Interpreting light starts by understanding its attributes: quality, color, direction, and luminosity. We’re bringing you 5 portrait photography lighting tips that you can apply to indoor, outdoor, or artificial lighting setups.

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1. Learn the “Hand Test” For Finding the Light Direction

Even with very minimal sunlight, there is always light direction. Simply hold out your hand in front of your face and turn and study the direction of light wherever you are and to see where the falls onto your hand. Although you may look like a crazy person for a couple of seconds, it is a useful portrait photography lighting trick to avoid unflattering shadows.

Portrait lighting tip: Learn to work with the shadows and use hard light as your key light source instead of placing your subjects’ backs to the sun.

2. Understand the 5 common keylight patterns

Here’s a quick run-down, but you should probably just watch the video above for reference:

  • Flat Lighting: Flat lighting faces directly into the subject from the angle of the lens.
  • Butterfly Lighting: (or Paramount Lighting) comes directly in front and above the subject’s face.
  • Loop Lighting: is a nice middle ground where most of the face is still in light but you still have enough shadows to bring in some definition.
  • Rembrandt Lighting: can be distinguished by half of the subject’s face in shadow except for triangle-shaped light on the cheekbone and eye.
  • Split Lighting: simply “splits” the subject’s face, lighting half of your subject’s face while leaving the other half in shadow.

3. Learn how to use a reflector as the main light, fill light, and Scrim

Reflectors are easily the best modifier/lighting tool that portrait photographers can have on hand. With the ability to modify light in more than one way, you are already receiving an invaluable portrait photography lighting tool for an inexpensive price. Check out the top 10 reasons why every photographer should a reflector.

Portrait lighting tip: Use the silver side reflector layered with a scrim on top to get a more diffused fill light.

4. Understand Why To Use Top Down Lighting

You can see that bottom-up lighting makes it feels like a campfire horror story is coming in the near future, which is why it has coined the nickname of “campfire lighting” over time. Lighting from a top-down angle is preferred mostly because it is a natural direction of light: the sun’s light direction, street lamps, overhead lights in offices, etc. This light direction yields a more flattering look with highlights and shadows cast in the right places.

5. Learn How to Use Hard Light to Separate Subjects from Backgrounds

A light that qualifies as soft or hard is quite simple, it is the transition from light to shadow on a subject. If the transition is sharp and quick like in the pictures above, then it is a hard light. This sharpness can be clearly distinguished from the shadow under the chin. Using available hard light can help create separation from the background as well as a more editorial, edgy feel.

Portrait lighting tip: Differentiate between hard light and the other light qualities by watching this quick video.

To build a strong foundation in how to shape natural light & create incredible imagery with off-camera flashes, upgrade to Premium to stream Lighting 101 and Lighting 201