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Light and Shadow: How to Build Portrait Lighting

  • 7 min read



Published by Nicole York from PRO EDU

Film noir style portrait in a bar


Nothing is so fundamental to studio portraiture as light. Light is the language photographers use to communicate who our subject is and what we want the viewer to understand about them, or us. Part of every photographer’s career is the lifelong study of light, which is why consistently going back to the fundamentals is always a good idea.

The fundamentals of light make up the foundation every lighting scenario is built upon. Quality of light, quantity, color, and direction are like the syntax of light, the framework within which we communicate. And what we say depends on how we combine those elements. Light reveals, shadow conceals, but together they tell a story.

The first thing to remember is that, in a studio setting, light is created by tools like strobes or constant lights, and manipulated with modifiers like soft boxes, reflectors, and flags. That means understanding and mastering these tools is essential to communicating with light. Let’s start with a quick and simple breakdown of terms.

“What we’re going to do is break it down, and go step by step and dissect the tools we use, and how they can apply to how you speak the language of light.”



Light Quality: whether light is hard or soft as determined by the transition from highlight to shadow. Hard light transitions to a distinct, sharp edged shadow, while soft light transitions more smoothly with a “blended” edge.

  • Quantity: how much light is in a scene. A low-key scene will have little light overall, while a high-key scene will have little shadow.
  • Color: what the color temperature of the light is measured in K, or Kelvin, with cold light having a higher number and warm light having a lower numerical value. Daylight is measured at 6500K.
  • Direction: where the light is coming from in relation to the subject.

Every lighting scenario we see is made from a combination of these 4 characteristics.

example of soft lighting


example of hard lighting



When light comes in contact with objects in an environment, it reacts in certain ways. These reactions are the ways photographers manipulate light.

  • Diffusion: when light is scattered.
  • Reflection: when light bounces off of an object.
  • Refraction: when light is bent, such as through water or a prism.
  • Transmission: when light passes through an object.
  • Absorption: when light is absorbed by an object.

Often, more than one of these behaviors happens at the same time. For instance, a scrim both transmits and diffuses light. A white Vflat both reflects and diffuses light.

It’s the photographer’s job to understand the qualities of light, and the behavior of light so they can make creative decisions about how to manipulate each quality of light to communicate.


  • Strobe: a light source that produces light in a burst, or flash, specifically for photography.
  • Constant light: a light source that produces continuous light for photography or videography.
  • Practicals: any light that comes from a practical source such as lamps, candles, fire, etc.
outdoor portrait of a young boy in costume

Hard, broad light mixed with ambient light fill

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Modifiers are tools that go between the light source and the subject in a way that alters or modifies the light by reflecting, refracting, diffusing, enlarging, condensing, or removing light.

  • Soft Boxes, Octa boxes, Umbrellas, Parabolics, beauty dishes, reflectors, etc: these modifiers all serve to enlarge the light source in relation to the subject and direct the light. The modifier is placed directly on the light. Light fills up the modifier and then is either fired directly at the subject, or reflected from the inner surface of the modifier before traveling to the subject. Each of these modifiers gives shape to the light and can also add other distinctive characteristics depending on the surface material, shape, and diffusion material used.Extra diffusion can be added, as well
  • Snoots: these modifiers condense light.
  • Reflectors: objects used to reflect light, sometimes white but often metallic in nature
  • Flags: used to block or absorb light
  • Diffusers: used to transmit and scatter light, such as scrims.
  • Grids: fitted to a modifier and used to direct light and diminish spill
  • Gels: used to add color to or neutralize color in light

Once a photographer has a solid grasp of the qualities of light, understands light behavior and how it can be manipulated, they’re capable of creating anything and telling any story with light.


So, how does a photographer go about choosing and building a studio lighting setup? The first step is knowing what the intention of the image is, and the second step is choosing lighting patterns that communicate that intention.


There are several common portrait lighting patterns most photographers will recognize. Here are just a few:

  • Rembrandt Lighting: creates a little triangle of light on the cheek of the subject opposite the key light
  • Loop Lighting: where a little loop-shaped shadow is created beneath the subjects nose and off to one side. This is similar to Rembrandt light but doesn’t result in a triangle of light.
  • Butterfly Lighting: light from directly in front of and above the subject and casts a shadow beneath the nose shaped like a butterfly. Also known as Beauty Light.
  • Split Lighting: where light comes from 90 degrees to the subject and lights one side of the face.
  • Flat Lighting: where light comes from directly in front of the subject.


There are also two common directions for lighting patterns: broad lighting, where the light is positioned from the camera side and lights a broad section of the client's face, and short lighting, where the light comes from behind the subject and lights the off camera side of the client’s face.

example of studio light on a foam head
studio light example on a foam head
studio light example on a foam head
Studio light example on a foam head
Broad light example on a foam head


The final important terms to know are what certain lights are called depending on their role in the lighting setup.

  • Key Light: the main source of light
  • Fill Light: determines how dark the shadows are by adding or removing light.
  • Accent Light: can take the form of edge light, rim light, hair light, or anything else that needs additional shape and dimension.


Now that the basics have been established, it’s time to talk about building a portrait light setup. It’s important to build the light scenario one light at a time to ensure each light is doing its job. It can be tricky to troubleshoot lighting issues when all lights are firing, so it’s best to check things one at a time.

  1. Know the intent of the image.
    • Why are you making this portrait? What is the goal of the image, and what are you trying to say about the subject? Is there anything that needs to be showcased or hidden?
  2. Choose a light pattern that suits the intent.
    • If the goal is to create a sense of mystery and drama, a high-key, soft-light set-up may not be the best choice. Make certain the light you choose matches your intentions.
  3. Establish the Key Light.
    • Choose where the main light source will be. Make sure to consider the quality, quantity, color, and direction of the light. Will the light be hard, or soft? Warm or cold? Is the light flattering, or showcasing something important about the subject?
  4. Take a photo so you can see whether the key light is having the intended effect, and make any adjustments.
    • This is a great opportunity to use a light meter if you prefer, but be certain to analyze the image and see that you’re retaining detail in the highlights, and not clipping the shadows. Make sure the effect of the light on your subject is what you intend, and make any adjustments you need such as changing the angle, adding diffusion, or switching the modifier.
  5. Determine if Fill Light is needed.
    • How dark are the shadows, and does that suit the intent of the image? If not, how much fill light is needed to open the shadows? Do you want to add another light source, or just use a reflector or vflat to bounce light back into the shadows?
  6. Take a photo with the Fill Light on, analyze and make adjustments. Do you need more light, or less?
  7. Place Accent Lights.
    • Is there anything in the image that needs additional lighting? Do you need to separate the hair from the backdrop, show off the detail in a coat, or light the backdrop?
  8. Take a photo to determine whether the accent lights are doing their job, or if adjustments need to be made.

Throughout the process, continue to assess whether the results are in-line with the intention of the photograph. If they’re not, make adjustments based on knowledge of how light behaves and how it can be manipulated.


Understanding the language of light and how you can use it to communicate is the most important skill a photographer can learn. In portrait photography, light says as much about the photographer as it shows of the subject.

Without light, photography doesn't exist. So get out there and master your medium.


Interested in learning more about lighting? Check out our Dramatic Portraiture tutorial now, or scroll down and answer a short survey to get a free section!

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