Beginners Tips for Portrait Photography Lighting


Without light, a photo simply can’t exist. It’s the foundation from which every photo is built.


However, understanding how to light a shoot is just as hard as mastering your camera, but it’s often overlooked by many photographers. 


No two pictures are lit in exactly the same way. Light bounces and reflects off different surfaces, creating unique contrasts and colours – every subject is different


Light reflects off of the surfaces around it including modifiers, such as umbrellas. Photo by Jason Lanier.


For portrait photography, your lighting needs to be flexible depending on your genre, subject or location.


“Maybe you need different lighting for when you’re shooting children or the elderly?”


What if you shoot on location a lot?”


There are so many questions and techniques to consider, and as both lighting and optics advance, there have never been more choices for photographers to help release their creative ambitions – how exciting is that?!



Knowing your needs


Before anything else, you need to know what it is you’re looking to create, which in turn influences your shot setup.


Use Pinterest to help spark your creativity for the desired theme of your shoot. Even just for portraits, the world of photography lighting offers so many options; it’s important to know what type of light will work best for your shoot. 



Available vs artificial light 


The most obvious form of lighting is the natural light that’s around you.


It’s easy to use – the sun is completely free after all – and can be shaped using reflectors or diffusers, but it relies a lot on the time of the day. The optimum shooting window is Golden Hour. Which is roughly an hour after sunrise or before sunset, when the sun is at its lowest position. Shots taken at the golden hour produce a gorgeous soft light with golden tones.


Shooting outside of the Golden Hour can cause unflattering, harsh or uneven shadows unless you introduce a lot of diffusions. And when it comes to street or interior lighting… it’s out of your control. 


Artificial light gives you the ability to take back control. You’ll no longer be reliant upon certain hours of the day, or the poor quality of available lighting. Eliminating a lot of these issues, artificial light gives you the freedom to create your own light and shape it to fall exactly as you desire.


However, investing in artificial light that will combat these issues is just that; an investment.  


Not all (artificial) light is created equal, and it can be a maze to work through the endless streams of photography tools that will suit your style.   


Some portrait photographers use artificial photography lighting to supplement available light; blending the two together to create natural-looking, but high-quality results. You still have that extra cost of buying a light and carrying it around with you, but with advances in battery technology, there are plenty of portable lighting solutions on the market.


Having the back-up of artificial lighting is a no-brainer nowadays, why limit your potential to only shooting for two hours a day during Golden Hour, or spending hours in Photoshop correcting skin tones due to the unflattering effect of poor available light? 



Hard vs soft 


Now we’ve agreed that artificial photography lighting offers you as a photographer more versatility, you need to decide what type of artificial photography lighting will suit your style. This is more down to personal preference and the look you’re going for.


The basic rule of lighting is… The hardness of light is decided by the size of the light source, and how far away it is from the subject: the closer a light source is, the softer its output.


Hard light casts strong shadows on backdrops in the studio and on a model’s face; working well for some styles, such as a classic noir aesthetic. Hard light is generally more powerful than softer light, with the ability to throw the light over a longer distance, making it ideal for achieving wider full-length portraits or overpowering the sun.


But with such power, comes the necessity to modify. Softboxes, diffusers and reflectors reduce light output but are necessary to produce flattering results. Which in turn adds more cost, weight and complexity to each shoot. 


A classic noir shot by Peter Müller


Whilst often less powerful, soft lights are fantastic for portraits in particular, because they minimise the chance of hotspots and produce the most flattering skin tones. A soft key light casts almost indiscernible shadows on backdrops and won’t emphasise texture such as wrinkles on more mature subjects, or creases in clothing.  


Ultimately, you should ask yourself how you want to work the light and what your priority is. Is it viable, both financially and physically, to shoot with lots of equipment to allow you to modify a hard light? Or can you work with a slightly lower output, for the effortless ease of a soft light?  



Flash vs continuous 


Whilst many might associate continuous lighting with filmmaking, it’s becoming increasingly popular for photography lighting as well. It simplifies the photographic process; making it more accessible to beginners and those short on time.


Continuous lighting allows you to ‘shoot what you see’, and it’s really as simple as that.


You won’t need to keep taking test shots to see where the flash light will fall. Instead, you can re-adjust settings until you’re happy with the outcome. Often when shooting portraits, you just don’t need the extra power that a flash gives, and you’re able to freely move and adjust your model without needing to recalibrate your setup.  


