Lighting Ratios to Make or Break your Portrait - Digital Photography School

Lighting Ratios to Make or Break your Portrait



In a previous article (6 Lighting Patterns every photographer should know) I talked about lighting patterns and how they create shape and dimensions on the face. Another factor that contributes to the effectiveness of a portrait is the lighting ratio. As a math term, a ratio is a comparison of one thing to another. The dictionary definition states, “the quantitative relation between two amounts showing the number of times one value contains or is contained within the other ”

In respect to lighting ratios, you measure the light falling on the light or highlight side of the face, and compare it to the shadow side to arrive at the lighting ratio. How exactly do you do that? While you can do it with the built-in meter in your camera, (set to spot meter for more accuracy) it is much easier and more accurate to use a hand held incident light meter. Your in-camera meter is a reflective style meter which takes a measurement of the light reflecting OFF of your subject. A handheld meter is an incident meter (although it can be both with an attachment) which measures the amount of light falling ON the subject and is a more accurate way of measuring lighting ratios.

Key Concepts

To properly measure and understand ratios in respect to photography, you need to understand a few things. First that light is measured in photography terms by f-stops. The aperture dial or setting on your camera goes up in 1/3 of a stop increments (or ½ stop if that’s how you’ve set your custom settings). The full stops for aperture are: f1, f1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22, f32, etc. A simple way to remember all those numbers is just to remember 1 and 1.4, and all of the other pairs are doubled from these (next pair is 2 and 2.8), with a few rounded off.

We also need to understand that the shutter speeds are also representative of “stops”, with the full stops being at: 1 sec, ½ sec, ¼, sec, 1/8th, 1/15th, 1/30th, 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000th, etc. These are easier to remember as they are generally doubled (with a couple round offs 1/8th to 1/15th).

The key concept you need to understand is that each full stop is double (or ½, depending which direction you go on the scale) the amount of light over the previous one. For example: if you are shooting at f4 and want to shoot at f5.6, you will need to double the amount of light to get one more stop. If you want a 2 stop difference then we’re talking about 2×2 or 4 times more light. Likewise 3 stops is 2x2x2, or 8 times more light and so on.

Knowing this we can now figure out how to create and measure ratios. In the next series of photos I will demonstrate 4 different ratios and how they were achieved.

1:1 Ratio


A 1:1 ratio is even lighting, it has no ratio, and there is no difference in meter reading from one side of the face to the other. This is very flat lighting, which can be achieved a couple of different ways. First, you can use a fill flash and make the flash equal to the main light source or window light. This is harder to achieve until you’ve had some practice, and often you’ll end up overpowering the natural light with flash. Secondly, you could use a reflector. It will need to be really close to the subject so that you cannot see any shadows on the subject’s face any more. This is a 1:1 ratio and is pretty easy to see and recognize visually.

2:1 Ratio


As the numbers suggest, this is a ratio where one side is twice as powerful as the other.

So knowing that and what we know about f-stops we can set up this lighting ratio.

NOTE: these fstops, or apertures, I’m mentioning here are for metering purposes, that is not what you will set your lens at for the exposure. Meter how you usually do to determine the correct shooting exposure. Take a test shot, review the histogram, and adjust it accordingly.

Put your subject into the light, where you are going to photograph them. Using a light meter, measure the light falling on the side of their face closest to the light source (called the highlight side). Let’s say that measures f8. (Keep your shutter speed the same for both measurements for consistency.) Then bring in your reflector and using the light meter again, measure the light falling on the side of the subjects face that is further away from the light source (from here on in, this will be referred to as the shadow side).

Note: If you are using a hand held meter, make sure to shield the meter from getting light from the opposite direction falling on it as you make your readings. EI: if you are metering the shadow side nearest the reflector, shield the meter so the main light source isn’t hitting it.

