Digital Portrait Lighting

Retaining the Right Detail While Capturing the Right Mood

By Bobbi Lane Back to


Almost five years ago, I wrote an article with the same title as this one; it was about making the transition from film to digital. It’s a whole new world since then due to the great advances in the quality of both digital sensors and image-processing software. However, I maintain the same stance—that you can use any kind or style of lighting with digital images and still retain detail and information from highlights to shadows. To do this, it’s necessary to understand the parameters and limitations of your camera’s sensor, and to use good technique in your metering and exposure. In contrasty lighting situations, knowing how far you can stretch the light (and using good software such as Photoshop or Lightroom) can get you fantastic results.


A good exposure makes all the difference in creating a full-tonality image that retains details in the highlights and captures noise-free shadows. I still use my incident strobe meter, currently the Sekonic L-358 (which can trigger Pocket Wizards) when I work in the studio or with available light. It’s absolutely necessary working with strobes, especially with multiple-light setups. Yes, you can set up the lights, shoot, look at the histogram, adjust, and shoot again. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of trial and error, and you still may not know if you are getting the amount of light necessary and in the right place.

Or there’s the dreaded “I’ll fix it in Photoshop” approach. I don’t believe in that, and here’s why: Do you want to spend more time at the computer than shooting? I thought not— photographers are creators. So use your meter to measure the light and place the light ratios close to where you want them in the first place. I use the meter with natural light as well, especially when the amount of light varies a bit throughout the frame. But the truth of your exposure is revealed in your histogram.

Come clean: How many of you use your histograms to judge your exposure? It’s okay, most people use the monitor on the back of the camera, so you are forgiven. But you are about to take the pledge, so raise your right hand and repeat after me: “From this day forward I will use my histogram to judge my exposure for every scene I photograph!”

A camera’s LCD monitor is a lovely courtesy to help you get a general idea of what an image looks like, but it is not a true representation of image information. There are so many variables that if you compared five different cameras, all shooting the same scene at the same exposure, you would get five different results on the monitor.

I’ll explain how to read the histogram to know when it’s a correct exposure. You may have heard that a “good” histogram is one that has a wave of information from the left side (which is black) to the right side (which is white). That’s true only if the scene you are photographing has a full range of tonalities. If you are shooting high key (white background), then there will be a black line against the right side and extending all the way to the top. That means you have lost detail in the highlights. But in that situation, we want to lose detail in the highlights. (I suggest setting your camera’s highlight warning flasher so you know exactly where highlight details are being lost.) Conversely, if the image is low key, with a black or dark-gray background and darker tonalities, the histogram is pushed to the left. If there is a black bar on the left side that extends to the top, shadow details have been lost. Again, that’s okay if it’s what your intentions are.

Three very important points: The first is that a camera’s histogram is based upon a JPEG, so if you are shooting Raw, you actually have more information than is indicated in the histogram. That is an important reason why you should always shoot in Raw. Second, and this is really important: in a digital file, 50% of the information is contained in the top 25% of the histogram. This means that it’s best to give as much exposure to your image as possible without blowing out the highlights. (Unless it’s okay to blow out the highlights, as with the white background.) If the file is underexposed, when you lighten it later with image-processing software, noise is created in the shadows because there is little or no information there. It is better to take a light area and darken it than try to lighten a dark area. The third item is to learn to use the Info palette on the top right panel of Photoshop. When you put your mouse over an area, the Info palette numerically displays exactly how much information is in that area in the Red, Green, and Blue channels, with 0 being black, 256 being white, and 128 being middle gray. Know your printing parameters. If the number is less than 12–15, the area will print as black; if it’s more than 240–246, it will print as white.

Figure 2. Melissa, a high-key image lit more strongly on camera right.

Lighting techniques

I’ve chosen some challenging subjects for the images accompanying this article in order to show the ability of a digital sensor to capture depth and detail. There are several images of African-American men shot low key, some pale Caucasian women in high key, and a few in between. Most of the images were shot in Raw, some are JPEG, but all were carefully exposed and then processed in Photoshop to ensure detail where I want. Let’s start with high key.

High key

A high-key background can be lit in many ways, and every photographer has a favorite. The background lights must be equal in power, provide broad coverage, and be one stop hotter (stronger) than the main light in order for the white paper to render white. For example if the main light reading is ƒ/8, the background reading should be ƒ/11. If this seems backwards, remember that you always set the camera for the main light reading. (If you took an incident light reading of a scene and it read ƒ/11, then you mistakenly set the camera at ƒ/8, the scene would be overexposed by one stop.)

Figure 3. Lindsay, with a bounce fill on camera left.

For a headshot or three-quarters shot, I use two white umbrellas positioned a bit wider than 45° to the background, with the umbrellas f lat to the background (so the center pole is parallel to the floor). I set them to equal distance and equal power. This provides wide coverage. Make sure your subject is far enough away from the background and in front of the umbrellas so the light doesn’t spill over onto their face or body (although sometimes that spill is nice, providing a soft edge-light).

