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When you light a subject for a portrait or fashion image, you should be critical about what you are trying to achieve with your lighting. What are you trying to say? There is no such thing as ‘correct’ lighting. The appropriate lighting will vary from subject to subject and from shoot to shoot, all depending on the look you are trying to achieve. Don’t feel confined by lighting diagrams and setups that people have shown you, learn to feel the light and play around.

This image is much brighter and happier image. It has a bit of a pinup feel to the light, with shadows almost completely eliminated in this shot. The image was lit with two background lights, and a softbox + beauty dish on the face. Sigma 85mm 1.4. ISO 100, f/3.5, 1/125 sec.


This image is much more dramatic with a film noir feel due to the shadows and angle of light. This image was lit with two lights on the background, and a single silver reflector dish illuminating the face. Sigma 85mm 1.4. ISO 100, f/9, 1/125 sec.

Look at the first two images here, the same model and the images taken just a few minutes apart. Which one is ‘right’? The answer is… both! The first image is bright and more pinup in feel. The second is more dramatic with a film noir feel. Both are right, depending on the mood I was trying to convey.

Do you want the image to be dark and foreboding?

Do you want the image to be happy and glowing?

Really focus on what you want to communicate with your images and that will help you decide which type of lighting to use in your images.

If you want your images to be more dramatic, here are a few tips: 

I wanted this image to be dark and foreboding, with a dramatic and ‘dangerous’ feel to the lighting. For this reason I utilized shadows and dramatic angles of light. I put a highlight on the background to separate the subject from the background. Sigma 24-70mm at 55mm. ISO 100, f/16, 1/125sec.

As you can see in this diagram, for the above image I utilized two lights. The first light I used was a silver dish reflector to light the subject’s face. I used very drastic angles (the light very high and off to the side) to help create dramatic shadows. For the second light I pointed a snoot at the background to help create a defined highlight for separation.

  • Contrast makes images more dramatic. Try silhouettes or sharp highlights again black backgrounds.
  • Try extreme angles with your lights. Extreme angles help increase shadows and define features. If you raise the light up, shadows become heavier and more defined. If you move the light to the left or right of the camera (or even behind the subject), the light will get more dramatic.
  • Consider harsher light modifiers. Try a silver reflector dish or a snoot to get very harsh, dramatic lighting.

For this image I wanted to create glowing, flattering light that looked like it might be in a cosmetic advertisement. To do so I eliminated shadows, lit the background and add highlights to the side of the face. Sigma 85mm 1.4. ISO 400, f/14, 1/125 sec.

For this image I had two lights on the background but also had these two background lights spill onto the model’s face. This is what creates those two distinct highlights on both sides of the face/body. This adds polish to the image. I used a beauty dish to illuminate the face, and a white fill card under the chest to help eliminate shadows.

If you want your images to be happier and lighter, here are a few tips:

  • Reduce or eliminate shadows. By reducing shadows you give a brighter and happier feel to the image.
  • Light from (near) the front. Frontal lighting gives a brighter and less dramatic feel to the image.
  • Consider adding more highlights. If you add highlights to the side of the face or light the background, you will give a brighter and more polished feel to the image.
  • Try more ‘gentle’ light modifiers like a large softbox or beauty dish. A softbox is very gentle and forgiving light. If you use a beauty dish and want a ‘glowing’ light effect, consider using fill cards to reduce shadows.

In this image, for a rapper, I was seeking to make a raw and rougher image. For this reason I utilized a single silver dish reflector. I placed the subject near the background and feathered the light to create the vignetting on the background. Sigma 24-70mm at 24mm. ISO 100, f/22, 1/100sec.

As seen in this diagram, you can achieve a rougher look by using fewer lights. I placed the light at a very high angle to cast dramatic shadows and feathered the light to cast shadows on the background.

If you want your lighting to appear more ‘raw’, use fewer lights. You can get a more raw effect by using a single light. If you want the image to look more polished and refined, consider adding multiple light to add highlights and give more control.

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  1. beautiful and sensual shots

  2. I always enjoy an artcle where the photographer discusses different lighting techniques, especially with diagrams. It is nice to get different artist’s viewpoints. While “the strobist” and Joe “num-nutz” McNally regularly share their great techniques, I find it equally refreshing to see the solutions created by other photogs, like Lindsay. Cool pictures with great lighting. Thanks.

  3. A lesson learned is great experience gained. I always keep an open mind to keep ideas fresh and look at other photographer’s work to get another opinion. Keep these articles coming!