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Portrait Lighting 101: Quick and Easy Tips for Lighting the Face

Posted by on August 17, 2017 | Education

When it comes to portraits, there may be nothing quite as crucial to the look and feel of the final frame as the lighting on the face. Good, intentional lighting can make certain features stand out (or disappear), provide shape and contour to the face, and also elevate the mood of the final shot.

The following excerpt from One Face Fifty Ways (out this coming September) by Imogen Dyer and Mark Wilkinson, explores some of the various ways that the face can be lit using natural light.

Republished with permission. 

When working with natural light, it is important to take some time to observe what is happening with the light. Ask yourself where the light falls and what shapes and shadows are being made. Find where the light is channeling from, and move the model toward or away from this, to see the difference in how and where the light falls. It is useful to also move around the model to explore different angles and how it alters the light.


Image courtesy of Hachette Book Group. © Imogen Dyer and Mark Wilkinson

For a classically well-lit shot, turn the subject away from the light so the sun is behind the model. This will cast the face into shadow providing an even light across the skin. This is a classic and foolproof way to create a soft and well-lit portrait.

However, to add more character and shape to a shot, it is good to start experimenting with shadow. By adding shadow to the side of a model’s face, you will create an enhanced feeling of depth, and it will also add to a more realistic depiction of shape and contour.

When working with a model, try to make sure that light is hitting the eyes. This will ensure that the model has a sparkle in their eye (called a catchlight) that will help draw the viewer into the picture and create a more immediate and impactful relationship. When working in natural settings, try to make sure there is something bright around, for example glass or a mirror, as this will reflect the light back into the model’s eyes.

Top tip! A reflector is a really useful tool to help create beautiful lighting on a model’s face. The reflector bounces light back up at the model, getting rid of any shadow. By using a reflector you are less likely to get the same contour and shape as when playing effectively with light and shadow, however it does provide a quick fix to create a well-lit portrait.


Portrait captured without a reflector.

Portrait captured with a reflector. Notice how there is more light reflected on the model.

Imogen Dyer is the founder of Weekly Imogen, a YouTube channel where she presents informative and entertaining videos and provides tips on how to work effectively with a model. 

Mark Wilkinson is a fine-art specialist and passionate photographer. He works with Imogen on Weekly Imogen and their creative journeys can be seen on Flickr at Unexpectedtales.