Lighting Tips for Great Portraits and Headshots

Restaurateur Jesse Cool stands in front of the chicken coop in her garden in Palo Alto, CA. Many of the eggs, fruits and vegatables used for her restaurants are grown here. Photographed in Palo Alto, CA on March 16, 2012.

In our continuing series 5 Tips to Look Great in a Portrait or Headshot, this may be the most important. Good light in a photo flatters. Bad light exposes what we dislike most about how we look. We have all seen the photo with the washed out, too bright flash. We squint to see the details in the silhouette with the bright sun behind and no discernable face.  Here are a few keys to making the light work to your benefit.

Get out of the sun.

If you are standing in the sun and there is no flash on the camera to fill the shadows, several bad things happen. Those looking into the sun are invariably squinting or wearing sunglasses (the glasses being preferable if you ask me). Those with the sun behind them end up with an underexposed (dark) face. Unless the photographer compensates and meters the camera for the light falling on the face this is not going to work. In the photo of Jesse Cool above, we put the sun on a partly cloudy day at her back and had no rough shadows on her face. This photo was take without a flash.

A better idea is to get in the shade. The light in the shadow of a building can be really beautiful. Bright light from the sunny areas you are facing can fill in the shadows and make for a soft look. My Burning Man photos best illustrate this. Taken in the middle of a sunny, desert afternoon, I had people stand under a canopy with a white background behind them and reflected light spilling in from three sides. See the portrait directly below.

If you retreat under a tree, make sure you have the sun behind the subject so that now dappled light falls on the face making light and dark spots. Another technique is a fill flash, if you know how to do that on your camera.

This portrait of Nomad was taken at Burning Man 2012 using natural light.

Find the biggest window you can.

If you are indoors, find a big window that is not facing the sun. A north window (If you live in the Northern Hemisphere.), a morning west window or an afternoon east window all work. Place the subject sideways to the window with as much window in front of them as possible. Make sure the light of the window is reflected in both eyes. If you set your camera to a more open f-stop, f2.8 or lower, you can get that beautiful soft focus on the background. Make sure you focus on the eye nearest the camera. This shot of Kristina Esfandiari was shot at f2.0 using window light from an east facing set of windows 15 feet high and 20 feet wide.

Singer Kristina Esfandiari shot with window light in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA.

Bounce the flash.

Unless you are Terry Richardson, most portraits look better when the flash is not sitting right on top of the camera on the same axis as the lens.   With an on-camera flash, it is best if the flash can be pointed to reflect off of the ceiling, if it is white ceiling. This can fill the room and make the light softer. It works well for group shots too. You can try to bounce the flash off a wall or a window too, if you have the type of flash that allows that. This can mimic the big window. The shot of Apurva Mehta of SLAC was shot by bouncing my strobe off of a light grey wall for a huge light source.

Apurva Mehta of SLAC isn't smashing atoms these days. Photographed at Stanford Linear Accelerator on September 17. 2013.

Get the flash off the camera.

If your camera has a hot shoe, you can buy cheap triggers that allow you to take the flash off of the camera. Buy a light modifier like an umbrella or soft box and you can get some beautiful shots. Hundreds of techniques like this can be done on a budget. The best site I know for this information is the strobist.

Of course many professional photographer break all these rules. But they know how to compensate. If you are having your picture taken by your sister-in-law and you find yourself looking directly into the sun or flash of the camera, take control and have the her try some of the steps above.

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