The Best Light Source For Portrait Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Best Light Source For Portrait Photography

by David Peterson 2 comments

Have you ever taken a photo of your friend in front of gorgeous sunset, only to experience true disappointment when you saw it on your computer? The light sources you use, the direction of the lighting, and the time of day have an enormous effect on your photography. Just like a news story, the same old adage rings true for creating images. Consider the source. In this case, it's the light source that makes all the difference.

Light comes in all kinds of colors and varieties. It's in front of your subject, and it's behind your subject. Light shines overhead, from the side, and in very rare occasions, the ground can be lit. Since a photograph is simply the light reflected off of your subject and onto your camera's image sensor, it pays to know which sources work best for certain kinds of photos. Here's a quick rundown.

Front Lighting

Your subject is front lit when the light source is directly behind you and shining on the thing you are photographing. Although most subjects tend to be lit quite well when you use front lighting, they often lack the shadows that give them definition. You might think front lighting is a good idea for portraits, but it tends to flatten out the face while drawing attention to blemishes and scars.

This is the biggest problem you get with standard snapshots that use a camera-mounted flash. The flash shines a light directly on your subject, and it tends to remove some of the definition in your subject's face. If you're too close with a flash, your subject's face will be completely pale and a rather frightening sight to behold. It's much better to take portraits outdoors where the natural sunlight is much less harsh and direct.

Back Lighting

This is the problem you face when you take a picture of your friend in front of a gorgeous sunset. You can see the sunset just fine, but your friend's face is a big black mess. It works wonderfully for a silhouette shot like above, but not so much if you want to see their faces. Back lighting happens when the light source is behind your subject. Because only a small amount of light is shining on your subject, it is dark while the light source is very bright or completely white and washed out.

You can fix back lighting with a flash, some reflectors, or some lamps. There are different advantages and disadvantages for each option. Just as we discussed in front lighting, a flash can be too powerful when it is fired directly at your subject, and you can't always carry portable lights everywhere you go. The ideal solution for your backlighting problem is probably a combination of one of two of these.

If you have no additional light sources, you can always switch the photo around. Move to the other side of your subjects and create a wonderfully warm lit shot. You won't get the sunset in the background, but it's better than nothing!

Pro tip: If you have some other light source in the room or outside, consider using a reflector to put more light on your subject. Most big reflectors can be collapsed and carried in your equipment bag. They pop open right away, allowing you to setup shop and take it down as you go through your shoot.

Side Lighting

You guessed it. When the light source is directly to the side of your subject, you get side lighting. A light source to the side is ideal because it produces tiny shadows that give your subject some texture. Food photographers base their entire business on creating side lit images with barely perceptible shadows. That's what makes the nooks and crannies in food photography look so delectable.

Side lighting is also perfect for portraits. Many photographers shoot indoor portraits using some kind of side lighting. When they don't bring their own professional gear, they rely on their camera-mounted flash. Wouldn't that produce front lighting? It would if you were aiming the flash directly at your subject. The pros, on the other hand, know that you get a much better effect when you point your flash head at the wall behind you and bounce the flash off of it. This not only makes the light less harsh and direct, it also lights your subject more from the side.

Overhead Lighting

This is the kind of lighting you're likely to encounter in office buildings. It tends to be fluorescent lighting as well, so it's worth your while to pay attention to your camera's white balance settings. Overhead lighting comes directly from above, and it can cast some strange shadows on your subject's face if you aren't prepared for it.

Luckily, the remedy for overhead lighting is a simple reflector (or mirror, or sheet of tin foil). The light itself is abundant. You just need to redirect it from the ceiling to your subject. Create a 45 degree angle from the ground to your reflector, and make sure you can see the light on your subject before you snap the photo. If you can place your reflectors to the side of your subject, that's ideal. You want to preserve some of the shadows. Another trick is to raise your camera higher and ask your subject to look upwards. That way their face will be more front lit.

I bet you didn't think there was so much to learn about your light source. The key to all of this is to pay attention the next time you go out for a shoot. Note where the light is coming from, and look for tiny changes in the shadows on your subject. With some practice, it won't take too long for you to become a true light connoisseur!

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  1. Nancy McGrew says:

    Great article...struggled with graduation photos outdoors in bright sunshine. Wish I could get better photos in situations like this that are now or never photo op.

  2. Luis says:

    Thanks for the always great tips David!!!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.