We often associate portraiture with soft, flattering light, but there’s plenty of room for using “harsh” light to add a bit of moodiness to our portraits as well. It really depends on the purpose of the shoot. In fact, fashion photographers often prefer using harsh lighting with little diffusion to make their portraits more dramatic. One tool in particular that works especially well for creating more dramatic lighting is known as a “barn door.” In this article, we’ll look at barn door lighting to see how we can use barn door photography to create more compelling portraits.

What Is Barn Door Lighting?

Broncolor Barn Doors.

Barn door lighting refers to the use of lighting modifiers known as “barn doors” to shape light in portraits. Consisting of either two-door or four-door configurations with adjustable flaps that attach to a light source, barn doors allow photographers to shape and direct light onto the subject with precision, almost like a snoot, but with more flexibility. We can adjust the flaps to either block, concentrate, or feather the light as needed. These modifiers are more commonly seen on film sets as opposed to photo studios, but they can prove useful in all sorts of scenarios.

Barn Door Modifiers: Light Quality Vs. Shape

It’s important to note the distinction between light quality and light shape. Barn door photography doesn’t necessarily impact the quality of the light so much as it shapes it. Light quality, which deals more with how soft, diffused, hard, or specular the light is, depends more on the size of the light source relative to the subject.

barn door lighting light quality chart

A larger light source will yield softer light. Diffusing a strobe with a large softbox, for example, will soften the transitions between the light and shadows. In contrast, most photographers use smaller light sources, such as flashes or strobes, when working with barn door lighting. As such, barn door photography is generally known for featuring a harder light quality with stronger shadows and higher contrast. Again, your purpose will influence how you shape the light.

Shaping Light with Barn Doors

Simply put, “opening” up the barn doors will allow you to create a wide beam of light, like as if your light was not modified. Closing the barn doors, on the other hand, will narrow the beam of light coming from your light source. Furthermore, you can adjust the direction of your flaps to impact the direction of the light and determine how it will fall on your subject. 

When to Use Barn Doors in Portraits

Considering that barn door photography is more often associated with hard light, the best time to use it would likely be in scenarios in which hard light matches the desired aesthetic. One ideal scenario is capturing subjects who have well-defined bone structure and great skin. If the subject does not possess these qualities, it might be better to opt for something a little softer and more flattering.

Barn Door Lighting Case Study: Fashion Portrait

For this barn door photography case study, we used barn doors to control light direction and reduce light spill. The barn door made it possible to create a dramatic portrait with dynamic interplay between light and shadows.

The Gear

Here’s a quick look at the gear we used for the following case study:

The Shot

barn door lighting photography case study
Model Rachelle Kathleen. ISO 100, f/16, 1/200th of a second.

To create a similar image, you’ll want to first set up the scene. Here, we used Savage 53” by 3’ Fashion Gray Seamless Paper on a stand as our backdrop to help make our subject pop. Next, we placed the barn doors (the 4-door configuration) at approximately 90 degrees and formed a rectangle around the light source. Again, this drastically reduces the light spill. The more you open up the barn doors, the broader the light source and the more light will spill into the scene. If you close the doors down most of the way, the light path narrows, creating a strip of light.

Pullback of the Picolite setup with a bounce card.

The power for the light source in this instance, the Broncolor Scoro, was set to its lowest power setting. We positioned the Picolite strobe slightly to the right and above the model and angled it down to approximately a 45-degree angle. Placing the Picolite very close to the model allowed us to create a clear separation of the subject from the background. Because of the close proximity of the light source, however, we needed to stop down to the lowest aperture in order to shoot sync speed at ISO 100.

Result with a little fill light. Model Rachelle Kathleen. ISO 100, f/16, 1/200th of a second.

If you prefer more contrast and shadows in your work, you can stop there. On the other hand, if you’d like to add a touch more separation, add a fill as illustrated in the image above and chisel the subject out of the backdrop. You can see an assistant holding the white flap near the model’s face. The difference is subtle, but it should provide the tonality of the harsh light that we originally sought.

Where Can I Find Barn Door Modifiers?

You can find barn doors online or in most photography stores, including the options below. We’ve organized them by the brand of the light source for a proper fit:

B&H also carries a large variety of barn doors to fit your lighting needs.

DIY Barn Door Photography

For those who want to test this technique without spending (much) money, you can easily jump into barn door photography with your own homemade modifier. You can use stiff black paper or foam sheets to create the barn doors. Simply measure out the perimeter of your flash head and then cut out rectangular pieces to match the flash. To stick the barn doors to the flash, use blue tack, sellotape, or even velcro double-sided tape. This way, you can easily remove the barn doors when needed without permanently damaging your flash.


Barn doors afford photographers a great opportunity to enhance their creativity and make the overall lighting setup more flexible. Compared to other lighting modifiers, barn doors remain relatively inexpensive and they’re available for all budgets and brands of light. While we focused mainly on portraiture in this article, barn doors also work well with product and still life photography. Whatever you photograph, consider using barn door lighting the next time you need more control over the shape and direction of the light you’re using.