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How to do Accent Lighting for Portraits

accent lighting

Tthanks to the wonderful Bridgette for her work as the make-up artist in this image

Studio lighting continues to mystify and bewilder many developing photographers. The intimidation of lighting ratios, modifiers, set-ups, etc… often seems as complex as deriving the quadratic equation or suffering through an explanation of Michaelis-Menten enzyme kinetics. Oh yes, for those of you biochemically privy folk, I did just go there! Well, one does not have to get lost amidst the photonic chaos if they understand how to interpret and understand the meaning of light.

Wow! Meaning of light? Sounds kind of deep and metaphysical doesn’t it? Please don’t worry! The only thing you need to remember about light is that it illuminates and creates shadows. Fairly simple, huh? We all know that when we shine a light onto something it allows us to visualize whatever is illuminated by the light. That is simple enough, right? Now, consider that behind every good light is a shadow waiting to give shape, form and dimension to your subject. This intricate interplay between what you illuminate and what you keep in shadow is what brings visual interest and creative acuity to your images. In studio lighting, this is your raw material with which you have to work and create.

There are many articles and books that describe studio lighting and as the student you may tend to focus on that main key light with simple one or two light set-ups, so we can dip our toe into the pool, so to speak, and see if the temperature is warm enough for us to dive in. A main or key light is simply the light source that is providing the primary illumination for our subject. Now, don’t get me wrong, one can create some amazingly, captivating portraits with a single light, but what if you want to add a little something extra? A little hint of spice to get some unique seasoning and flavor?

This is where accent lighting comes out to shine.

What is an accent light?


Accent lighting is typically a very controlled light source that highlights specific areas of the subject. It can be a hair light that gives you some separation from a background, or a side light that illuminates the drops of sweat on an athlete after an intense workout. It gives some shape or form to elements of the photo allowing your eyes to experience the different dimensions of the image. Now, there are two important things you want to remember about accent lighting:

  1. The source should be very controlled and only hit the areas you desire
  2. It should be brighter then your main light to create a proper highlight

Easy ways to control accent lights are with modifiers such as barn doors, spot grids or small strip soft boxes. Basically, anything that will narrow and direct the beam of light coming form the light source. Heck, it could be a flashlight beam, the sun shining on the back of a subject’s head, or even the bright screen of a tablet or computer in the right conditions (yes, the eye fatigue from staring at the LCD screen is setting in). Add some colored gels to the accent lights to really make your images pop or bring some warmth into the mix.

Personally, I love adding side accent lighting to my portraits by firing my strobes into narrow V-flats (two large pieces of foam core taped together to form a v-shape) directed at the subject on either side to highlight the cheekbones and neck and really sculpt out those beautiful forms in light and shadow. The possibilities with accent lighting are truly endless, and the luminous results are absolutely stunning.


For more on portraits and lighting check out these articles:

Update: Accent Lighting for Portraits: Diagram

As shared by Alex (the author) in comments. Here’s a lighting diagram and the comments Alex left.


All three images were shot with essentially the same setup against a gray seamless paper backdrop. The only major difference is the photo with the white background had two shoot through umbrellas directed across the background (one form each side) to illuminate it enough to go white.

I use a clam shell or butterfly lighting setup with two soft boxes as seen in the included image. Usually, I have my upper soft box metered to f/8 and the lower to f/5.6, but as long as they are 1-stop apart you really could shoot at any f/stop. The sidelights are fired into V-flats made of foam core that are narrowed as much as possible to only throw a sliver of light from each side of the subject. I will be honest that I do not always meter these lights and usually adjust them so that there are no blown out highlights when viewed on my LCD.

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Alex Smith
Alex Smith

is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog Shutterhogs.com that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at alexsmith88.500px.com.

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