Portrait Lighting

I’m in a small, informal group of photographers who meet with a professional in our area for lessons on whatever subject we want.  There are five of us in this group, three of whom met in a short intermediate digital course.  We get together about every two weeks, sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors.  Our instructor has over 30 years of experience in the field of commercial photography in many levels.  He’s really knowledgeable, generous in his time, and just a blast to be around.

The focus of our last get-together was portrait lighting, which we did in our instructor’s back yard in the early evening.  Practical, hands-0n demonstrations are what we do.  For portrait lighting there were large stands with strobes, some for the main lighting, and some for fill.  The lighting stands went as high as 12 feet, and as low as 3.  With a remote we can attach to our hot shoe, we were able to trigger the lights as they were set up, and individually shoot at different f/stops and times.  Because we had to pass the remote around, we were able to observe as well as talk to our teacher (who is also the model) and each other.  This works out really well altogether.

Full Face / Frontal Portrait

It is not generally recommended to take a portrait of someone straight into their face, especially with a flash mounted directly onto the hot shoe.  This portrait is done straight on, using ambient light from the early evening.  Over all, it is not a bad portrait.  The f/stop provided enough detail of the face, but allowed the background to blur.  This makes the subject the center of attention.

Long Side Lighting

The term “long side” means the side of the face which shows the most – or is the longest.  In this case, it is on the viewer’s right (subject’s left side).  The lighting came from one strobe, placed about 45 degrees into the subject, who has also turned a bit to avoid the full frontal portrait.  The head is also turned away from the light.  The picture on the left shows only one strobe going off, to my right side.  This creates strong shadows and can have a bit of drama to it.  The picture on the left had a fill light to my left set to about 1/4 intensity; this creates a softer counterpoint on the left side of the picture (subject’s right side) to fill in the short side of his face.  Even though the body is turned more in the second image, and the face, the effects of using the fill light can be seen.

Short Side Lighting

Short side lighting illuminates the subject’s “short side,” which is the smaller side of the face as seen in the camera.  Here, it is on the left side of the image (subject’s right side).  I rather like drama of a single light on the subject’s short side.  As you can see, the shadows are strong.  The right side of the image shows a 1/4 intensity fill light, which softens the subject’s face, as well as brings out more detail on the long side.  As in the long side portrait, the lights were about 45 degrees toward the subject.

Butterfly / Hollywood Lighting

According to our instructor, Tom, this lighting style was invented to accommodate the cavernous spaces movie studios had.  As a result of the large areas, dramatic lighting points could be created.  This lighting has a light directly in front of the subject, a few feet higher than the subject, and angled downward.  This is obvious from the glow on the forehead!  The photographer stands directly below the light.  This light results in a bit of a shadow under the nose and chin of the subject.  Also, notice the darker background?  We were into the gloaming part of night when this was shot.

Rembrandt Lighting

This lighting technique is named after the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, whose dramatic lighting was his signature style.  Theories behind his lighting say it is because of the poor lighting available in the 1600s.  This could very well be true!

In photography, the lighting is placed to the side of the subject and photographer, up high and pointing downward.  The shadow under the opposite eye is obvious, and the light from the strobe should be triangular in shape, and no wider than the subject’s eye.  This is not perfectly done.  Also, fill light could be used to soften Tom’s shadowed side, but the drama of this lighting is rather nice.

Catch Light

A portrait is about the person, and eyes which do not draw the viewer’s attention are dull and lifeless.  Catch lighting is used to create a bright, white area of highlight in the eyes of the subject.  This, though, is not red eye, which is caused by a reflection of light from the retina toward the viewer.  Catch light set ups can range from simple to tricky.  Here, the strobe was placed toward the front of the subject, and aimed toward the subject in such a way that red eye did not occur.  Additionally, a fill light was used.  As far as drama, there is little here, so the catch lights are not especially noticeable, but if they were not present, this would be even more boring and uninteresting.  Below is a detail of the catch light.


Corporate photos are bread and butter for a lot of people.  These are full face and not too exciting.  The purpose of the corporate photo is to present an image of solidity and dependability, as well as flattering perspectives of the management team, or whoever is being put on display.  Photography for marketing or portraiture can put a whole new skew on things.  Traditionally, it is considered “better” to shoot a man with certain poses or from certain perspectives, such as shooting upward.  For women, the same applies, with a tradition of a downward shoot or traditionally feminine poses.  Of course, this reeks of sexism and stereotyping, but used properly, they can create effective and attractive portraits.  I shot this one of Tom from below (duh!), and as I am rather short I didn’t have to do much to get it.  It has a nice bit of action to it, rather interesting side lighting, and a bit of a catch light.  There is some glare on the glasses, but nothing which is especially distracting.


There is nothing like doing something, and then analyzing what has been done.  In writing this post, I realize how much I learned!  Good lighting is necessary for success in portraiture – something, admittedly, I am not usually excited by nor interested in.  However, this short class session has awakened an interest, as well as an appreciation for the portrait photographer.  I think I will probably give portrait photography a bit more serious consideration in my photographic explorations.


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