You may have to adjust the reflector distance to subject until the reading measures f5.6 which is ONE STOP, or ½ the amount of light as f8 on the other side. Notice the reading tells us to use a larger aperture (f5.6) which means there is less light. This will give you a 2:1 ratio. Study the image above and recognize the contrast range from highlight to shadow sides on the face. It’s subtle but you can see it now.

4:1 Ratio


A 4:1 ratio is double the last one. So if 2:1 was twice as much light, or one stop – how much will 4:1 be? 2X2, 4 times as much light, or a 2 stop difference from highlight side to the shadow side of the face.

I teach an available light class and I always recommend working with natural light before you advance on to studio lights, and especially to using speedlights. With available or natural light, and a reflector, it is MUCH easier to learn and practice lighting because you can SEE what happens as you make changes (WYSIWYG). Flash is harder to predict, as you can’t see it without actually taking a photograph.

So if our main light (the window) is still at f8 – what does our fill light or the shadow side need to be to achieve a 4:1 ratio? Let’s do the steps again: f8 > f5.6 > f4. Therefore two stops less than f8 is f4 and the desired measurement to create a 4:1 ratio. Look again at the photo above and see how the shadow side is getting darker each time?

8:1 Ratio


The last ratio we’ll look at is 8:1. This is 8 times as much light, (you can see that in the ratio “8 to 1”), or 3 stops, from one side of the face to the other. It is quite dramatic and anything greater than 8:1 will not hold much detail on the shadow side at all. Prints have a maximum contrast range of 4-6 stops. So unless you want: one side of the face pure white; the shadows pure black; and no mid tones in between; I suggest keeping it to an 8:1 or lower ratio.

This one can be a bit tough to create. You may need a bit harsher lighting and possibly a black reflector to add blacks into the shadow side (rather than reflecting light into it). As before we calculate it the same way. If 4:1 is 4 times the light – 8:1 will be 8 times the light – or 3 stops. So if we are still at f8 on our highlight side, we need to get our shadow side to read: f8 > f5.6 > f4 > f2.8. So our fill must read f2.8 to get an 8:1 ratio. Notice how deep the shadows are in the 8:1 image above? It’s more dramatic than the others.

How to use Ratios

Okay now that we have all this knowledge of ratios, let’s put it to use! As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the ratio can add to the success of your portrait or can ruin it. If you look at the 4 example images again, take a look at how the mood of the image changes with the ratio. Notice how the higher ratios have more drama, more power in sense. Notice how the lower ones are softer and seemingly more innocent.

Generally somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1 is the commonly used ratio for most portraiture. It’s enough to create modelling on the face, but not too much to create unattractive deep shadows. I personally like about 3:1 (1 and a half stops) or 4:1 myself.

For a child or baby most often you want a lower ratio, one that is softer to go with the subject matter. But, put a grizzled old cowboy with weather wrinkled skin, and unkempt whiskers in front of your camera and what ratio do you think is best for such a fellow? If you said 4:1 or 8:1 I’d agree. He’s rougher, tougher and can handle the increased contrast as it is suitable for his look.

If you have difficulties because you do not have a hand-held meter, don’t worry about going out and buying one. I’d only suggest that if you plan on getting into studio lighting. Instead just practice seeing the difference between the various ratios (why I suggest natural light), and if they aren’t a perfect 4:1 or 8:1 or whatever it doesn’t matter. Just learn to recognize when it’s too strong and when it’s too weak for the affect you want to create.

Here’s another example of ratios at work. None of this is right or wrong, but which do you think is the most appropriate? Work towards figuring that part out and you’ll be ahead of the game!

My first shot had no reflector and I found the shadows too dark and the overall portrait to have too much contrast. So I brought in a reflector for the next one

This is the second image I took using a silver reflector. I found the ratio to be almost 1:1 or non-existant and I wanted a bit more drama than that for a portrait of a man.

For this last image I changed to using a white reflector and backed it off a bit to get this ratio that I was happy with. I shot a few more images after this, but use this process to help you determine your ratios.

