Easy Portrait Lighting Tips for Beginner Photographers

If you ask me, one of the toughest parts of being a beginning photographer is lighting. And I’m not just talking about using complex artificial lighting setups either…

Even just using simple natural lighting can be a daunting task, too. The task then, is to figure out how to use light to your advantage, that way you create the most compelling portraits. Here’s three critical portrait photography lighting tips that will help you do just that.

Avoid Bright Highlights

When you have bright highlights in your portraits – and I mean really bright highlights – they are referred to as “blown out.” This means not just that the highlights are incredibly bright but that they also have no detail.

The problem with this is twofold:

First, these ultra-bright areas of the photo will draw the viewer’s attention. That means they aren’t looking at the portrait subject but instead the distracting blobs of white in the background, as demonstrated in the image above.

Second, since these bright highlighted areas have no detail, they really serve no purpose in the shot. Again, that makes them a distraction and makes the viewer think that they were an unintentional addition to the shot.

You can also address blown out highlights in post-processing.

Check the video above by Rob Pullen to learn how to tone down very bright skin tones in a portrait.

Beware of Heavy Shadows, Too

Of course, it’s not just bright highlights you need to be careful of, it’s also heavy shadows. When creating a portrait, you want to avoid shadows falling on your subject, particularly on his or her face.

That’s because just like bright highlights are a distraction, so too are shadows on the subject’s face. In looking at the image above, note how one side of the woman’s face is relatively bright while the other side of her face is in shadow.

In this case, that uneven lighting highlights the woman’s nose and grin lines. Instead, you want the lighting in your images to be even, helping you to focus on the subject’s face without distracting shadows. In looking at the image above, you can see the difference that even lighting makes versus the uneven lighting in the previous photo.

Here, the woman benefits from soft, even lighting that allows us to see her face without any distractions. As a result, we can see details like her eyes and eyelashes, cheeks, and freckles without having to fight through areas of light and dark.

This type of look is achieved with natural lighting or large studio lights – never the on-camera flash. Much like before, the way to avoid deep shadows is to take measures to even out the light.

Shooting in a shadowed area, on an overcast day, or using a diffuser to even out the light are all viable options when making an outdoor portrait. You can also use a reflector to bounce light onto your portrait subject’s face to fill in shadowed areas.

Learn how to use diffusers and reflectors in the video above by Tony and Chelsea Northrup.

Make the Subject the Brightest Thing in the Portrait

Another way to ensure that viewers focus on the portrait subject and not something else is to make the subject the brightest element of the photo.

Again, as noted earlier, our eyes are naturally drawn to bright things. As such, you can use that predisposition to draw more attention to the subject. In the image above, the man’s face is nicely lit, and his brightly coloured sweater helps draw our attention to him.

That brightness doesn’t have to be in your face, either.

In looking at the image above, the model is the brightest part of the photo in part because of her dress and in part because of the dark background behind her.

Additionally, her skin tones are bright, but not overly bright to be a distraction. You can use post-processing programs like Photoshop or Light room to help enhance the brightness of your subject relative to the surrounding scene. For an in-depth look at a portrait photography editing workflow in Light room, have a look at the video above from Prime Photography.

Final Thoughts

The three tips outlined here will help you get better lighting for your portraits for more pleasing results. It’s not a comprehensive list, that’s for sure. That would be a much, much longer article! Instead, these are simple tricks you can use as a beginner photographer to improve the portraits you take.

It’s important to note, however, that these tips aren’t something to be applied at all times, in every situation, or with every subject. As with so much in photography, these rules are meant to be broken.