In the shot of Rachel in Figure 1, she is close to the background so light is bouncing back onto the left side of her face, giving her a soft slash-light.

The main light is a Sunlight Reflector (by Bowens for Calumet). It’s a large parabolic dish with the light pointed straight out (no baffle bounce, as in a beauty dish) and with a diffuser covering. This is a medium-contrast light, resembling hazy sunlight.

A light with this much contrast makes the highlights brighter, and shiny spots on the skin can lose detail, especially with pale skin. This is easily corrected by blotting the face with either blotting paper or translucent powder, both available at the makeup counter of most drug stores.

Figure 4. Rick, in Rembrandt light created by a strip box.

Melissa, in red on the white background (Figure 2), is lit by two strobe heads bouncing into a “V” (made from two sheets of 4×8-foot white foamcore board taped together) coming from camera right. On camera left is another “V” with one strobe head, set to be one stop less bright than the main light, so the shadows are filled in and soft. This lighting creates beautiful skin tones, necessary with Melissa’s pale white skin, and provides an even exposure covering her full length. The background is lit by bouncing two strobe heads, with just the bare bulb in a standard reflector, placed on either side of the background near where the sweep hits the floor, pointed straight up at a white ceiling. They are about three feet from the ceiling, so the heads illuminate a large area that bounces back down, covering the sweep of the background paper all the way up to her back. This eliminates the shadow from the main light. The subject must be far enough away from the background lights that the bounce doesn’t spill onto her. This is my favorite way to light a full-length portrait.

Figure 5. Alpha illuminated by two strips on either side.

The headshot of Lindsay (Figure 3) is also reflected from two sheets of foamcore board in a “V,” with two heads bouncing into them coming from camera right. On camera left is another “V” of foamcore acting as a bounce f ill. There are no lights in the camera-left boards, so it’s a subtle and soft f ill. Using the bounce as a main light makes smooth and very flattering skin tones and is great for softening any wrinkles or defects in the skin, because the light source is so large. Look at the catch light in her eyes and you can see how big the light source is.

Low key

Low key means that all the tones are dark—usually below middle gray, except for Caucasian skin—and the shadows are darker, so the mood is more dramatic and evocative. The light source can be more contrasty and the direction can be more from the side. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and the light source can be soft and smooth, as long as the shadows and overall tonality are darker.

Strip lights

Figure 6. Douglas with a Fresnel as the main light, and two grid lights.

Let’s look at two examples of strip lights on African-American men with dark skin. The mood for both is dramatic, but the placement of the lights is crucial to defining the feeling of the image. Both of these images have medium and small strip boxes set to the same power, but very different feelings. The quality of the light is soft, but very directional because of the quick fall-off from the box.

The profile of Rick (Figure 4) is almost spiritual, with his face turned into the larger strip box to make a short Rembrandt light. The Rembrandt is a light that creates a feeling of dignity and honor. His pose is very centered with his arms crossing his heart. The second smaller strip is behind him, showing off the form of his body and providing separation from the background. Both lights are placed to really show off the depth and dimension of his body. The black-and-white portrait of Alpha (Figure 5) is done with two strips on either side of him, but in this case he is looking directly at the camera. The two lights make a double slash, again outlining his body to show his form, but the light on his face is very intense and spooky. The center of his face is dark and the catch lights are small and off to the side, adding to this feeling. In both of these images there are areas that go black (the shadowed center of Rick’s skin, and Alpha’s hair in the middle), but it doesn’t matter. The impact of these images doesn’t depend upon detail in shadow; in fact it would distract.


Figure 7. Melissa illuminated with a Fresnel light.

The Fresnel is a focusing spot light that has a round and ridged piece of glass, also called a lens, in front of the bulb; it’s similar to lighthouse lights. Fresnels have more contrast than most other light attachments, but are considerably softer than a straight grid. A slider moves the bulb closer or further from the lens, so as the light widens it gets softer, and when it’s tighter it gets harder. Mole- Richardson makes the hot lights, and the great portrait photographer George Hurrell, among others, used these lights exclusively to sculpt the faces of his subjects. Several manufacturers make attachments for strobe lights. I use Calumet Elite strobes and Travelites, and they make a medium- sized and very useful Fresnel.

The shot of Douglas (Figure 6) has the Fresnel as the main light in the Rembrandt position, a 20° grid as a slash, set one stop hotter, and a wide 40° grid on the background at one stop less than the main light. Douglas is wearing a black leather jacket, which requires a harder light to get highlights and dimension, otherwise it would just fade away. There is plenty of detail in the skin, so it’s not blown out, but the slash light is beginning to lose detail. It’s a choice, and I decided the slash was for effect and I didn’t need a lot of detail in it. No, it’s for effect. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to put detail into an area that doesn’t really require it.

Figure 8. Mizhan and Paul lit with an Octobox.