Note: thanks to my subject for these shots – Gabriel Biderman from B&H Photo Video.

Tips on using ratios

If you are attempting to create ratios first thing you need to do it get your subject out of the sun. Best thing to use is natural light from a window with indirect lighting (no direct sun coming in). If the sun is streaming in, try adding shear curtains or even stretching a white bed sheet across it to diffuse it. Doing this in bright sun will be almost impossible to control the light and it generally not desirable or flattering on the subject’s face.

Here’s a few starting points to get you going, but keep in mind there is no steadfast rule on how to do ratios in portraiture. Like everything in photography it’s about learning the techniques or “rules” and then using them as suggestions as you experiment and find your own style or voice. Can you put an 8:1 on a glamourous movie star, or a 1:1 on a coal miner? Absolutely! I’ll even give you some homework to do to prove both can be effective if they are done well and for a reason.

Starting points on how to use ratios

  • for babies and small children use a lower ratio like 1:1 or 2:1. Partly because they move so quickly keeping them in the light, facing the right direction is exceedingly difficult. Making the light more even allows for whatever happens.
  • for women use a medium ratio like 2:1 or 3:1
  • for men or business portraits use a slightly stronger ratio like 4:1 or 6:1 (2 and a half stops)
  • for artists, bands or anything you want more drama in use a higher ratio

Homework and action steps

Your homework assignment, should you choose to accept it, (sorry I like the MI movies) is to research the following photographers and tell me how they broke the general rules I’ve mentioned above with great success and amazing images:

  • George Hurrell
  • Richard Avedon
  • Youseph Karsh

Those three photographers right there are some of the greatest portrait artists to ever live. Learn from them.

Come back and share with me what you learned and how you are making out if you try ratios yourself.

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Darlene Hildebrandt is the Managing Editor of dPS. She is also an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles, online photography classes, and travel tours. Get her free ebook 10 Photography Challenges to help you take better pictures or save 25% off her lighting course - Portrait Fundamentals - by using the discount code: portrait25dps.

  • avarice the movie

    my question is which number is the key and which is the fill? Is the left number your key or the right? Same for fill.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    I do an average reading back to camera for the exposure.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    It’s totally personal and if you like more contrast go for it.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Lens model or focal length? Model really doesn’t matter. You can do this with a kit lens.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Sorry I’m not sure what you mean – which numbers? 4:1? It just represents the ratio which is 4 times more on one side compared to the other. It doesn’t necessarily match which side the light is on. 1:4 or 4:1 however you want to say it means the same thing.

  • Randell

    The correct way to describe a ratio in photography is 1:2 with the ‘1’ always representing the key light and the ‘2’ representing fill.
    Read Christoper Grey’s ‘Lighting for Portraiture and it explains exactly why.
    In fact you could write 2:1:2 where the ‘2’ on the left describes a hairlight, background light or kicker, although you don’t often see this used.

  • NVeal

    Thanks so much for this really helpful article!! I can’t wait to try these on my first studio session!!

    Thanks once again!

    NVeal Photography

  • kindofblue

    Ms. Hildebrandt, you’re right about Hurrell and Karsh, both were absolute masters at lighting portraits. Considering both shot primarily with hot (tungsten) lights and often minimal (3 lights or fewer) setup is even more impressive. Karsh especially understood that trying to express the spirit of the subject, in addition to understanding the tools, is invaluable to capturing a memorable image. Thank you.

    (Btw, it’s ‘Yousuf’ Karsh). 😉

Some Older Comments

  • Darlene February 5, 2013 03:45 pm

    Michael - sorry not sure I follow.

    1:1 is just that the same on both sides - equal. If you look at the example for 1:1 lighting it is the same meter reading on both sides, even lighting, no shadows.

    2:1 means twice as much on one side as the other. In photography terms that is "one stop" of light. It's simple math.

