The most technical part of photographing people involves a proper lighting set up.

My "day job" is directing and performing musical theater. Thus, I can give you a unique perspective on the power of lighting to set a mood. These steps will help you light your subject in the most natural and flattering way.

4. Prepare Your Main Light Source.


photographic lighting with an umbrella reflector

A sample studio set up.

The main light in a photograph can be a flash, a dedicated studio light, the sun, or light reflected from any of the above. The main enemies of good lighting are nasty shadows and improper exposure. What are the best options for lighting your portraits?

In two words, diffused light. Diffused light is light that is spread out evenly. A flashbulb is a very narrow source, and when you use it directly, the light comes out uneven. That can create lighter and darker areas on your portrait, and even some unwanted shiny reflections.

When you put a diffuser in front of the flash, the light becomes more evenly spread out, and softer. A diffuser is simply a wider opaque substance, such as a white sheet. I've seen it recommended to make a diffuser out of an empty plastic milk container.

Diffusion can also be achieved through reflection, shining the light on a wide reflective surface which then bounces it onto the subject. The reflective surface should not be a mirror, because that will not diffuse the light. It can be a dedicated photographic umbrella, or a cardboard covered with shiny white paper, or the wall or ceiling.

photographic lighting with an umbrella reflector

An umbrella reflects the powerful light, giving an even light.

Putting a diffuser on a built in flash may not be practical. Besides, there is one other argument against using the camera's flash, and that is the fact that the light comes from straight on. We are normally accustomed to seeing people illuminated from above, with soft shadows. Flashes do not do that well.

Therefore, the absolute best suggestion is a diffuse studio light placed higher and at a slight angle from the subject. Similarly, a diffuse external flash placed in the same location will also work. Thirdly, if you have good light coming in through a window, you can use that.

If you are shooting out of doors, the sun will be your studio light. The best times of day are mid morning or afternoon, as you will get better angled shadows. In those cases, the flash will help soften them. An excellent idea is to shoot outdoors, but in the shade. That is the most diffuse light you will find.


  1. Try to use a studio light, external flash, or natural light, rather than the camera's built in flash for your main light source.
  2. Find a good way to diffuse the light. Either use a dedicated "soft box", improvised sheet, empty plastic milk container, reflective umbrella or other diffuse reflective surface.

5. Create Good Shadows and Correct Bad Ones.


Shadows can be used to great effect, either for good or for bad. Shadows are an important part of any portrait. Harsh shadows can make someone seem years older, while no shadows at all will freeze out any warmth from the picture. Shadows from straight above the subject can be overly dramatic. Shadows from below become almost spooky. Deciding the effect you are after in your people photography will guide you to the best use of shadows.

In most cases, however, you will want your subject lit in the most flattering way.

If you are using a flash, you may have a deficiency of shadows, since the light goes straight on to your subject. You will want to create some shadows, so a second light will help. Since most of the lighting we are used to comes from above, it is recommended to position your shadow light above and slightly to one side. This will cast a shadow between nose and mouth. (If you are photographing Dracula, put the light directly beneath their chin!).

photographic lighting to fill shadows

Here is where a flash fill would really help, as he is almost silhouetted

We have mentioned how diffusing a light source softens the shadows, but you may still find one side of the subject is just too dark. In these cases, you can add a "fill light" to shine on those darker areas. Be careful that this light be diffused as well, and significantly weaker than your main light. Otherwise you lose those shadows and gain even worse ones. (Disregard for Dracula). An alternative to a fill light is a reflector. The reflector can be made of shiny white paper, or any reflective surface. A mirror is not a good idea, because that will shine the light back directly and too intensely.

If you are shooting to light from the window, you can still compensate for dark areas with a fill light or reflector. If you're shooting outdoors, I recommend the shade. You can use your flash as a fill light, to balance out a bright sunny background.


  1. For flash-lit subjects, add a soft light above and to the side to create natural looking shadows.
  2. For diffuse studio light or external flash, add a fill light for dark areas. Make sure it is properly diffused and weaker than the main light.
  3. For window light, add either a fill light or a reflector to the subject's opposite side, if needed.
  4. Outdoors, shoot in shade if possible, using flash to balance out the light background. If your subject is in the sunlight, you can still use a flash to minimize harsh shadows.

Here is a great guide to photographic lighting: Photoflex Lighting School

6. Add Flattering Lights and Background Light.


photographic background lighting
Here the shadows are for effect, but even so I wonder...

When using a light other than the camera flash, you may see a shadow on the background. That can be distracting, so consider putting a light behind the subject to shine on the background. That will eliminate that shadow.

Sometimes, you may wish to experiment with colored lights for mood, much as we do in the theater. Reds can be hot, passionate. Blues are cooler, more cerebral. Oranges give excitement and happiness, and greens tend to lend a positive attitude. It all depends on the person and the place. Experiment! Have fun!

You can get colored lights either by buying RGB LEDs that do it automatically, or by putting some colored cellophane in front (but not too close, so as to avoid fire) of a regular photographic light.

A popular light that photographers use is a hair light. It is positioned above the subject and slightly behind (so as to not cast distracting shadows), and gives their hair in a certain glow, reminiscent of a shampoo advertisement.


  1. Eliminate background shadows with a light behind the subject. Direct that light at the affected area of the background.
  2. Add a light above the subject to illuminate their hair for flattering defect.

On to Part Three: Take the Photos, Edit, Print The Digital Picture