Importance of Light in Portrait Photography

by Ashish on October 12, 2009

The feelings expressed on a person’s face are the best way to communicate and if you can capture those expressions then in true sense your picture speaks a thousands words. A portrait photographer always tries to display the likeness, personality, and particularly the mood of the subject. Lighting plays a vital role while capturing a portrait photograph and composing in studio. In order to adjust the lights intensity and direction there are many ways which are easy enough to describe but experimenting more and more with the light direction, angle and intensity will definitely give out some unexpected and unique results.

Three-Point Lighting

Three point Lighting is considered as the most basic plan as it uses three lights to bring out details and the three-dimensionality of the subject’s features completely.The three main lights used in this light plan are as follows:

The Key or Main  light

It is usually placed to one side of the subject’s face, between 30 and 60 degrees off centre and a bit higher than eye level. The key light is the brightest light in the lighting plan.

shortcourses Image Source: Shortcourses

The Fill light

It is placed opposite to the key light, in order to soften the shadows on the opposite side of the face. The brightness of the fill light is usually between 1/3 and 1/4 that of the key light. This is expressed as a ratio as in 3:1 or 4:1. When the ratio is 3:1 this is sometimes called Kodak lighting as Kodak was the first company which suggested this ratio for the first time.

The purpose of these two lights is to mimic the natural light created by placing a subject in a room near a window. The daylight falling on the subject through the window is the Key light and the Fill light is reflected light coming from the walls of the room.

The Rim light

It is also called backlight or hair light, is placed behind the subject, out of the picture frame, and often rather higher than the Key or Fill light. It is used to provide separation from the background by highlighting the subject’s shoulders and hair. The rim light should be just bright enough to provide separation from the background, but not as bright as the key light.


ButterflyLighting is another way of lighting a subject. Here we deploy only two lights, Key light which is placed directly in front of the subject, often above the camera or slightly to one side and a bit higher than the usual 3point lighting plan whereas the second light is placed

Image Source: Picturecorrect

below the subject’s face to provide fill light and soften shadows.This lighting can be recognised by the strong light falling on the forehead, the bridge of the nose and the upper cheeks, and by the distinct shadow below the nose which often looks rather like a butterfly. It was used by Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell extensively in his project.

A kicker is a small light, often made directional through the use of a umbrella, or softbox (A soft box is a fabric box, encasing a photo strobe head, one side of which is made of translucent fabric. This provides a softer lighting for portrait work). The kicker is designed to add highlights to the off side of the subject’s face, usually just enough to establish the jaw line or edge of an ear. The kicker should thus be a bit brighter than the fill light, but not so bright it over fills the off side of the face. More you’ll play with the intensity of light more you’ll learn in this regard.

Sometimes light for the subject is typically diffused by bouncing it from the inside of an umbrella, or by using a soft box. Background lights are sometimes used with color gels placed in front of the light to create coloured backgrounds.

That’s how we see that there are many ways to light your picture and more you play with light the better and unique result you’ll achieve.So If you have experimented with light and have better and other different ways to light a portrait please feel free to share those techniques and tips here.

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djashish 10.12.09 at 10:09 pm

Importance of Light in Portrait Photography

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outofboxin 10.12.09 at 10:14 pm

Importance of Light in Portrait Photography

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honeytech 10.12.09 at 10:18 pm

Going through – RT @djashish: Importance of Light in Portrait Photography

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Satyam 09.03.10 at 12:00 pm

Nice article Ashish… Although, i am not a photographer, i tried to understand the light mechanism. However, whenever I try and capture stuff around me, I prefer not use even the flash light in the camera, let alone the light system!

I believe, with external light source we take away the originality of the object captured, highlighting only the beautiful areas!

What say?

Ashish 09.14.10 at 8:22 pm

@satyam very true boss ..flash always makes the original picture different from what is captured though external lights are used to give the
required feeling to the frame. SO again it depends on what you visualize and how u capture it.

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