Light placement for portrait photography


Welcome to Chuck Gardner's photography and lighting tutorials.

I've been on the Internet giving photographic advice and critiques on various forums since 1994 and something I've found beginning photographers struggle with is understanding exposure and making flash assisted photographs look natural to the point where the use of light placement for portrait photography flash doesn't trigger a "that doesn't look right" reaction in the mind of the viewer. Many jump from a single flash in the hot shoe to a set of studio lights without every exploring the use of window light or how to blend natural light and flash seamlessly. Those steps on the learning curve are important because if you don't understand how natural light creates the illusion of natural 3D shape that "looks right" you will not know how to place the flashes relative to faces and other objects to produce the same patterns your brain expects to see.

Two qualities make the brain accept photographic reproductions as reality: the same range of tone experienced in person as the scene is scanned and the eyes adapt and the same neutral color balance the brain adapts the in-person viewing experience to. The problem achieving that result stems from the technical limitation of the recording medium: it usually can't record the full scene range or adjust to color in the same way as the brain. As a result the photographs the camera record often don't look "right" compared to the memory of the scene in person or the expectations of the viewer.

Where my tutorials differ from most other "How to..." instructions is that I explore and explain the perceptual cause and effect which are the underlying reason why it is desirable to use techniques I suggest such as Custom WB off a gray card to record color from a known neutral baseline and using near-axis fill as the foundation for any flash strategy. Some of the techniques I suggest I learned from mentors and books but all were validated by experience and much experimentation. Some seem counter-intuitive but if you bother to try them you will find they work as described.

In many I start with trying to understand the perceptual process which allows us to imagine 3D shape and space in a 2D reproduction medium, and how to fool the brain of the viewer so that magic trick works. Once you understand the clues the brain uses to interpret 3D shape in natural lighting and typical indoor lighting which is the baseline for what seems "normal" you'll better understand where to position a key light control the location of the highlights and shadow direction to make it seem natural or not. If you've never thought about lighting from the standpoint of how it creates perceptual clues and triggers recognition and emotional reactions to the recognized content you should find these tutorials helpful.

I've created a forum page on Reddit.com as a way to discuss my tutorials and answer any questions.

Table of Contents - Tutorial Sections:

Selecting Equipment

 This was a new take on answering the question, "I just bought some lights, now what?" in one of the lighting forums. It received many favorable comments from readers so I've added it here at the beginning as an introductory overview.

 Everything is learned by trial and error but there is less error and wasted effort if every new lighting problem you encounter starts with defining the fundamental goals of the exercise, which for a photo is what is most important and how you want to viewer to react to it. Becoming self-critical is the key to progressing up the learning curve so for each goal you set you should define criteria for success. Having a clear idea of what body language makes a person look extroverted and glad to meet a stranger vs. someone who is introverted and shy will make it easy to understand whether or not putting light in the eyes, or not, is the best strategy. Learn to think strategically from goals and you can figure out any new lighting problem.

 What's different about my approach is that it starts with the question of what makes a viewer react to a photo, then tries to answer it based on a understanding of human perception and the optical illusion which causes the brain to accept a pattern of contrasting tone and color on a 2D screen or print as being real. It's really all a magic trick and like magic the secret in doing it well is understanding what the audience expects to see. When you deliver the message content of a photo in a way looks "normal" and real it will trigger the same emotional reaction as seeing the same thing in person. This is an overview of my approach. The nuts and bolts techniques are contained the other tutorials listed below.

 Much of what you'll read on this site challenges conventional wisdom and conventional terminology like light being hard or soft. Human perception is based on expectations. You know what a human head and face look like so the lighting style really doesn't tell you what the object looks like but rather the environment the object is in. The emotional reaction to the content is often the result of whether or not the context of the environment seems "normal" or not.

 All the clues about 3D shape in a 2D photo come from contrast patterns which trigger recollections of seeing similar objects and scenes in person. This tutorial explains our baseline for "normal" and how to mimic what is experienced in person in 3D in the 2D universe of a photograph.

 The traditional practice of using the lens axis as the baseline for key light placement does describe the actual cause and effect of how lighting patterns are created on a face. I use the spot between the eyes as the "Compass Rose" for describing key light placement and a three coordinate system similar to Lab color space to describe where to put the key light in space relative to the face. To communicates to a beginner wanting to know where to put the key light can follow instead of the traditional labels like "short", "broad", "butterfly", "Rembrandt", etc.

