Basic Portrait Lighting Types

Here are some basic lighting types for portraits. We will discuss single light sources and single lights with fill, and their charactistic light/shadow patterns.

The first type of lighting I want to discuss is single light source lighting. Single source lighting is often seen in natural lighting portraits, with no reflectors or fill.

This lighting tends to be harsh, and often gives dark shadows on the subjects face. The location and direction of the shadows depends on the direction of the light and the orientation of the subject.

This orientation lends great variety to the viewers impression of the photo, and therefore must be understood and controlled to give the desired effect.

Understanding single source lighting is basic to understanding multiple light studio portrait setups. Beginning portrait shooters need to have a good understanding of single source lighting before jumping in to multiple light portraits, or risk getting lost in the complexities of multiple light adjustments.

Here is an example photo:

This photo shows lighting from above, such as a skylight or from the sun when it is high overhead. Note the dark shadow under the chin.

This lighting add drama, but appears relatively natural to us, since the sun gives this type of lighting to everyday situations.

Now go to:

This photo shows a single light from the side, such as you would get from a window. Note the harsh shadows, and the direction of the shadow under the nose.

This type of lighting also appears relatively natural to us, since we see it often.

What feeling does this photo convey to you?

Now look at:

This is also an example of single side lighting, but at a different angle. Note the difference in mood conveyed by changing the angle of lighting.

Now look at:

This is a stark example of back lighting, with no fill or reflected light on the subjects face.

Back lighting appears dramatic to us, because the effect we see in photographs is partially hidden in everyday situations due to the dynamics of our eyes and their rapid adjustments to lighting differences as we shift our gaze.

Here is another example of back lighting:

This photo has added fill light from the front (note the shadows on the hand and on the blouse).

Compare this example to the previous example. See how the addition of just a slight amount of fill lighting makes a dramatic improvement in the subject's appearance?

And one last example of back lighting:

And now, one last example of single light portrait lighting:

In this example, the light is coming from below the subject, at an angle.

This is a very dramatic lighting, called "Theater Lighting." It gives a very dramatic appearance to the subject, which is very seldom encountered in everyday situations.

In order to understand single source lighting you need to be able to look at a photo and determine the direction and placement of the light, so you can understand the complex relationships between light, subject, and camera.

Now for some examples of single source lighting with added fill, such as the example we looked at earlier.

Fill lighting is used to minimize the harshness seen in single light portraits, but still leaving the highly directional effects in many cases.

Note that fill that is a strong as the main light gives a flatter effect, eliminating the harshness.

The amount of fill is a subjective consideration, and is up to the photographer to determine, based in large part on the desired effect.

We will discuss fill lighting and fill ratios in a later session.

Look at this example:

This is an example of side lighting with ambient fill.

The light reflecting from the surroundings supplies the fill lighting.

Look at this one:

This is an example of lighting from above with fill from the front/side.

Now look at:

This photo uses side lighting, with a large ratio of fill from the front.

Note that the fill in this photo extends down to the hand, and so covers the entire subject.

In another session we will discuss and look at multiple lighting portraits.

Then we will go into fill light ratios, using reflector, multiple flood, or flash setups.

Copyright 1998, 1999 David E. Price