types of portrait lighting - woman against pink background

Written by
The Photography Guy, Professional Photographer

Reviewed by
Chris Johnson, TPG Editor

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Types of Portrait Lighting

There are many different ways you can light a portrait. How you illuminate your model has a lot to do with the mood and atmosphere you create when photographing people. Understanding light means you can control the look and feel of the portrait photographs you take.

When you understand the essentials of how light affects portraits, you’ll also realize you don’t need a studio lighting kit. You can make great portraits with various lighting styles using natural light. Using natural sunlight to illuminate your portraits means you can concentrate more on connecting well with your subject.

Whatever light source you use, being in control of the look and feel you create when you photograph people is important - whether you use:

  • front lighting
  • side lighting
  • backlighting
  • hard lighting
  • soft lighting
  • loop lighting
  • rim lighting
  • clamshell lighting

How you manage your white balance settings also plays a significant role. All these factors about lighting combine to create a specific look for the portraits you take.

Studio lighting is great to work with because it gives you more control. You can adjust the output levels of professional photography lighting kits. Modifiers like snoots and soft boxes change how light affects a subject. You can also position lights how you like when using portable studio lighting. All of this flexibility does mean you have more decisions to make. So it requires practice to gain experience in how best to manage studio lighting equipment.

In this article, I’ll take you through some different ways of lighting portraits. I’ll introduce some types of lighting setups for creating various moods. There’s also an outline of some of the most popular lighting styles a professional photographer will use when taking portraits.

types of portrait lighting - woman with white background



LENS: 50.0MM F/2.8

SHUTTER: 1/125

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Jose Hernandez-Uribe

PUBLISHED: February 15, 2020

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/q-kkMB8go1E

Types of Light for Portrait Photography

There are two main types of light.

  • Hard light
  • Soft light

Relatively small light sources produce hard light. This type of light is direct and unfiltered. It creates hard-edged shadows. Direct sun is an example of this type of light.

Soft light comes from a relatively large light source. It is also often modified by some kind of diffusion. Clouds diffused the hard light the sun creates.

Using hard light for portraits creates dark, hard shadows on a subject. When there’s only one light hard light source, there’s more contrast between the brightest and darkest areas of an image. This creates a certain mood in a photo.

Soft light is more gentle and flattering for a portrait subject. This type of light creates lower contrast and softer shadows. The larger your light source is and how it is diffused control the look of the light on your subject.

The distance between the light source and your subject also affects the look of the light. A large light placed close to your subject produces a smooth, soft lighting style. A small light far from your subject produces a harder light.

Matching the light style you use to your subject determines much of the outcome of your portrait. When you want a bright, happy portrait, how you light your subject can enhance this feeling or dampen it. Using a hard light with dark, somber shadows will not be your best option. A brightly lit portrait suits a happy mood more. Hard light and dark shadows tend to create a mysterious or melancholic feeling.

types of portrait lighting - woman against pink background



LENS: 75.0MM F/2.8

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PUBLISHED: July 16, 2018

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/bqe0J0b26RQ

Direction of Light for Portrait Photographs

How you position your subject in relation to the light impacts the look and feel of a portrait photograph. 

There are three main lighting directions when it comes to portrait photography:

  • Front light
  • Side light
  • Backlight

Each one produces a significant difference in how your portraits look. 

Front Light

Front lighting is very common. This is when the light source is behind the photographer and illuminates the front of your subject.

By having your subject face the light source, there will be the least amount of shadow on their face when the light is at their eye level. This can cause a person to squint, so a photographer often positions a front light a little above their subject. Shadows in the eye sockets and under the nose and chin then become a problem. Using an additional light source or a reflector softens or eliminates these shadows.

Side Light

Side lighting illuminates your subject from one side. This usually means that about half of a person’s face is in shadow. Using a hard light source, you can effectively hide that half of the face. This creates interesting drama in a portrait. 

Additional lighting filling in the shadow side of the face balances the exposure and softens the look of a side-lit portrait. 

Back Light

The backlight hits a subject from behind. It can be challenging to set up well but produces a very interesting look for a portrait. It’ll be best to set your camera to manual mode when using backlighting. Light coming from behind your subject affects the light meter more so it’s easy to underexpose your subject if you’re not careful.

Backlighting your subject creates a rim light around their head. The face is in shadow, so you need to add more light to it or let the light in the background become overexposed.

Knowing about and understanding these different types of lighting allows you to be more flexible with the portraits you make. You can use artificial light or natural lighting for any of these types of portraits. If you have a professional lighting kit, particularly if it produces continuous light, this gives you more flexibility.

Being able to move artificial lighting and place it where you want in relation to your subject allows you more control. You can choose the background and also balance the lighting. With continuous lighting, you can see the effect of the light as you move them.

types of portrait lighting - woman on sofa with backlighting


CAMERA: Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi

LENS: 50.0MM F/3.2

SHUTTER: 1/320

ISO: 400

PHOTOGRAPHER: Ahtziri Lagarde

PUBLISHED: June 21, 2021

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/WYtcBAsC1Co

One, Two, Three, or More Lights

The number of light you use to illuminate a portrait photograph also has a strong effect on the final image. 

