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What Is Good Light? (And How to Use It for Beautiful Portraits)

Two of the most commonly used and misunderstood phrases thrown around by photographers today are, “It’s all about the light” and “Look at that beautiful light.”

But what does this actually mean? What is good light? And how can you use it to make beautiful portraits?

When I was starting out, I kept hearing photographers preach about the importance of light – yet they would never clearly explain what good light actually is and how you can use it to flatter and minimize a subject’s flaws.

So here are a few tips, designed to help you understand light and understand how you can use the light to create better portraits.

Let’s get started.

what is good light in photography?

Direction of light

Before you pick up your camera, stop and look around the scene. Ask yourself: What direction is the light coming from?

Light direction may seem like a basic concept, but it’s absolutely essential to good photography; by determining the direction of the light, you’ll know how to position your subject.

In fact, once you understand the importance of the direction of light, half the battle will have been won.

direction of light portraits

For example, when you first walk into a room for an indoor portrait or bridal session, the most obvious light source will likely be from a window. And with window light, there are three common lighting scenarios you can create by simply changing your camera and subject position relative to the light:

Flat lighting

In this scenario, the window is behind you (you have your back to the window), so soft light is falling onto your subject.

The lighting is likely even and flat with no shadows (provided, of course, that there is no direct sunlight coming through the window).

flat lighting - good light portraits
Here, the light was behind the camera, providing a nice, even light across the groom’s face.

Backlighting

Backlighting involves shooting into the light (i.e., your camera faces the window).

Backlighting causes a loss of contrast, and the background will most likely be overexposed. But you may choose to shoot this way because obliterating background details can get rid of distractions (such as a building or a car that detracts from the scene).

Anyway, backlighting works well if you want a dramatic look or if you’re shooting a silhouette. But for a standard portrait, it’s usually not the most flattering light.

back lighting silhouette - good light portraits
Here, I chose to purposely backlight the bridal party. To try and retain some contrast, I simply turned the blinds slightly so the light wasn’t coming directly through the window as much.

Split or side lighting

Here’s a beautiful type of portrait lighting:

Side lighting.

Simply position your subject next to the window so that the light hits their face at a 90-degree angle. Side light can be a good way to create some shape, tone, and texture; because it scrapes across your subject from the side, it defines highlight and shadow detail in the face and body.

Side light is also a great way of hiding or highlighting certain features. For example, if your model has blemishes on one side of her face, you can position that side of the face in shadow.

side lighting - good light portraits
Here, the light was coming from the left, which made the bride the brightest part of the image.

Light with intention

To highlight your subject’s face, simply turn their body away from the light source and turn their face back toward the camera.

Also, if you can find a location where the background tone is darker than the subject, it will help the model stand out.

This could mean choosing a location in your house that has darker walls (i.e., not a white or cream).

good light photography
Here, the light was coming from the window to the right of the bride. I asked the bride to turn her body away from the light and then bring her face back toward the window. It’s how I achieved the shadow detail on the left side of her face and body.

Quality of light

Lighting direction is a big deal – but the quality of the light matters, too.

Sunlight, window light, reflected light, diffused light, and backlight all offer a different quality. Direct light sources tend to be harsher and will emphasize skin imperfections. And direct midday sunlight can create hard shadows in the eye sockets, which can look like dark bags.

If you have to shoot during midday, remember that the light is coming from directly above. So get the models to tilt their heads up toward the sunlight; that way, the entire face is lit and the sockets are bag-free!

Before shooting, consider the quality of the light. Is it harsh? If so, you may want to introduce some sort of diffuser (such as a scrim) or get into the shade.

quality of light - portraits
I was shooting indoors, but the light coming through the window was too harsh. So I asked my assistant to hold up a scrim, which created a beautiful, even, soft light.

Sometimes, natural reflectors can be found on location. White walls and big white trucks, when hit by the sun, become diffused light sources – and are much softer than a direct light source like the sun.

diffuse light portrait
This image was taken outdoors using a translucent reflector. I asked my assistant to hold the reflector between the subjects and myself. This created beautiful, soft, non-directional diffused light on the subjects’ faces and filled in all shadows. The natural sunlight behind them added a nice highlight to her hair. You can even see the reflection of the reflector (as catchlights!) in their eyes.

Good light: conclusion

Now you know all about good light and how you can use it for beautiful portraits.

So with these tips in mind, go out and take some photos. Pay careful attention to the quality of the light, as well as the direction.

Pretty soon, you’ll be a lighting expert!

Now over to you:

What type of light do you like the most? Do you have a favorite lighting quality and direction? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

good light photography

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Andrew Szopory
Andrew Szopory

is a 3rd generation Sydney wedding photographer with over 20 years experience behind the camera who has been formally trained at the Sydney Institute of Technology. His work can be seen at on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

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