    I do not follow why you're saying what I've shown is wrong.

  • Michael G February 3, 2013 01:12 pm

    Darlene - I am not sure you understand completely what Doug took the time to explain. Your ratio calculations are completely wrong. Double the light is double the light. Your 1:1 example is actually 2:1; your 2:1 is actually 3:1, etc. I understand that you have been doing it this way for 25 years, but you should not be teaching it this way. It is wrong.

  • Naftoli January 5, 2013 06:02 am

    Darlene, great article! with perhaps 1 small nitpick in the second paragraph u write “A handheld meter is an incident meter ” this is not necessarily true. Although not as commonly used today in film days many photographers would carry around handheld reflective meters to determine the cameras exposure and to evaluate the tonal range of a given scene.

    Also when u replied to doug u wrote “It does seem like the light should add together but it doesn’t work that way. If your main is f11 and your fill is f5.6 you’re shooting at f8 to get a good exposure usually.” that doesnt make sense to me at all. if ur main light meters at f11 how can u not be at least a stop overexposed when shooting at f8??

  • LexP January 4, 2013 03:24 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I own a flash trigger, but when you say that "the camera talks to the flash", does it do that automatically between the flash and camera or do I have to set that up with my camera? When I use my flash off camera I use it in TTL.
    Thanks again.

  • Naz January 4, 2013 05:08 am

    nice tips- these are exactly the kidnso f tips we need- specifics, to the point- and explaiend well- I just recently tried soem self portrature with camera in a dark room and me facing the light coming from another room- quite dramatic lighting indeed- it took a lot of experimenting to get a ratio of light to dark that I liekd (The ratio was wild- very dark shadows but still a tiny bit of detail, with hte light being quite bright. I then processed the photo to look like a wetplate photograph for an old tiem lool which worked out pretty nice I thin- but like I said, it took a lot of trial and error and soem nimble post processing to help with hte ratio some- I never did achieve the look in camera unfortunately thoiugh- but it was a quite dramatic ratio I was goign for too-

  • Darlene January 3, 2013 07:40 am

    @Lexp - if you are using speedlights off camera and do not have one of the two following items, it is very difficult to measure ratios and get the exposure just as you want it. You'll do a lot more trial and error than shooting.

    1 - a hand held light meter
    2 - pocket wizards or another brand of flash remote triggers that work with TTL

    TTL means "through the lens" so that when you use those remotes the flash still "talks" to your camera even when it is off camera. So if you set your camera to say f5.6 - the remote conveys that information to the flash and it fires bright enough to produce a correct exposure at f5.6. If you do not have such remote triggers (or your camera doesn't talk directly to the flash, check your manual to see if it has that capability) then your flash will fire at full power and your only option to adjust it is to move it back or turn it down in power (1/2, 1/4, 1/8th power, etc)

    If you have a hand held meter that's just fine because you can measure the light coming from the flash and dial it up or down according to your needs. You can also measure the flash and the ambient or room light separately using such a meter.

    If you have neither of these devices you will basically have to set up your flash (speedlight) take a shot, review it, and adjust from what you see. If it's too much flash (too bright) turn the flash down or move it back. If it's too dark, turn it up or move it closer.

    Keep this important note in mind with working with both flash and natural light:
    - the aperture controls the flash exposure
    - the shutter speed controls the natural light exposure

    So that is how you control which one is more prominent. If you want more flash to show, use a faster shutter speed and it will cut down the natural light. If you want more natural light to show use a slower shutter speed.

  • Darlene January 1, 2013 03:23 am

    Hi Lex

    It's pretty hard to measure a ratio without one of two things: 1 a light meter or 2 dedicated flash triggers that work using TTL like Pocket Wizards. As soon as you take your speedlight off camera it will not work in TTL (through the lens) mode which means your camera isn't controlling its exposure and amount of light coming out of it. So it becomes a manual flash and you have to adjust it yourself (1/2, 1/4, 1/8 power, etc). If you have a hand held light meter you can measure the light and do so according to the results you want. Or if you have Pocket Wizards (remote flash triggers that keep the TTL active) then you can have the camera adjust the exposure because it will still "talk" to the flash.