The photo of Melissa (Figure 7) is an ode to Hurrell. He would always use a butterfly light pattern, put the hair light directly on top, and add one or more background lights, depending upon the exact tones he wanted. Melissa’s skin tones are very bright from the hard light on her pale skin. A lot of beauty lighting is done this way, so there is still tonality in the skin, but not much detail. The hair light is set to be the same as the main light because she has dark hair, and there is a 40° grid on the background, also set to the same f-stop. It’s positioned low so there is a glow behind her and it falls off as it goes up.

Big soft light—Octobox

The next couple of images maintain a low-key feeling, but are lit with much softer light sources. The couple-shot of Mizahn and Paul (Figure 8) is lit with one light, an Octobox, made by Elinchrome. It’s a giant umbrella, about six feet in diameter. The light head mounts inside and bounces back into the umbrella, while the entire front of the umbrella is covered in diffusion material. This makes a very large, soft, and even light source that’s very flattering and provides wide coverage. Because of the umbrella-like qualities, the coverage is huge, carries to the background, and can easily do a full-length portrait. With the box-like diffusion, you get gorgeous skin tones, smooth, rich, and glowing. There is no fill on this image, so the shadows fall slowly into dark, adding to the drama of low key.

The Mola

Figure 9. Melissa turned into a Mola Setti.

Without a doubt my all-time favorite lighting attachment, the Mola is a beauty dish with unique characteristics. Beauty dishes are parabolic reflectors; the head mounts from behind, pointing forward, with a baff le located directly in front of the bulb so the light bounces back into the ref lector. Many manufacturers make them; they can have white or silver interiors and come in a variety of sizes. They are proprietary to the manufacturer, so a Profoto beauty dish only f its a Profoto light. The Mola can be attached to any strobe system with the proper speed-ring- like attachment. What makes the Mola unique is that the baffle is color-corrected translucent glass, so the same amount of light comes through the glass as is bounced back, creating more even coverage with no dead spot in the middle. Combine that with the pearlescent paint of the interior and the rippled shape of the parabola, and you have gorgeous light with creamy skin tones. Every time I use it I sigh with the beauty of this light quality.

Figure 10. Melissa lit with a Mola Setti.

These two images of Melissa are both taken with just one light, the Mola Setti (the Mola comes in four different sizes). The headshot with Melissa turned into the light (Figure 9) looks like a Vermeer painting. The more modern shot with Melissa in the black dress (Figure 10), displays the great skin tones and beautiful coverage, showing off the curves of her body, and still throws a bit of light onto the background. No fill on either of these images.

Ring flash

The tight portrait of Everard (Figure 11) has an edgy feeling because the main light is a ring flash, with the slash light on his right side. A ring f lash circles the lens, and provides a hard light (although diffuser attachments are available).

Figure 11. Everard lit with a ring flash and a slash light.

Ring flashes shine straight onto the subject, so there are no shadows, and you see the light in the dead center of the pupil. The slash light here is a 20° grid set 11⁄2 stops hotter than the main light so that it blows out the highlights. The stark edge-light adds to the out-of-the-ordinary feeling— not natural, but effective. It may not be a happy light, but it’s strong and powerful, showing the tougher side of the man.

Natural light

The last shot is natural light, with a huge range from a bit of direct sun to deep shadow (Figure 12, page 34). Lindsay is posed in a window with just an edge of direct sun on her right cheek. Most of the light on her face is bounced off the stucco building, so it’s a smoother and warmer light.

Figure 12. Lindsay in natural light.

There is no fill card on her left side, and the inside of the room is large and dark, so the shadows go to black. The highlight on her cheek is just on the edge of losing all detail, reading about 250 in the Info palette, and her hat and hair are losing detail at the shadow end, reading about 9. Does it matter? No, not every photo needs to have detail in the extremes. In this image, the transition from white to black works well.

Lighting is all about defining the mood and form of your subject. A digital sensor has the ability to capture a wide latitude of light as long as you carefully expose to guarantee information in the file. Lighting for detail in the highlights and shadows means nothing unless it f its with the concept of the photo—so be clear about the effect you want to create.

About the Author

Bobbi Lane
Bobbi Lane is an award-winning commercial photographer specializing in creative portraits on location and in the studio. Lane's multi-faceted approach to photography incorporates over 30 years of technical experience with innovative artistic interpretation. Lane shoots primarily people on location for editorial, corporate, and advertising accounts as well as photographing "real people" and travel for stock. Her stock photography has sold worldwide for ads, posters, and billboards. Bobbi teaches workshops for the Santa Fe Workshops, the Maine Workshops, and the International Center of Photography in New York City. Bobbi is author of the book, Creative Techniques for Color Photography, published by Amherst Media. Her latest book, co-authored with fashion photographer Lou Lesko, is “Advertising Photography; A Straightforward Guide to a Complex Industry. She developed the content and filmed two instructional DVDs,Portrait Lighting Techniques and Portraits Unplugged, which are available through Calumet Photographic.