Creative Portrait Lighting

Anyone can “take” a portrait. “Making” a portrait—which involves working closely with the subject, seeing the light and controlling the light—is a different story. In this article, I’ll share with you some of my favorite portraits along with 12 time-proven portrait techniques. Let’s go!

1. Balance The Light

I took the photograph that opens this article in a palace in Venice, Italy, during Carnival 2018. As you can see, the models are backlit by the strong light coming through large windows—yet we can see the detail of the masks and even the eyes of the models. What’s more, the room is evenly illuminated. This exposure is what’s called a fill-in flash shot; that is, I balanced the light from the flash to the room light so the image does not look like a flash shot. Here’s the technique:

First: Compose your photograph.

Second: Set your camera on manual and, using a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. or slower, choose an aperture for the correct manual exposure. If you set a faster shutter speed, your flash may not sync with your camera.

Third: Turn on your flash (speedlight) and set it to ETTL or ITTL (fully automatic).

Fourth: Take a shot. If the subject is too dark, increase the flash exposure. If the subject is too bright, decrease the flash exposure.

It’s actually that easy.

Here’s a pair of before-and-after Carnival photographs that illustrate natural light (left) and fill-in flash (right). You see a big difference with a little effort.

2. Eyes Are The Windows To The Soul

Look at the eyes in the flash portrait that I took in my home studio. They are well lit and in sharp focus. For most portraits, that’s essential.

Also note the size of the model’s pupils. They are very large and inviting. When you are photographing in a dark room and using a flash, which goes off at about 1/10,000 sec., the subject’s pupils don’t have time to close down, resulting in very inviting, receptive eyes. When you use constant lights, the pupils close down, which results in less-inviting eyes. The type of lights you use affect the viewer’s perception of subject.

3. One Light Is Nice Light

The previous portrait and this portrait were taken with one light. In the previous portrait, I placed a softbox so that most of her face was lit. In this portrait I positioned my light for what is called “split lighting;” that is, only one side of the subject’s face is lit. The moral of the story here is to experiment with the placement of your light or lights, and see which one you—and your subject—like the best. But in general, have the subject’s nose follow the light (point toward the main light source).

4. Eliminate Shadows

Yes, shadows are your friend and yes, shadows are the soul of the photograph. In this portrait, however, I used three lights and a curved reflector (Westcott Eyelighter) to eliminate the shadows for what is called a high-key photograph. The behind-the-scenes shot shows the placement of the lights. Note—a white background is important in creating high-key portraits.

5. Blinds To Go

Here’s a cool technique you can create by placing a light (constant or flash) on a stand behind window blinds, which a friend can hold. The key is to place the light behind the blinds in such a position that the eyes are illuminated. You can easily find inexpensive blinds online for this purpose.

6. Work With Reflections

This technique works best when a subject is resting on or positioned by a glass or shiny wood table. If you don’t have a reflective table, Home Depot sells the reflective materials that I used for this photograph. The lighting: one light to camera left and one light off to the right, behind the subject.

7. Get Smokin’

This guitar player is smokin’—because I used a very simple technique. One light is placed to camera left, and another light is placed directly behind her. Before I took the picture, I had a friend toss baby power up in the air between the light behind the model and the model. Illuminated from behind, the powder looks like smoke. You could also use a smoke machine to achieve a similar effect. If you do use a smoke machine, just be sure to turn off your fire alarm during the session and then remember to turn it back on.

8. Ya Gotta Love Window Light

The Renaissance painters used window light to create their masterful portraits. So can you. When posing your subjects, have them turn their heads left and right and notice where the shadows fall on the face. A slight turn can make a big difference in the lighting. In most cases, you want the eye well-lit, which means you want the subject facing the window. Also experiment with subject position. Have the subject move closer to and further away from the window, and see how the light illuminates the subject’s body.

9. Don’t Worry About Noise

This photograph of a novice Buddhist monk in Myanmar is an environmental portrait—a picture of a subject in his or her environment. The light level was very low, so I had to use an ISO of 6400 to get a sharp hand-held shot. I reduced the noise in Lightroom and made a nice photograph.

Don’t worry about the noise. It’s much better to get a photograph with a bit of noise than a blurry photograph taken at a slow shutter speed at a low ISO. We made this photograph, by the way, by setting up the candles, which we bought at a local supermarket, and by asking the novice monk to move into position.

10. Control The Light

Let’s move outdoors for some tips on controlling the light. Reflectors can bounce light onto a subject’s face, filling in shadows, adding color (silver or gold depending on which side you use) and adding contrast. The picture on the left is a natural light shot. The picture on the right is a reflector shot. For the maximum effect (brightness), the reflector needs to be facing the sun or light source.

Diffusers soften harsh light and reduce shadows. They can eliminate what pros call “raccoon eyes” (dark circles under the eyes caused by an overhead sun).

Here you see me using a diffuser during a portrait session in Mongolia.

Fill flash, as discussed at the beginning of this article, can be used outside, too. This before-and-after pair of images shows the effect: left, natural light; right, fill-in flash. Use the same technique of balancing the flash to the natural light.

LED Lights are also great for filling in shadows: left, natural light; right, LED light.

That’s me using my ProMaster battery-powered light during a portrait session in Venice. This light comes with a soft-focus panel and a warming panel, both of which I used during the session. You control the intensity of the light via an output control and by varying the light-to-subject distance.

11. Shoot Silhouettes

Silhouettes are striking as well as fun for the subject—if the subject can recognize himself or herself. The key for a recognizable subject is to have the subject look directly left or right so you can see a facial profile. If the subject is looking away from or toward the camera, he or she will not be recognizable.

12. Drag The Shutter

Here’s a creative technique that works indoors and outdoors. Basically, it’s a fill-in flash shot as described above, except that you set a slow shutter speed, maybe 1/15 or 1/18 sec. You either photograph a subject with movement (left) or move the camera during exposure (right). You’ll need to experiment with different shutter speeds to get the desired effect.

Well, my friends, I hope you enjoyed these tips. Now it’s time to put them to use and make some creative images.

Rick Sammon is a longtime friend of this magazine. Visit with Rick at

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