    If you have neither of those two devices, unfortunately you're in trial and error mode. Your only options are to set up the light, do a test shot, and adjust it from there. If it's too bright turn it down, if it's too dark turn it up. Adjust until you have the right exposure for the aperture you're shooting at.

    Remember this (very important)

    **** flash exposure is controlled by the aperture and ambient or room light is controlled by the shutter speed *****

  • LexP December 31, 2012 04:04 pm

    Hi Darlene,
    What I mean is, I use a umbrella/speedlight as my main and a reflector as fill, fluorescent light in the room when I turn the light switch on, but I do not own a light meter. So, how do I achieve the right exposure? I am knew to studio lighting, please help.

  • LexP December 31, 2012 03:37 pm

    Hi Darlene,
    Great blog, but how do I measure light using speedlight without a light meter? How do I get the right exposure?

  • Darlene December 28, 2012 05:59 pm

    All I meant by my original comment that you've quoted above, is that for people not to get overly concerned about making it "perfect" 4:1 or 3:1 or getting the math just so. What I teach my students in class is to learn about ratios, how to see them, how to understand how to create them, and how to control them. Then don't worry so much that it's exact or precise.

    When I say "it doesn't work that way in the real world" what I mean is that in my 25 years of doing portraits I have not once metered so precisely as to worry about the 1/3 of a stop of light that is added as more lights are turned on and combined. In the real world there often isn't time to fiddle with it to that degree, especially if you are doing weddings as I did for years. I metered with both lights on, shading them as I metered and shot with the measurement it gave me (exposing for shadows as I shot film for many of those years). In those film days I would do a polaroid to check my lighting if I was pleased with how it looked that's what mattered most.

    So take my information and use it how you see fit. If you are into more precise measurements then by all means, do what you feel necessary.

  • Doug December 28, 2012 12:31 pm

    Huh? Must be my miscommunication or misunderstanding on my part then because you said, ". . .all things I’m well aware of. . . ."

    But above that you said, "Doug I think you’re using math and over complicating it when in the real world it doesn’t work that way and it’s not that hard."

    In any event, good luck with your classes.

  • Darlene December 27, 2012 05:57 pm

    @Doug yes you're absolutely right on all counts, all things I'm well aware of and I think you're spot on that the higher the ratio the less you'll notice the exposure difference. Distance to subject, also a factor as you've mentioned.

    All of that is true, I don't question that.

  • Doug December 20, 2012 10:52 am


    If you do the test, use this method instead of the above where I suggest that you use f5.6 and f11. It will make it more clear to you. The settings I suggested will only give you about .3 over exposure. Set your first light at f11. Then set the second light at f11. Turn off each light to do this. Then turn them back on and take a measurement. You will get a 1 stop increase in light, or f16. That's because you have doubled the light output.

    (In our world, that is really how light works, unless you live in a different world than I do. In fact, this is how light works for the entire universe.)

    For all instances, you will never be over exposed more than .9 stops when using a key and fill ratio. And, the more dramatic the ratio, the less you will see over exposure, since you are adding less light. In other words, you need to double light output to get 1 stop. This is probably why you believe that "light doesn't work that way in the real world." You simply don't notice it and any increase in exposure is fixed in post software.

    But knowing how light works is important for other situations that ARE important, I mean can make the difference between you pulling off your job or failing to pull it off:

    A basic skill to making your lights more powerful is to aim two lights into a single reflector. Now you have increased total light output by one full stop, given the lights are equally powerful. This is extremely important when you are on location and using flash guns, such as the canon 580 series, since they have limited power. Every time you double the number of guns, you effectively double your total light output capability. (going from 1 - 2 guns doubles your power, 2 - 4 doubles power, and so on) That's IMPORTANT to know!!!

