrellas and softboxes provide tried-and-true methods of bouncing and diffusing artificial light, respectively. Umbrellas are relatively cheap, portable, and quick to set up. Softboxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, allowing much greater control over the light that they transmit—with the cost of taking a bit longer to build. Square, round, and octagonal boxes are solid options for close portraits, while rectangular and strip lights come in handy for full-body shots. Another portrait studio favorite is the beauty dish. Creating harder light than a softbox, its characteristic effect wraps light around faces, chisels cheekbones, and leaves signature catchlights in eyes. Unless your model’s skin is flawless, it helps to add some diffusion when using a beauty dish.

No clouds or shade? Create your own with a diffusion panel.

When working outdoors, diffusion panels are your best bet for dealing with strong sunlight. Depending on the production needs of your shoot, choose a panel that can be secured to a boompole to keep it mobile or grounded between light stands for static applications. Daylight studio shooters know that natural light through a window can be just as harsh as sunlight outdoors. It never hurts to have a roll of diffusion ready in these cases. The benefit of diffusion in this format is that you can easily cut it to size and tape it up for temporary applications.

A black velvet background can lend the air of sophistication that your talent deserves.

2 Black in Back

For a simple and timeless look, add a black background to your studio repertoire. It will focus attention on your sitter and bestow upon your images an understated elegance, especially when working in black-and-white. Achieving inky-black backgrounds is easy with the right tools on hand. My preferred material for this purpose is velvet. Go to a local fabric store and buy a roll of the thickest, darkest velvet you can afford. It will swallow light like a black hole, creating a uniform, black background behind your sitter. Alternatively, you can use a light-absorbing backdrop designed for this purpose. Create some distance between your sitter and the background—these materials can easily soak up some spill but will falter if blasted with full-power light. Likewise, a roll of black seamless paper can generate acceptable results if you establish enough distance between your subject and the background while judiciously controlling spill.

A single softbox and reflector were able to establish just enough separation for my taste in this shot.

3 Make Your Subject Stand Out

One risk you run when using a dark background is that your model gets lured into its shadowy embrace at the cost of separation. There a couple of ways to prevent this from happening. A hair light positioned above and slightly behind your subject will ensure dark hairs or clothing do not melt into shadow. Depending on the position of your key light, you may get by without the need for a dedicated light. The trick is to apply enough power to accomplish adequate separation without looking unnatural or becoming distracting. The last thing you want is to make your sitter look like they have a halo around their head or induce lens flare from a poorly placed light. Subtlety is key.

Window light + reflector (left). Softbox + reflector (right).

4 Fill Fill Fill

High-contrast, directional light has its applications: classic rock album covers, scary movies, moody social media posts… But you don’t want every photo to look like you forgot to light half of your subject. Fill can take a variety of forms: ambient light, reflected light, or additional light sources. Reflectors provide the best bang for your buck when you need to add a little extra bounce. Circular reflectors are among the most versatile tools in any studio. Read up on my obsession with them here. For larger applications, v-flats are great tools for bouncing or blocking light. Specialized reflectors like Westcott’s Eyelighter 2 or Angler’s CatchLight Reflector provide excellent fill, especially for close portraits and headshot photography. Check out my review of Westcott’s model here. Finally, multi-light kits offer a way to be prepared in the event that you need more than a little extra light on set.

Don’t be afraid to move lights around until you get the results that you want.

5 Try New Positions

Returning to the opening of this article, there are no rules for lighting that can’t be broken if the results please you. Don’t be afraid to move your lights around. Get weird. If it looks terrible, try something else. There is a tendency to get caught up in the science of lighting, but don’t forget to experiment. Leave room for happy accidents in your practice. Keep a notebook with your setups in case you want to re-create a particular look in the future. Lighting setups are like recipes, adjust them as you see fit. A light stand with a grip head or boom will lend flexibility to how you position your light. You can also attach your light to virtually any stable support using a wall plate.

Do you have any tips for lighting portraits? Share them in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

I achieved excellent and unexpected portrait lighting results recently. I took my toddler grandchild to the local nature center, which in winter, offers very diffuse northern light coming through a wall size bank of large windows. I managed to get the child occupied with a doll as she sat with the north light gently washing across her face and softly hued, textured sweater. The results were magnificent - subtle and gentle gradations of light spreading across the delicate facial features of a child. I recommend finding a location that provides this type of lighting in either early morning or late afternoon. I used a 50mm lens at about f2.8. Sometimes, the best lighting opportunities are right around us, if we just know how to recognize them. 

Definitely! North-facing daylight spaces are a dream! Thanks for sharing your tip, Constance.

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