This is the Key to a Great Portrait

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I know what you’re thinking…

“There’s more than one key to a great portrait.”

Yes, that’s true, but if you ask me, there’s one thing that’s more important than all the other factors – good light.

Of course, what constitutes “good light” is actually a collection of various factors.

With that in mind, let’s review two crucial elements of good lighting – light quality and direction – so you can be better prepared to use it to create amazing portraits.

Light Quality

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Our eyes do a spectacular job of adjusting to different qualities of light, but our cameras do not.

For example, if you’re outside and the sun is shining overhead, and then you go inside where there’s little ambient lighting, your eyes will adjust relatively quickly such that you can see.

What’s more, your eyes will adjust to the temperature of the light – that is, the direct, natural light outside will be somewhat cool with a blue tone to it (as seen above) and the indoor lighting will likely be somewhat warm with a yellow tone to it.

The problem with our cameras is that they don’t make those adjustments to different qualities and temperatures of lighting like our eyes do, so you have to keep those factors in mind when taking portraits.

Direct Light Outdoors

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If you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, your model will have harsh shadows on their face.

In the image above, note how there’s strong shadowing under the man’s chin and nose, as well as on the side of his face.

To correct this issue, either find shade under a tree or have the model tilt their face toward the sun to eliminate dark shadows.

The problem with the latter solution is that the model will be looking at the sun, which will make them squint. However, in a pinch, it’s a better result than having dark shadows.

Golden Hour Light Outdoors

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If you’re shooting outdoors before sunset (during Golden Hour) and the sun is behind your subject, you’ll have softer, warmer light that falls gently on your model and creates a nice glow behind them as well.

As you can see above, there’s a softness to the light that gives the image a beautiful look and feel.

This type of lighting is often preferred for portraits because of those soft, golden qualities.

Direct Light Indoors

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If you’re shooting indoors with artificial light that shines directly onto the model’s face, the light will be flat and will highlight any imperfections in the model’s skin.

The other problem is that the model will tend to look a little washed out, as seen above.

The solution to this issue is to use a diffuser of some sort.

Hang a white sheet in front of the light if you’re using a continuous light source. Bounce light from your flash upward to fill the room more evenly with light. Use multiple light sources to create a brighter, more spread out lighting setup.

Whatever solution you choose, the results will be much more pleasing than if the light falls on the model without any sort of diffusion.

Flat Light Indoors

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A different option for indoor portraits is to capitalize on flat lighting from a window.

By placing the window at your back and having the model face you, you can use direct light to light the subject’s face, but because the light will be much softer and more diffuse than direct artificial lighting without a diffuser, you’ll get a nice, soft looking image.

This type of flat lighting is quite pleasing because it’s so even and doesn’t produce much – if any – shadowing, as seen in the image above.

For this technique to work, though, you need to be sure there’s something to diffuse the light – a sheer curtain or even a sheet hung across the window will do the trick.

Get more details about lighting, diffusing light, and other factors in the video above by Tony and Chelsea Northrup.

Learn More:

  • Enroll in the Portrait Photography Master Course
  • Easy Portrait Lighting Tips for Beginner Photographers
  • The Secrets for Better Natural Light Portraits

Direction of Light

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Another aspect of lighting that needs to be taken into consideration is the direction from which it enters the scene.

Depending on its direction, the lighting will create completely different looks, ranging from harsh and shadowy to flat with little contrast.

So, one of your first tasks is to examine the direction of the lighting so you can determine where to place your subject in relation to the light source.


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Frontlighting occurs when the light source is in front of the model.

When the light is on the same plane as the model’s face, there’s little shadowing, and the details of their face are highlighted.

Frontlighting can also result in a washed out look if the light is strong enough.

However, there are times – like Golden Hour – when frontlighting is quite pleasing, as seen above.

That’s because in the evening when the light is soft, it casts a warm glow on the model’s face (and they typically don’t have to squint, either).


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Backlighting occurs when the light source is behind the model.

That means that from your shooting position, light is able to directly enter the barrel of your lens.

Shooting towards the light source causes the background near the light to be very bright, perhaps even overexposed.

This is advantageous in situations in which there is an unsightly background.

Conversely, other areas of the scene are quite dark, usually including the model.

The silhouette that’s created by backlighting can be quite beautiful, however, as it accentuates the model’s shape or curves.

If you want a simple portrait that focuses on shape rather than small details, backlighting might be the answer.


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Perhaps the best of the three lighting directions is sidelighting.

That’s because this kind of light creates shadows that help give the model some dimensionality.

What’s more, the image will have more defined tones and textures because of the highlighted (and, on the other hand, shadowed) elements in the shot.

Sidelighting is also advantageous because it’s the best of both frontlighting and backlighting.

On the one hand, the highlighted areas will display small details that give the portrait some depth, but on the other hand, there’s a nice contrast with the shadowed areas that aren’t as harsh as is found in a backlit situation.

Learn More:

  • A Guide to the Perfect Portrait
  • How to Take Better Portraits in Five Steps
  • 9 Can’t-Miss Portrait Photography Tips That Will Help You Create Better Portraits Today

Final Thoughts

As I noted in the introduction, there are plenty of other factors that play into the creation of a high-quality portrait.

The model’s wardrobe, the focal length of your lens, and the post-processing techniques you use will all have an impact on how your portraits look.

However, everything begins and ends with light, and as we’ve seen above, two of the most important things to look for are the quality and direction of light.

If you can learn to work with these lighting factors, you’ll find that you’re better equipped to create better portraits.

See frontlighting and backlighting in action in the video above from eHow.

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