    This is all related to the inverse square law, which having a grasp of the inverse basics is also necessary to do professional location photography. See here for an example of why this is obvious: (Mark is really clear.)

    But this is even more clear:

    It sounds unintuitive, but that's how light works. For instance:
    "There’s a 75% drop in light from 1 meter to 2 meters, but only a 5% drop in light from 4 meters to 10 meters." (Above link)

    The same thing is true at a static distance: Double light output, increase light "one stop."

  • Doug December 19, 2012 11:59 pm

    "It does seem like the light should add together but it doesn’t work that way."

    Darlene, It most certainly does work that way.

    This is exactly how I set my lights when using multiple lights, and it is the way I have always seen any pro photography I've worked with or known set theirs too:

    (Fast forward to 1:30 to get right to light settings. He gets a little into the Sekonic meter, but just ignore that. At 3:00 he explains exactly that the light does add up.)

    You can test the truth of this by setting your lights and dialing in your settings, for instance, set one light at f5.6 and one at f11 (Shoot for f11 as your correct exposure, since let's assume you want to shoot your subject at an aperture of f11). Then turn both lights on, take a reading, and you will see you are over exposed. This is basic light physics called the inverse square law of light, and it's important because, unless I'm missing something, you cannot get correct exposures without understanding that light adds up.

  • Darlene December 19, 2012 06:53 pm

    @Doug I think you're using math and over complicating it when in the real world it doesn't work that way and it's not that hard. I turn both lights on at the power I want to shoot them at. I use my light meter and point it at the main light first, using my hand to shade the side facing the fill light so it is only measuring light from the main light. Then I do the same with the fill.

    It does seem like the light should add together but it doesn't work that way. If your main is f11 and your fill is f5.6 you're shooting at f8 to get a good exposure usually. I've been doing this a long time and that's just my experience. Perhaps I am doing it in a non-scientific or mathematical way but that's just how it comes out so I'm not sure what else to tell you. Sorry I can't be of more help but I suggest that you try it and you'll find your own way of metering and doing things so that it works for you.

  • Doug December 19, 2012 06:14 pm

    I am not understanding how you can set fill and key without measuring each one independently, and then turning both on for a total power measurement and reducing power on both lights equally to get a correct target aperture and exposure.

    Target aperture: f11
    Key: f11
    fill: f8
    both on: f16 (and we are over exposed one stop for our target aperture)
    Solution: turn down both the key and fill .5 stops.

    What am I missing here?

  • Darlene Hildebrandt December 19, 2012 02:01 pm

    @Doug - yes studio lighting IS more complicated to set up and meter. However I never turn off one light and meter them one at a time, I meter with both lights on as they would be firing during the actual exposure. I do shade my light meter from getting light from one or the other as I meter though. So it's a more true reading as I'm measuring all the light falling on the subject from both lights. Another reason available light is easier to work with.

  • Doug December 18, 2012 03:31 pm

    The problem isn't understanding ratios. It's quite easy. There is more light on one side of the subject than the other, and everything else is technical.

    The problem is when you are using two lights and you want the overall exposure at, for example, f11 after you meter the key light and fill light independently--since each new light ads more light to the subject. That is to say, once you have both lights where you want them, and you turn both of them on, you're going to be overexposed. For instance, if you meter each light at f11 and you want an f11 aperture, then turn both lights on, you get twice as much light, or exactly one stop over f11 at f16. Easy to fix. lower both lights one stop by metering them independently again.

    The problem therein is to bring both lights down the exact same amount in order to maintain your chosen ratio. Thus one must again meter each light respectively and lower the light output the exact number, even if it is 1/3 stop or a full stop. Unless you have those 1/3 stop increments memorized, or written down, you'll never achieve your ratio, no matter how long you fiddle with your camera and monkey the back LCD image.

