Light Source: Lighting Portraits
Illuminating faces is one of the most frequently needed lighting skills in your gaffer's kit.

At first, portrait lighting might seem to belong in a yearbook photo studio, but when you think about it, videography needs portrait-style lighting for on-camera spokespeople, for interviews, for stand-up reporters and for close shots of actors in story programs. In fact, illuminating faces is one of the most frequently needed lighting skills in your gaffer’s kit. Though portrait lighting can involve great artistry, the basic procedure boils down to three major steps:

  • Choose a lighting style.
  • Decide how many lights to use.
  • Make the subject look good.

As you’ll see, choosing a style and determining the number of lights is really a single process. To do this (and to flatter your subject), let’s start with a flying inventory of the lighting tools that are at your disposal.


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen

Free eBook


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen


Thanks! We will email your free eBook.

Tools for Lighting Portraits

The classic tool for portrait lighting is the spotlight: a small light source that can be focused, screened and aimed with precision. Spotlights throw directional, hard-edged light, which can be good or bad, depending on your needs.

Spots are supplied with barn doors: sets of two or sometimes four flaps that can be moved into the edges of the light path to confine and shape its pattern. These lights can hold rings containing various screens designed to cut down the light intensity of all or part of the beam. They can also hold diffusion to soften the light (though spun-glass diffusion sheets will sometimes be clipped to barn door edges instead).

Floods are larger light sources, either rectangular bars or scoops that throw a more diffused wash of light. On the one hand, floods are hard to control with barn doors or other accessories. On the other hand, their softer light requires less control, and often looks more natural.

Sources that are even larger exaggerate the flood characteristics. They can be very soft and diffused, very natural looking and nearly impossible to modify with accessories. Umbrellas use spotlights or small floods to bounce light back onto subjects. Soft boxes are white tents on frames that surround small floods so that the light-emitting front is three feet square or even larger. Finally, fluorescent banks are very large light sources that can simulate daylight, while using much less power than halogen lights.

Of the many accessories used to control portrait lighting, three stand out. Flags (opaque rectangles held up on stands) mask light edges very precisely. Gels (which are actually heat-resistant plastic) can add color, especially to rim lights and background lights.

Most importantly, reflectors (such as large sheets of white foam board) can function as supplementary lights by bouncing back illumination from other sources or as flags to control light edges.

Though they go on the lens of the camera instead of the lights, filters are also crucial. Diffusion filters can soften the lines of age, polarizers can control reflections and graduated neutral density filters can fix contrast problems.

Though only a truly professional lighting kit will include all this gear, each piece has a role to play in portrait lighting. So let’s see how to put them to work.

Choosing a Lighting Style

The hardware you employ and the way you use it depends entirely on the style – the look – you want to achieve. Here are a few examples.

For the reporter delivering breaking news or the gritty documentary, go for an intentionally simple style. A single key light mounted on the camera may give the right effect, or you can soften it a tad with a stand-mounted spot just to one side, with reflector fill on the other side. Don’t raise the key light too high, to avoid a Hitler-moustache shadow effect below the nose.

The second major lighting style is the natural look, favored for interviews. For the ultimate window-light appearance, deploy a very large source (a soft box or umbrella) placed well to the side of the subject and at the same level as, or even slightly lower than, the head. If the unlit side is too dark, use a white card for an unobtrusive fill.

The most common modification of the natural look uses two soft sources: perhaps a spotlight with spun glass diffusion clipped to its barn doors as a key light, plus a large source opposite for fill. With a little care, you can often place the fill light so that its spill will illuminate the background as well. Personally, I prefer a soft source for both key and fill light, controlling contrast between the key and fill lights by moving the key closer to the subject.

For an on-camera narrator or spokesperson, a slightly more dramatic style might be preferable – something close to the classic Hollywood look. To achieve this more painterly lighting, use a spot key aimed down about 15 degrees onto the subject’s face, plus a soft fill light more nearly level with the face. A rim light (often called a hair light or kicker) mounted very high above the rear of the subject and just far enough off center to keep its stand out of the picture, will splash an attractive light on the subject’s hair and shoulders to separate subject from background.

If you’re traveling executive class, a fourth light can illuminate the background. For this, you may want a soft, but slightly directional flood like a scoop. Alternatively, you can shoot a hard-edged spot through a cookie, which is a card riddled with holes in a pattern that creates attractive shadows on the background.

Make ’em Look Good!

You can master light selection and placement in a few hours. The real artistry comes in sculpting the subject. If you’re lighting Gwyneth Paltrow, you can’t lose; but most subjects need a little help to look their best. Here, then, are just a few common problems and some solutions.

  • Wide or fat face. To slenderize a face without exercise, highlight the center of the face, from the eyes to the chin, and let both cheeks fall off into shadow. Use a spot key light with the barn doors framing light off the cheeks, plus two very soft fill lights, one on each side. To preserve the illusion of key side/fill side, place one of the fill units closer to the subject than the other.
  • Narrow or skinny face. Do just the opposite of the previous technique: Use double profile keys to bring up the cheeks and keep the intensity of the front fill just bright enough so the subject doesn’t look under-lit.
  • Glasses. The simplest way to lose light reflections from glasses is by tilting them slightly downward on the wearer’s nose. The next method is to raise all the lights until they bounce toward the floor rather than at the lens. Be careful, though: if you raise the lights too high, you’ll exaggerate eye sockets and nose and chin shadows. Finally, try a polarizer. Reflections in glass are what polarizers are meant for, and you can often kill the highlights completely.
  • Bald heads (a sensitive subject with me). If the old Ron Howard trick (a trucker’s cap) is inappropriate, try these: when keying with a spot, use a barn door to frame light off the chrome dome. Sometimes, extra diffusion on the key light will soften the glare. Next, minimize rim light. Too much light from high and behind shines up the scalp nicely and picks out the pathetic remaining hairs so viewers can count them. Last of all, try lower camera angles. The less scalp seen, the smaller the problem.
  • High-contrast subjects. Folks with light complexions wearing dark clothing can be tough to expose, but the solution is easy: don’t wear black clothing. Darker complexions, especially beautiful brides in blinding white dresses, can give conniptions to contrast control circuits. In addition to framing off as much bright clothing as practical, there are several tricks to use here.

First, try an Obie light: a small on-camera lamp that kicks up exposure on the face just a bit. Often, this is all you need.

When using spots for lighting, try graduated screens, with one layer covering the whole ring, a second layer stopping at the two-thirds line, and a third layer going only one-third of the way. By putting the three-layer third at the bottom of the beam, you cut down the light on the bright dress, increasing it gradually on the face (or reverse this process for darkly dressed light-skinned people).

The other way is to use a graduated neutral density filter, which achieves the same effect. Darker flesh tones can also cause shiny reflections, so go for soft, diffused lighting that brings out natural facial tones.

  • Wrinkles and Blemishes. To minimize age lines, acne scars and other facial artifacts, you have three weapons. First, keep lighting soft and contrast low, since canyons and craters create shadows.

For the same reason, concentrate on frontal lighting over cross lighting, which also exaggerates lines and pits.

If all else fails, use diffusion on the lens. Tiffen, for example, makes lens filters with different levels of diffusion. Be moderate, though: using too much diffusion results in a portrait that looks like if was shot in a steam bath.

Good shooting!

Sidebar: Monitor Matters

Always use a well set-up monitor to check your lighting. A monitor allows you to see changes to your lighting setup in real time. Monitors help you adjust light position for angle, intensity and contrast. For example, if the fill side shows details in the shadows (like a collar) and the key side doesn’t burn out the highlights, the contrast is about right.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.