Light has meaning

Where a light falls on your face can take on different meanings and effects in a photograph.

Studio photographers choose the number and position of their lights to create deliberate effects when shooting portraits. I will describe some of the possible positions for lighting and what effects they have, so you can walk into your shoot with a bit of background knowledge… or for budding photographers to consider when shooting their own portraits. I have summarised the basics from London, Stone and Upston, Photography, 9th Edition (2008), p.236. This text is an invaluable tool for anyone learning photography.

Front lighting

A light placed as close to the lens as possible (such as the built-in flash you use with your automatic camera) minimises shadows and gives a ‘flat’ look. Because we are so used to seeing this effect in happy snaps, it can work well for photography that is meant to look candid, like party snaps or paparazzi shots.

Side lighting

One strong light placed at the side of the subject’s head ‘splits’ their face in half: one half is brightly lit and the other is in deep shadow. This emphasizes facial features and reveals texture. Because it is quite dramatic, portrait photographers often use a ‘fill’ light, a softer light on the other side of the face, so that shadows are less intense but there is still some shape. I personally love working with just one light to the side, often at a high angle, to create dramatic looks, like in the Halloween pic below.


A Style Shoot for a Halloween party, using high, side lighting

High side lighting

The classic portrait lighting, it flatters because it makes the subject appear life-like. As with side lighting, it usually is used in conjunction with at least one other light source.

Top lighting

A light placed directly above the subject creates dark shadows under the eyes, nose and chin – you see this in regular snaps that are taken in bright sunlight in the middle of the day. Eek. But a top light that is softened and moved at an angle so it points more towards the person’s face creates the classic glamour look called ‘butterfly lighting’, for the butterfly-shaped shadow it creates under the subject’s nose.

Under lighting

Heh heh! Remember the ghostly look when your dad stuck the torch under his chin to tell you scary stories around the campfire? Might work well for highly stylized photography, or in some product shoots, but doesn’t flatter too many people!


Back lighting

This one is fun. A light placed behind the person’s head or body to give them a glowing aura, Xanadu-style, or to make the subject stand out from the background. It’s usually used in conjunction with other lighting – on its own the person’s face would be entirely shadowed. Careful with this one – if the light shines directly into the lens you’ll get flare (that gorgeous ray of sunshine across the photo that ruins it!). I use back lighting to highlight hair, especially in shoots for hair stylists, such as this one done for Sachi for Hair.

So there are the basics in light positioning. Of course, there are other factors, like the strength of each light and how they work together. But it’s fun just to play around and give it a go, even with regular light sources you have at home!

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