Portrait Lighting Setups


A portrait is a special kind of photography that is slightly more complex than the rest. Lighting also plays an important role in photographing very special portraits. How you set the light depends on how the model's face will turn out. With the help of light, you can create a real masterpiece. Its main difference lies in the fact that the models: their image, feelings, emotions, beauty come to the fore. But, in addition to everything, there is also a background, a plot, and the idea of ​​a photo.

 Therefore, for novice photographers, the secrets of proper preparation for such photo shoots and portrait lighting setup will not be superfluous:

  • Lighting in portrait photography. If, in other cases, light plays little role, then in portrait photography, it is the main factor that must be observed to get great pictures.
  • Placement in the frame. It is necessary to divide the image into nine equal elements visually. The eyes should be located at the top, and there should be more free space to the side of the gaze direction.
  • Background. It should not be bright or contrasting and strongly distract the frame camera; the posing person should remain the main thing in this type of shooting.
  • Retouch. Contrary to all the photographer’s efforts, it is impossible to foresee all the shortcomings, but it is better to set the camera settings correctly. Sometimes the horizon line falls over among the professionals of the highest category. Remove skin imperfections, whiten teeth, add shadows, contrast, or clarity; all can be processed in Photoshop.
  • Face shape. Each has its characteristics that will help make the photo more expressive, reveal the image as deeply as possible and emphasize its dignity.
  • Hair. Sometimes they become a bright highlight, so if a girl has long curls or beautiful styling, this feature should be emphasized in the picture, and lighting will help with this. And also, pay special attention to the selection of the background for the color of the hair and the shade of clothing; they should not merge but also not distract attention from the subject.

Remember that sometimes breaking the rules is possible and even necessary. From this, real masterpieces are obtained. Try to take several pictures from the same angle in a photoset. Catch the moments when the model is as relaxed as possible, does not pose, she can look into the distance or speak, smile, or laugh; these photographs will truly express feelings and emotions. However, most importantly, it will capture the best portrait of the fundamentals of light in photography that all aspiring photographers need to know.

What equipement to choose for portrait lightning?

The advantage of this type of photography is that good photos can be taken with an ordinary camera. However, if we talk about professionalism, we will talk about the mirror technique, which has a lens with a good focal length. A studio should be within 55-135 mm, which will help create high-quality photographs with a beautiful background without distorting the face. This does not require a large room for the photographer to move around. You can zoom in or out as far as possible using the zoom without adding unnecessary noise.

You will also need good lighting equipment for portrait lighting; it is advisable to choose three sources.

Additional equipment will require:

  • silver umbrella
  • beauty dish, reflectors
  • octbox (80-100 cm)
  • stripbox (ideally two of the same size).

portrait lighting

Types of Portrait lighting

Many aspiring photographers are taking their first steps with nature photography. Here nature itself sets the accents and good portrait lighting, and the photographer can only see the picture and capture the moment. You need to independently think over the image, arrange objects, and set the light and camera settings in studio work. At the same time, the equipment of photographic studios may differ in power, quantity, and lighting effects.

  • White background. Almost any photo studio has a white background in its arsenal. It allows you to take portrait photos with a frame camera. At the same time, to get an image on a pure white background, the color of the background itself is not enough. Without the correct portrait lighting setup, it will end up with a gray tint. To do this, photographers use an additional light source for the background, a softbox, which gives a soft diffusing light. And for the background to appear pure white in the photo, it is necessary to light it up to make the background illumination a little brighter than the illumination of the object itself.
  • Exposition. The exposure can be changed using the shutter speed and aperture of the lens. At the same time, it is very difficult to determine by eye the correct placement of lighting devices in the studio to choose the required shutter speed and aperture opening. Moreover, the concept of correct exposure and camera settings will be different for each frame. In such cases, professionals entrust their measurements to an exposure meter or flash meter to a special measuring technique that allows you to correctly set the aperture and shutter speed to determine the brightness and contrast for each individual photo.

Before starting a photo session, it is necessary to think in advance about the arrangement of lighting devices, the height of their location, and possible filters. Further, all the necessary lighting devices are exposed step by step:

Painting light

is the main light source in the portrait lighting setup. It draws the main volumes of the object, hence the name. This light is also called key light. There is usually only one key light source, and it is the most powerful of the others. Side or overhead light is classically used as the spotlight.

Fill light

is the light that is used to illuminate the entire scene evenly. It is usually used either for highlighting shadows or for general leveling of illumination in the frame to expose the image at the desired shutter speed properly and aperture values.