Of course, continuous light might not be suitable for every shoot. Sometimes you need to capture movement, and the best way to do that is using a powerful burst of flash. You can’t preview how it’ll look before you shoot, but the high-intensity strobe can overpower the sun or provide enough light to freeze action.  


You don’t always have to choose, though! 


Rotolight’s patented LED technology offers combined functionality for the best of both worlds. With both a High-Speed Sync flash and a continuous output, this negates the need to buy two lighting setups and choose between power or practicality – your lighting on your terms. 


Check out what Jason Lanier has to say on our award-winning NEO 2, here. 



Strobe vs speedlight vs LED 


Once you’ve decided what kind of light you want to utilise, you can start thinking about what equipment you want to invest in. This boils down to three main options: strobes, speedlights and LEDs. 


Strobes and speedlights will both offer you the traditional flash photography approach which offers a powerful, but hard output. However, both differ in terms of power output and portability. 



Strobes are typically used in-studio. Their vast power is fantastic for evenly lighting your subject, but their size limits their usage to indoor only. Not only are they heavy and require a hefty power supply, strobes could never be shot ‘bare bulb’ due to their extremely harsh output, requiring serious modification. Both of which make strobes a nightmare for anything other than studio use. 



Speedlights give the portability that strobes can’t and, better yet, can often be powered by simple AA batteries. 


Of course, speedlights trade portability for power, so they can’t offer the same level of output as strobes. Whilst the light is still hard like a strobe, you’re able to bounce the light off of ceilings or bounce cards.


Larger modifiers are still an option, but not a necessity like they are with strobes. Speedlights are a fantastic solution as they mount on-camera, meaning many photographers use speedlights for photography lighting at weddings or events.  



LED photography lighting has been emerging for some time now and provides increasingly more functionality than traditional flashes.


While they’re often not as powerful, you can shoot LEDs bare bulb with no modifiers and still get a fairly soft flattering light. LED lighting offers a continuous light output, and many people use the phrases ‘continuous’ and ‘LED’ interchangeably, which is where it can get confusing. 


Rotolight’s LEDs however, offer both a continuous output as well as a High-Speed Sync flash – but we’ll get to that in a minute. 


Unlike with strobes and speedlights, you’ll have the flexibility of being able to change the brightness and colour temperature to suit your needs. With both strobes and speedlights, you’re not able to change this without the use of gels and, even then, it’s not an exact art. 


Rotolight’s own LED photography lighting allows you to adjust the colour temperature from 3150 to 6300K, but this can vary on other LED manufacturers. LEDs also use their power very efficiently, and don’t get hot when used, making them safe and quick to use.


High-quality LEDs will also offer excellent colour accuracy with a CRI of 96 or higher. With the versatility of LED bulbs and how quickly the technology is advancing, they’re steadily becoming the future of both video and photography lighting.  



Location, location, location… 


Photography lets you tell a story.


When you’re on location, you can use what’s around you to have your subject become a part of the set and create more intrigue. The image below was shot by Jason Lanier on an abandoned lightship on the River Thames on one of the brightest days of the British Summer. A wonderfully unique location that offered a lot of creative opportunities.  


Shot on an abandoned lightship by Jason Lanier


The interest here is created by the way that the model is immersed in the set; pairing the chains with her outfit and the distressed background of the ship to create intrigue. The viewer is led to wonder: who is she and what is her role on the ship? What are the chains for? 


The curious, almost wistful, emotion on her face also adds to the story.      



Killer composition 


Having good photography lighting is one thing, but there’s much more to taking a good portrait than that. A good photograph captures something eye-catching and visually appealing


Using the example of this minimalistic portrait from professional photographer Peter Müller, you see how the symmetry of the doorway frames his subject to bring the viewer’s attention to her.  


This shot by Peter Müller creatively frames the subject in the doorway


The stark white of the traditional Grecian building, contrasting with the blues of the doorway and the vibrant fushia of the model’s jumper, brings a modern feel to the image. Lit using a Rotolight AEOS in Continuous mode, Peter used his photography lighting to expose the shadows on the wall and create a blank canvas for his model. Whilst supplementing the bright sunlight to evenly light her face, and ensure no harsh shadows. Resulting in a natural-looking, but flattering portrait. 





You wouldn’t wear a sundress when you’re knee-deep in snow and you wouldn’t wear jeans and a t-shirt to a wedding, so why dress your model like that?