 This was done as a joke in response to a couple guys on a forum who said they didn't understand why a center of interest in a scene or portrait is important. It illustrates the holistic approach to lighting.

  The BIG SECRET about lighting is revealed: It's not the light, but rather contrast and relative brightness of areas in the photo which triggers the brain to react and move the eye in a photo. This concept is the foundation for my contrast-based approach for teaching lighting.

 Basic photographic concepts for beginners. A quick "food for thought" outline of how a camera captures an image differently that we normally perceive with our eyes.

 Basic photographic concepts for beginners. An overview of the three variables controlling exposure on a digital camera and a decision tree for deciding how to use them.

 Basic photographic concepts for beginners. An overview of the how color is managed with a digital camera and problem situations to be aware of.

 Getting perfectly exposed highlights in clothing and skin is as simple as throwing in the towel. The best measure of exposure is the last shot taken and using a white towel as a test target will allow your camera playback to tell you when and exactly where over-exposure and loss of detail is occurring.

 An explanation of how to set exposure and ratios using a white towel and the camera over-exposure warning

 A tutorial to explain technically correct exposure (i.e., matching the range of the scene to the sensor) and perceptually correct exposure (i.e., when a photo looks "normal".) and how they relate to each other.

 A tutorial to explain the role of the four lights used in a conventional portrait scenario and how they work to fit the range of the scene to the sensor.

 Explains the overlapping roles of ambient and flash outdoors.

 A tutorial to give a clueless beginner to lighting a technically sound baseline for photographing people.

 Diagrams showing set-up for short lit full-face, oblique, and profile views by window light. Used in conjunction with the Clueless to Competent tutorial for those who don't yet own studio lighting gear.

 The character of lighting is controlled with the tone of the shadows and they are controlled with fill. The type of fill and where it is placed relative to the face of a subject has a significant impact on the appearance of the highlights and shadows but is one of the most misunderstood aspects of studio lighting.

 Explains all the variables which will affect the appearance of the butterfly lighting pattern - when key light is aligned with the center line of the nose.

 A portrait photographer needs to understand faces the way a sculptor does; in three dimensions. The first vital step, before the lighting lights are turned on is to find the most flattering camera angle and distance.

 The eyes and mouth convey the mood of the subject. The nose and ears distract attention from them. Here I discuss strategies for minimizing the distraction.

 This self-portrait exercise shows how mirroring the two sides of a face can help reveal asymmetry and which is a person's "best" side.

 Examines factors which influence the choice of background for a portrait. Key light and fill reveals the face but it is the contrast of the face with the clothing and background which draws the eye of the viewer to it.

 Making a background white without "nuking" it and other common sense technical considerations.

 The goals for photographing groups are different from those of a solo portrait and so are the technical challenges. This PDF format tutorial provides some effective strategies. Added on 12-16-2006

 Lighting fur requires different strategies than lighting smooth skin.

  Suggestions for copying artwork based on several years spend doing it for a living at National Geographic in the mid-1970s

  Discusses the perceptual cause and effect of creating the illusion of 3D shape on reflective objects. It shows a minimalist approach for shooting furniture portrait with only two lights, but the concepts also applies to lighting vehicles, jewelry and other reflective objects.

 Joe Zeltsman created a very simple posing technique which builds a pose from the feet up.

 An explanation of how make a bride holding flowers look more graceful and elegant instead of like a batter in the on-deck circle.

  Inside-Out cropping is a technique I use to remind myself to get past "tunnel vision" on the subject's face when shooting a photo to spot for and eliminate distractions. This tutorials explores composition and explains why the "rule of thirds" works; most of the time.

  Move beyond the mind-set of capturing a single photo towards telling more complete visual narratives with an approach borrowed from filmmaking.

  I learned photography using Adams' Zone System from his books in the same way he used it. I've found ways to incorporate the vocabulary and process of pre-visualization of scene and outcome in terms of zone placement and how to overcome the limitation of the short digital sensor range by using two flashes to overcome the contrast in outdoor lighting.


 Explains the function of camera mounted manual, thryistor, and TTL flashes.

 Offers a simple checklist for deciding when to use ambient light, flash or a combination of both.

 An explanation of how hot shoe modifiers work and the benefits of flash brackets and dual-flash lighting.

  How to use fill flash and sunlight to create visually effective low- and high-key backgrounds outdoors utilizing God's own hair light.