    This means understanding that your light meter settings for each individual light will never equal a correct exposure at the camera's f-stop. This is where it gets tricky and you MUST go deeper into calculations and the use of a light meter to get what you want. Either that, or you're shooting in the dark--literally.

  • Geoffrey_K August 17, 2012 02:23 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I REALLY appreciate that you put in f-stop numbers. For those of us still working on this it is helpful to give us actual numbers. They make a good starting point that we can work with/around.

  • Edwin Barreto July 13, 2012 09:58 am

    Finally, lighting ratios explained in a practical and easy manner to understand; Darlene truly explained this rather difficult concept in simplistic fashion for novices like myself trying to comprehend light ratios. Thank you!

  • Darlene June 29, 2012 08:32 am

    Hi Nexofoto - I don't see why not but It's not up to me to say. You need to contact the owners of this web site.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Nexofoto June 29, 2012 03:27 am

    Hi Darlene. Great post!. You make easy to catch these concepts.

    May I translate this post and the 6 Lighting Patterns... one to spanish in my blog with your credits and back links?

  • Darlene June 28, 2012 05:22 am

    Martina - thank you so much for that compliment! I do play to write more articles. You can also subscribe to my site too if you like! Love to have you!

  • Martina Tierney June 27, 2012 06:31 pm

    Darlene, you have a wonderful talent for explaining the technical side of photography. I hope you write more for DPS, and will be looking out for your articles. Many thanks.

  • Darlene June 26, 2012 02:52 am

    Dblayn - apparently CCting just likes adding criticism and not sharing what he/she knows with the rest of us. Perhaps there is no secret. I have no idea what it could be and I've been doing portraits for 25 years. Not to say I know everything there is to know but it would surprise me if there was a secret I've never heard about.

    lban - yes George Hurrel and Youseph Karsh (both quite deceased BTW) used strong lighting ratios to achieve their affective portraits. Karsh is considered by many the master portrait photographer of all time.

    Avedon - (also deceased unfortunately) his series "In the American Midwest" is mostly all 1:1 or very flat ratios. Take a look at this gallery - but they are still amazing right? Because it makes it about the people not the lighting or the background or any gimmicky stuff.

  • Iban June 25, 2012 08:44 pm

    Hi Darlene!
    What an interesting and complete post! I've looked up these photographers work.
    George Hurrell uses harsh lights and high ratios even for women portraits but he achives a high level of glamour.
    Richard Avedon uses a wide range of ratios, for men and women, achieving lots of effects, depending on the subject.
    Youseph Karsh uses mostly high ratios.
    I've seen how they three master the art of ligtning; their work is inspiring and a good starting point to practice.

  • Dblayn June 25, 2012 06:17 am

    Great post . . . Really hit the spot. I have to be honest, I almost always fly by the seat of my pants on business portraits I do. If the shadow side looks too dark I play around with the reflector position. (I am mainly self taught) your post is a great place to start "formalizing" the amount of light (for me anyways). Thanks again ... I.ll be looking for your next post! (now if I just had ccting's secret! Ha ha . . . )

  • Darlene June 23, 2012 01:44 am

    ccting - I agree the 8:1 looks much less on the internet, on my calibrated screen it was much darker for some reason. Not sure what secrets you know but it would be great if you shared them with the other readers.

  • Alexx June 23, 2012 12:26 am

    Nice long post. This is very helpful thanks!

  • ccting June 22, 2012 04:54 pm

    If you know the secret, you can get the exact HS ratio within 10 seconds, without cat and dog test... With the same light modifier, sometimes we don't even need to test to get exact HS ratio. The secret is for you to find out LOL..

  • ccting June 22, 2012 04:50 pm

    LOL the writer still hiding many secrets that I know.. ;D

  • ccting June 22, 2012 04:48 pm

    8:1 ratio is not really 8:1, it is near to 5:1..!!!

