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Know Your Light Source: The key to portrait photography

Updated: Aug 1, 2022


Even though there are several key factors in creating a great portrait photography image, the one tip I can share about Portrait Photography that can be summed up into four words is “Know Your Light Source". Whether you are working with ambient lighting, studio lighting or both, it's vital to have an idea on how you want the light/s to wrap around your subject. I believe that there's a perfect light source for every portrait that will compliment your subject to help create "the portrait" that you desire.


If you like working with ambient lighting, know how to position your subject to the light source. In an outdoor setting, knowing where your light source is, for instance, the position of the sun, will help determine how to place your subject/s. Aside from scheduling your portrait session in the early mornings or the late afternoons, when the sunlight isn't directly above, it also helps when there's an overcast, instead of a cloudless day. Most photographers prefer a cloudy day since they have more space to work around with, rather than just trying to find a shaded area or using a scrim to diffuse the harsh light of the sun for their subject. The cloud covered sun acts like a gigantic softbox which in outdoor portrait photography is a plus, since it'll make your images softer and you won't need to do a lot in post photography (e.g. Lightroom, Capture One, Photoshop). Even though there are lots of ways to position your subject to the ambient light source, my favourite is to backlit the subject. This is accomplished by positioning the subject/s between the camera and the light source. A perfect example of this would be the portrait of a couple on the upper left. See how the light of the sun is used to give emphasis on the subjects by separating them from the background? Now, reflector/s and even portable off-camera flash with modifier can also be used to help compliment your subject/s (see sample photos below), which we'll talk about more later. We know that sunlight can be harsh at times, but knowing your ambient light will help you with your portrait photography.

If you like working with studio lights, know how to position your light source/s to the subject by knowing all the different modifiers and studio equipment. Having said that, the key rule in using studio lights for portraits is to know the Inverse Square Law. Knowing the Inverse Square Law helps shape your lights onto your subject. Now, taking into account that you know the Inverse Square Law and that you know how to adjust your studio lights properly for exposure. You are now ready to shape your light source by adding different modifiers (e.g. softboxes, umbrellas, snoot) and even manipulating the light source by introducing reflectors (e.g. reflectors, scrims, v-flats) near the subject. Below are samples of my past works that shows how studio light sources can compliment the subject in a particular pose. Can you see how I positioned the different light sources with different modifiers to compliment my clients's poses? Feel free to click on the images and let you decide if the light sources helped compliment the portraits.

Finally, if you like working with both, that means you've mastered using ambient lighting and using studio lighting. All you need now is to master and understand how to mix both light sources to create environmental portraits. This will require practice. A bit trial and error. A little hit or missed. If you asked any professional photographer, they would say that "the only way you will get better is to practice". Apply all the knowledge you know and do not be afraid to experiment. As a photographer, you are an artist and as an artist, you'll need to practice.

Even though there are several key factors in portrait photography (e.g. knowing how to pose your subject, knowing your camera and lenses), knowing your light source is "the key" since the word "photography" literally means "drawing with light". Now let's have some fun! Go out there! Get creative! Master those light sources!

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