  Explains why shutter speed is limited when using conventional flash and how high speed sync and hypersync work to overcome that limit.

 There are dozens of flash modifiers on the market. You can build one which is better than nearly all of them in about 30 minutes with about worth of materials. (Revised Jan 2010)

  I used the same concepts for natural lighting large subjects when creating a diffuser to dabble with macro.

 or as I fondly remember it "Channeling Jackson Pollack and becoming one with the paint." )

  Metering exposure is really no more complicated than driving using the speedometer and keeping a eye on the side of the road for the cop with the radar.

 Explains the difference between incident and reflected ratios and how to set ratios with a Sekonic L-358 exposure meter.

  How to adjust a hand held spot meter to read exposure directly off the highlights.

  It was for using the Zone System with film, but not for digital. But if you own or want one I reveal the simplest way to use it with a digital camera.

 Getting perfectly exposed highlights in clothing and skin is as simple as throwing in the towel. The best measure of exposure is the last shot taken and using a white towel as a test target will allow your camera playback to tell you when and exactly where over-exposure and loss of detail is occurring.

 How to evaluate a camera histogram and calibrate your brain to understand what it is telling you.

 An explanation of how to set exposure and ratios using a white towel and the camera over-exposure warning


  Digital cameras see the world in only three colors: red, green and blue. To record the color accurately the balance of those three colors must be set to match the color of the light.

  A gray card is the most valuable tool a digital photographer can own and the only way to independently evaluate color.

  Camera shake is the number one cause of unsharp photos. Here I share the technique I use.

  This is an ambient light technique used to create an illusion of motion which isn't fully understood by most.This explains things you might not have considered when panning.

  Explains how to use camera shooting distance and the relative angle of camera sensor and subject to either prevent abnormal looking distortion of body parts or create it intentionally to meet creative goals


  Explains why the real goal of color management is not perfect reproduction of the color, but rather predictable color from camera-to-printer within the limits of the equipment and materials.

  A review of workflow factors and description of how I process photo files.

 Thirty years in the printing and publication business and actually making halftones and color separation the old fashioned way allow me to understand how unsharp masking actually works and what the name actually means.

 Adjustment layers allow selective editing of tone and contrast and are part of my overall holistic workflow.

 Multiple exposures can be blended to capture the entire range of a scene, but when over-done it can make a photo a "sea of sameness", winding up looking bland as a foggy day with the viewer left wondering what in it is the focal point.

 A feature added to Photoshop CS4 which solves the problem of fitting a 2:3 format camera image into an 8 x 10 format frame.

 One of the more obscure functions of Photoshop called Displacement Map. It uses a monochrome copy of a photo as a tone map to wrap a pattern around a color version.


  Explains the characteristics of various types of modifiers and accessories used in studio lighting.

 I'm not a professional photographer but I was trained by one of the best 35 years ago and learned my lessons well. My gear is similar to what a serious hobbyist might want for a well equipped home studio. My choices and rationale for purchasing are revealed here.

  It is the second question neophytes ask, right after "What lights should I buy?" This explains why question they should be asking is,"How far away should the camera be?"

  Two factors affect the choice of lens for group shots: perspective and edge distortion.

  A Japanese word to describe the blurring of background detail. That's a good thing in moderation, but if overdone becomes a distraction.


  An oldie which still has some useful parts. It was a hand-out for classes I taught in 2001 while I was working in the Philippines. Digital was new and expensive then and the target audience were people who had not yet made the jump to digital. It was expanded to cover reproduction topics because I presented it at a graphic arts show to graphic designers. I hadn't been using a digital camera very long myself at that point, so I didn't have a wide selection of photos to use for illustrations.

  Originally published in  , this article will provide more conceptual background for the Clueless to Competent tutorial.

  Soon after getting interested in photography I bought Ansel Adams Zone System books and got a sound foundation of knowledge about pre-visualization of results, overcoming the technical limits of the photographic process, and process control.

  In the 1972 I was 20 years old and impatient to get into professional photography so I dropped out of college, moved to Washington, D.C. and hit the streets looking for a job in photography. Scanning the help wanted ads one Sunday I saw one placed by Monte seeking an apprentice.


 Why learning technique doesn't stand in the way of creativity and why conventions and "rules-of-thumb" are benchmarks and vocabulary necessary for constructive critique.

  What are your goals in photography and how do you measure progress?



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