  • Sachin Verma June 22, 2012 03:21 pm

    Never knew anything about ratios

  • Marlene Hielema June 22, 2012 12:56 pm

    Great article Darlene. Very clear explanation (and great photos) on a sometimes confusing topic. I think the math scares people! I shall be sharing with my students.

  • Rhonda June 22, 2012 07:55 am

    This was a really awesome teaching on lighting ratios. I will study it over and over. Lighting makes all the difference in portraits. Thank you so much for breaking it down for us.

  • Juanis June 22, 2012 07:40 am

    I like this tips. I will try this technique for our outing next week. Simple trick, more value to the picture.thank...

  • GEoffrey_K June 22, 2012 07:35 am

    Thank you for the information. I am new to portrait lighting and like to read these articles about lighting.

  • Darlene June 22, 2012 07:17 am

    Erik what you are referring to is actually "quality of light" which is classified as either HARD or SOFT light. Quality of light is not the same as ratio. Ratio is the contrast from the darks to the highlights. Quality of light has to do with the size of the light source and how the light transitions into the shadows.

    Hard light is from a small light source such as a camera flash or speedlight, the sun, or a bare bulb light. It is very harsh and the light transitions into dark very quickly in almost a line so you see a line drawn between the two cleanly as in some of your images with the flash shadow. Hard light is usually unflattering for portraits and it emphasizes texture (not something most people want on their face).

    Soft light comes from using a large light source like a big studio soft box or light box, a large reflector (mine is 42") or a large window that has indirect light (no direct sun coming in). It is more flattering for portraits of most people as it does not emphasize texture. It is more diffused. The highlights or brightest areas transition slower into the darker areas.

    The difference is this - go outside and stand in the bright sun. How crisp is your shadow and your outline? Sharp and crisp right? That is hard light.

    No go out on an overcast day, if you can even find our shadow it seems softer or more muted right? Like you can't define a clear outline of it. That is soft light.

    In some of the ones where you've used flash the flash is actually overpowering the daylight and has become the main light. So the flash isn't acting as a fill light it IS the main light. It is hard light and has a harsh shadow. Your first image at the top is soft light - see the difference.

    Hmm, perhaps another article in the making...

  • Darlene June 22, 2012 07:07 am

    @Erik - actually "soft" and "hard" lighting is an entirely different concept. What this article is about is how much contrast is there from highlight to shadow. When you refer to "soft" light you are talking about another important aspect - quality of light. Quality of light is controlled by the size of the light source.

    Hard light - small light source like on camera flash or a speedlight or the sun. It produces harsh shadows and a definite line you can see between the light and dark areas. It emphasizes texture.

    Soft light is from large light sources like a large studio softbox, large window that has indirect light (no direct bright sun) or a reflector. It also has to do with distance to the subject but this is an entire other article. Soft light is diffused and more flattering for people as less texture is emphasized. The line between dark and like is soften and is more gradual. Look at the difference in my b/w portraits above and yours. See how the shadow is harsher in your images and softer, more gradual in mine? That is quality of light - not ratio.

    Also it appears that your flash is producing the shadows which means IT is the main light not the sun. Whatever is producing the most light and creating the direction of light is your main light. If you want to use flash as fill it needs to be much lower power and not produce a shadow.

    Does that make sense?

  • Mridula June 22, 2012 03:13 am

    I am so poor at portraits almost afraid. I need to go and look for more basic stuff though intuitively I appreciate the key idea. I mean looking at the pictures makes it amply clear itself.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 22, 2012 01:26 am


    I love the tips and tricks for lighting ratios...really useful and great to put into practice.

    In this series I attempted some soft lighting with low ratio of this young model in natural light, a hint of fill flash as one can see by the shadows.

  • raghavendra June 22, 2012 01:00 am

    nice tips with portraits.
    babies and small children use a lower ratio like 1:1 or 2:1 - good tips

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