You can do wonderful portrait photography with only one light. It might be light from the sun, a flash, or another form of lighting equipment. How you manage it in relation to your subject matters the most. How hard or soft your one light source is and where you position it impacts the look of the portraits you make.

With only one light, there are restrictions on what you can achieve -eespecially when it comes to managing the contrast. One hard light source creates strong shadows. Even working with one soft light means you can face challenges in capturing a particular look. Adding one or more lights, or using other equipment like a reflector, provides more flexibility. You can create many different types of photography lighting with more than one light.

Often portrait photography uses a key light. This is the main light on your subject. Other lights or reflectors are added to manage the intensity and look of the shadows the key light creates. 

A reflector placed in front of and below a subject’s face balances a key light positioned in front of and above the subject. A key light to one side of your subject creates a dark shadow. You can use a reflector or another light to soften or eliminate this shadow. A backlit subject often benefits from another light in front of them.

However you decide to set up your lighting equipment, it must work in relation to your camera settings. 

Controlling your camera in manual mode allows you to better control how your flash and any other kind of lighting equipment affect the subject. 

This allows you to capture many different effects and create the most interesting portraits.

types of portrait lighting - side lighting


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PHOTOGRAPHER: Jurica Koletic

PUBLISHED: July 21, 2017

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/7YVZYZeITc8

Some Popular Types of Portrait Photography Lighting

I’ve mentioned front, side, and backlighting as the main types of light used for portraits. Once you start working with more lights you have more options available for how your portrait photos will look.

Some photographers stick to tried and tested lighting techniques. Others experiment more creatively depending on their experience and the look and feel they want to create. Studying and practicing the more foundational techniques helps you to better understand what type of lighting to use and why you’ll use it.

Here are three standard ways to set up lighting a portrait that will help get you started.

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is a very popular and simple lighting technique. The effect it has creates slightly stronger light on one side of a subject’s face and a soft shadow on the other. This type of lighting setup is generally flattering to most subjects.

To achieve this lighting style, place a single, large, diffused light in front of your subject and to one side, usually at about a 45° angle to your subject. Placing the light just above eye level helps to create an acceptable shadow. 

Add a reflector and experiment with the position of the light and reflector. This helps to create the best lighting for any person you’re photographing. Remember, we’re all different, so you can’t rely on a precise formula for managing your lighting and camera settings. By practicing with different light placements and settings you’ll become more comfortable with how to manage both.

types of portrait photography lighting - loop lighting



LENS: 50.0MM F/2.8

SHUTTER: 1/800

ISO: 400

PHOTOGRAPHER: Rachel McDermott

PUBLISHED: October 1, 2017

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/0fN7Fxv1eWA

Rim Lighting

Rim lighting is essentially the same as backlighting but has one or more kick lights to help illuminate the front of your subject. With only one light behind your subject, managing to capture a good, even exposure is virtually impossible. Adding one or more lights in the front makes the contrast lower, and you can achieve better exposure.

The light behind your subject is the brightest with a rim lighting setup. The light illuminating the front of your subject is lower. You can capture a dramatic look by taking a light reading from the front of your subject and using manual mode to set your exposure. 

The stronger backlight creates an interesting rim around your subject.

types of portrait lighting - rim lighting



LENS: 35.0MM F/1.4


ISO: 400

PHOTOGRAPHER: Руслан Гамзалиев

PUBLISHED: November 3, 2018

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/hDBPtQD-w-g

Clamshell Lighting

This lighting style uses two light sources. Having two identical lights and modifiers works well. Position one light on either side of where you are taking the photo from. Adjusting them to the same output level means they’ll evenly illuminate both sides of your subject’s face.

This type of lighting produces little or no shadows, especially when using large soft boxes or other modifiers. Lights are placed so they are slightly above eye level and angled down a little. 

Lighting your subject using the clamshell style produces nice catchlights in their eyes and a lovely glow to their skin.

types of portrait lighting - clamshell lighting


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PHOTOGRAPHER: Александр Раскольников

PUBLISHED: September 3, 2017

SOURCE: https://unsplash.com/photos/O15EA5W8rmI


There are so many ways you can learn to light a portrait. I hope you can use the information provided in this article to help you get started and improve on what you already know. 

Once you have a basic understanding of the different types of light you will begin to see the effects they have on your portrait subjects. Starting with the basics will help you get a good foundation. Once you’re comfortable using one lighting setup, begin to experiment. Add another light or introduce a reflector so you can best manage the shadows.

Have a clear idea of the types of portraits you want to create. Match the lighting style you use to the person you’re photographing and the mood you want to capture. Experiment as much as you can and remember that there’s no right or wrong way to light a portrait.

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