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Portrait Photography Tips - Finding and Using Great Light

 11th Feb 2010

portrait lighting tipGood light isn’t about quantity - ­ it’s about quality!

As humans we rarely notice the quality of the light around us, we just notice if it’s really bright or really dark and that’ll do nicely thank you!

So what is ‘good’ light? It varies according to what you’re photographing. Great light for landscapes wouldn’t necessarily be the best for portraits.

For portraiture I say it’s light that shows off the sitter’s features - and brings them to life by adding character, mood and emotion. And for that it has to be soft.

You’ll find the most beautiful light in the most unexpected of places! The third picture shows you where these shots were taken.

With a little practise you can teach yourself to recognise the quality of light in faces, cups, buildings and pretty much anything else too. But for this photography tip - let’s just explore it in the context of portraiture.

Check out the first portrait of Lorna (taken by Andy Stamp on a One-to-One photography course with me a few weeks ago).

Lorna’s standing just outside the doorway - but she's close enough to it that the building is blocking some light from reaching the left side of her face so it's darker than the right. This is side lighting.

Because she's outside there's light coming straight down from the sky which is making her eyes quite dark and picking up on her high cheekbones.

In the second picture she's a pace or two back just inside the door and the light is totally different.

Now light that's coming straight down from the sky is partially blocked by the roof - and she's lit by light which is coming through the doorway in front of her at about 45º. Notice how her eyes are brighter and her right cheek smoother.

In both portraits the light is beautifully soft, and by soft I mean the shadows are gentle and highlight the shape to her face.

dull-day-4Because it was a dull day the light's great in both shots. Bad light would direct sun shining onto her face making her squint and causing thick black shadows around her eyes and nose.

Here are some portrait photography tips to help you shoot great images that 'wow' your sitters when you get them to pose in unexpected places!

  • The quality of light on your subject is way more important than their expression - or background and surroundings.
  • Control messy backgrounds by shooting with a long lens and wide aperture to make them soft and fuzzy. Keeping the shot in tight helps eliminate mess as well.
  • Practise looking at the light on the faces around you - ­ not the faces themselves. Do this with everyone you meet and look around to see the conditions which caused the lighting.
  • Check what the light is doing to your sitter before you press the shutter - sometimes asking your subject to take a pace back, left or right can change everything.
  • Direct sun in portraits makes harsh shadows and should always be avoided.
  • Positioning your model under overhanging buildings, or dense foliage cuts out overhead light and lights them from in front. Even on dull days it makes a huge difference.
  • On sunny days beware of dappled light under trees - ­ it’ll cause burnt out bright spots.
  • The shadows at the corner of buildings or those cast by tree trunks are fantastic places to find beautiful light.
  • Windows facing away from the sun are perfect for indoor portraiture - ­ particularly if you position your subject just back from the edge of it so the light’s ‘feathered’.
  • portrait-lighting-2Turn your model so in one shot they’re facing into the brighter area outside the shade, then turn them at thirty degrees to it and finally at ninety degrees. You’ll see a big difference between the shots because the first will be frontal lighting, the second partial side lighting and the last full side lighting.
  • For women soft frontal light is usually very flattering - ­ for men partial or full side lighting makes them look rugged and powerful. But remember - keep out of strong sunlight.
  • Use a tripod because 'camera shake' will ruin your pictures if you don't. Great light isn’t necessarily bright light - these shots were all around 1/20th second at f5.6 on a 200mm lens and would be completely unusable without a tripod.


mike browne photography tipsI hope you’ve enjoyed and benefited from these portrait photography tips. In my next photography tip we’ll take a look at controlling backgrounds with Depth of Field - and there’s more to controlling DOF than just apertures!

If you’d like to take your photography to another level, view our Photography Videos, or why not come on a One-to-One photography course with me and I’ll be your very own photography coach for the day. Or check out one of our photography course downloads and start making a difference right now.

Happy shooting …