[ change ]

Lighting for portraits

Light can dramatically alter the appearance of your subject. By simply changing the lighting, you can transform the mood from glamorous to ghoulish.


Hardness of light
Bright sunlight is hard and

  • creates dark, clearly defined shadows that can hide the face
  • emphasizes wrinkles and blemishes
  • causes unattractive squinting
Light from an overcast sky or a north window is soft and

  • creates soft shadows that don't hide the face
  • minimizes wrinkles and blemishes
  • reveals subtle skin tones and hues
  • allows the subject to open his or her eyes wide


Direction of light
The direction of sunlight, especially hard sunlight, changes how people look. Which direction is best? That depends on the effect you're trying to achieve.

  • Front light: Harsh sunlight shining directly into a person's face flattens the face and causes squinting.
  • Overhead light: At midday, the sun is overhead and casts unpleasant facial shadows. Use the camera's flash to lighten harsh facial shadows.
  • Side light: Early and late in the day, position your subject so the sun strikes only one side of the face. With one side of the face brightly lit and the other side in shadow, you will create a dramatic effect. To reduce the shadow effect, use fill flash.
  • Back light: Occurs when you position your subject facing away from the sun. This places your subject's face in shadow, eliminating squinting and often adding an attractive glow to hair. Use fill flash to lighten your subject's face.


Indoor lighting
Taking good indoor pictures is challenging because the light is often dim. Natural light is so much brighter than most artificial light that it's usually best to take indoor pictures of people with indirect light from a north window (or any window not admitting direct sunlight).

Window light: Soft, indirect window light is good for people pictures. If the side of the face away from the window is too dark, reposition yourself and the subject so more of the face receives window light. Since dim window light may force the camera to use a slow shutter speed, hold the camera extra steady or use a tripod.

Artificial lights: Table and ceiling lights don't often provide attractive lighting for people pictures. Try to avoid using them, opting for flash or window light. If you must use them, hold the camera extra steady or use a tripod.

Flash: A built-in camera flash is great for indoor snapshots of people, but not great for portraits. For portraits use window light. Follow these tips for using the flash to take indoor pictures of people:

  • Position your subject within the flash range for your camera (see your camera manual). When photographing a group, make sure that all your subjects are about the same distance from the flash.
  • Turn on all the room lights to avoid red eye. Red eye is caused when the flash hits the back of the eye and reflects back into the camera lens. The extra brightness will help reduce the size of your subjects' pupils letting less light in.
  • Watch out for shiny surfaces-such as mirrors, windows, and eyeglasses-that can reflect the flash. Stand at an angle to shiny surfaces to prevent unwanted reflections of the flash in your photos. Ask subjects wearing glasses to turn or tilt their heads slightly.