Modeling light

is used to create accents, emphasize highlights, or soften individual shadows on the subject. Typically, the modeling light is narrow-beam, and its power is adjusted to not interrupt the main cut-off pattern on the framing camera.


is also called contour; it is created using a source located behind the model. It is usually used to separate the model from the background, create accents, and artistically highlight the figure's contours. In classic portrait photography, the backlight is directed either from the back or from an angle. Backlighting schemes are the most beautiful. Backlighting looks spectacular in male portraits and also looks interesting to highlight the lush hairstyle of girls. By the way, thanks to the backlight, the pictures were taken at sunset seem so magical.

Background light,

as the name suggests, it is used to highlight the background. Due to the distance between the background and the model, the background is darkened when using, for example, one light source. This does not mean that it must be backlit; sometimes background light is not used precisely to create such an effect of depth in space. The light on the background is directed either to create a spot of light behind the model, or uniformly and equally illuminate the entire surface of the background, or create a soft gradient transition.

Of course, the simultaneous use of all types of portrait lighting in the studio is impractical and often leads to an outright mess in the photo. In practice, it is quite sufficient to use schemes with one, two, or three light sources, which successfully allow you to complete all creative tasks.

portrait lighting setup

How to set up the portrait lightning

Now let's take a look at how to set up the portrait lighting to give a nice tint and highlight specific areas of the portrait. You need to study the classic parameters to experiment and get individual photographs subsequently.

For beginners, it is better to practice with each of them in order to get a feel for how this or that view works, which portraits are better to shoot, who is suitable for the volume of the silhouette, or, conversely, it is highlighting. Such knowledge will make it possible to quickly navigate the situation and offer clients the highest quality projects.

  • The first step of a portrait lighting setup
  • In this case, the main or drawing source is installed to the camera’s right with an umbrella. 
  • The other two are located on the sides, slightly behind the subject of the shooting focus. Their distance will make it easy to adjust the backlight. 
  • You need to place stripboxes behind. It is required to install a white canvas between the background and the lamps, this will eliminate the influence of the backlights on the highlights.
  • As a result, it turns out that the panels will cut off excess light, directing it to the model. There will be rich and voluminous lighting to make the subject stand out and not draw attention to the background picture.
  • The main beam can also be adjusted. The brightness of the background area and the subject itself in focus will depend on its installation height and direction. Experiment by playing with the height of the spotlight to get the best result.
  • The second scheme of portrait lighting setup
  • Suppose the idea is to make the picture spectacular, shading only one side of the face. In that case, a black background is perfect, which will allow you to create an expressive portrait, to emphasize features and emotions as accurately as possible. 
  • You will need one candy bar and a white umbrella for the light. They need to be positioned on the side that you plan to lighten, approximately at the level of the head.
  • It should be borne in mind that this type of shooting is not suitable for all photo sessions. Best for dark-skinned people, mulattoes, brunettes. For those whom nature has awarded with fair hair and porcelain skin, it is better to experiment with other glow options that can emphasize this given by nature and not demonstrate it completely faded.
  • The third scheme is a portrait lighting setup. If you need to emphasize a person favorably when photographing half-turned, then the most advantageous option would be setting the light rays according to the scheme:
  1. Place your main light diagonally. Besides, we add an umbrella for the light; it is also aimed at the object.
  2. Place an additional light source at the back. The additional one is located at the back, and the rays should be focused on the highlight of the background image (in this case, just white paper).
  3. Position the key light at head level. The result is that the key light is positioned at the level of the head and creates a soft glow, allowing you to highlight the contours and draw attention to the non-standard pose of the shot. The second helps to slightly shade the background, making it soft, while at the same time adding volume. For even distribution, it must be fixed just below the shoulder.

This is just a part of all possible lighting arrangements. In each, you can experiment with the distance, the distance of the model from the background and the photographer, the height and direction of the monoblocks. This will set the emotionality and nature of the photo, determine the best option for a particular case.


  • What is good lighting for portraits?

Very often, beginner photographers use flash. It is always in the camera. However, the best lighting option would be supplemental light or natural light.

  • What is the most flattering lighting for portraits?

Butterfly lighting is the most flattering lighting. This type of lighting is one of the original lighting effects that enhance the attractiveness of the subject. 

  • What are the different types of portrait lighting?
  1. Painting light
  2. Fill light
  3. Modeling light
  4. Backlight
  5. Background light
  • What is the best background for portraits?

A plain background, white or gray, will look best. This way you can concentrate all your attention on the model itself.

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