If your model isn’t fully immersed in the scene, then how can you expect the viewer to be? Jason Lanier emphasises imaginative styling that is fitting for his chosen shooting location. The below image is from a shoot inspired by Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride in an old chapel in Fitzrovia, London.  


The styling in Jason Lanier’s spooky Corpse Bride shoot really adds to the atmosphere


The costuming was inexpensive, with most of the outfit sourced from online fancy dress suppliers, but it does wonders to add to the story of the image. 


Many hobbyist photographers lack the budget for unique locations or dramatic costumes, but consider the fundamentals here.


A cohesive colour palette, adding to the mood and suiting the environment. The blues and greys in Lawrence’s suit match the ghostly, eerie light created by the Rotolight LEDs around the Chapel and the contrasting deep shadows.



Realising your vision 


So you have the kit, you have your location and you have your vision – great!


By mastering photography lighting you’ll be able to use a number of techniques to bring this vision to life. There is an endless number of ways in which lighting can capture emotion, but let’s look at just a few. 



It’s all in the eyes 


They say the eyes are windows to the soul, and in photography, they most certainly can be.


Especially in close-up studio portraits where you may have opted for a simpler approach with costumes or props, the focus is all on the subject and in particular, their eyes.  


The round catchlights in actress, Gillian Anderson’s, eyes are natural and flattering. Shot by Mark Mann.


This shot of actress Gillian Anderson, by celebrity photographer Mark Mann, creates interest through the thoughtful look in Gillian’s eyes. Using a circular light, such as the Rotolight Anova PRO 2, you’re able to create natural looking catchlights in the subjects’ eyes that replicate natural light sources like the sun.  


And even back on location, an intimate portrait such as those by Sony Europe Imaging Ambassador, Terry Donnelly, and American photographer, Josh Edstedt, the eyes are the main focal point emphasised by an extremely shallow depth of field, helping to create a connection with the viewer.


Two intimate portraits with a shallow depth of field by Josh Edstedt (left) and Terry Donnelly (right)


The benefit of using artificial photography lighting is that you’re able to get a kick into the eyes to attract attention. The extra light causes the model’s pupils to shrink and expose more of the iris; emphasising the sultry expression of the bride and the innocence of the young woman. 



Shadows and contrast 


As world-renowned portrait and celebrity photographer, Greg Gorman, says: there is just as much of a story in what you can’t see”. Greg uses his photography lighting very carefully, to create harsh contrasts between the highlights and shadows in an image. 


The stronger shadows of Greg’s image on the right create an edgier aesthetic, synonymous with mystery and intrigue. Greg uses this technique a lot in his personal work with nude photography; the shadows falling in such a way that they don’t leave everything exposed and, in Greg’s words, “leaving a few questions unanswered”. 


These shots by Terry Donnelly (left) and Greg Gorman (right) use light and shadow to create drastically different tones


On the flip side, Terry’s image of the bride leaves the background overexposed and the shadows soft; creating an angelic, more romantic look.  



Playing with texture 


Photography lighting doesn’t have to just involve a light, some modifiers and that’s it.


Light can play nicely with so many different things, one of the most common being prisms, which create artistic patterns on your image. Like the image below by fine art photographer, Jean Noir. 


Fine art photographer Jean Noir uses things like prisms to create unique effects in his portraits


But Jean doesn’t just play with prisms, he also uses various textures to create unique lighting effects, such as the mesh and wire against the softness of the subject’s skin. Using a continuous light output, Jean is able to control specifically which parts of the face are lit; focusing primarily on the eyes, the cheekbones and any props, such as the glass below.   


Introducing textures into his shots allows Jean Noir to achieve striking results


When every shoot takes place in the same studio and at such a close angle, introducing textures such as water or glass can make each shot as beautiful as one another yet wonderfully unique.


Many of these items are easy to find at home: a glass from the kitchen, tap water dripped onto a clear glass or plastic surface, a bathroom mirror… the possibilities are endless!


So now you’ve seen what different types of photography lighting can offer your shoot, it’s up to you to decide what best matches your preferred shooting style. Creativity doesn’t have to be expensive, and there’s no right or wrong answer – the only limit is your imagination!  


Want to learn even more? Come along to one of our Introduction to Portraiture workshops to get a hands-on demonstration of how Rotolight LED lighting can enhance your shoots.