Tips + Techniques

Creative Lighting Techniques for Portrait Photographers

August 27, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

© Jeff Brown

Photographer Jeff Brown was working with a tight space—his own kitchen—when he photographed his niece, but he made it work thanks to his refined approach to big, bright flash.

Updated 9/29/2022.

The following creative lighting techniques are for portrait photographers who have the basics down and want to experiment with new, unexpected ways of lighting portraits. Whether you want to wow a client or just try a fresh technique for your personal work, you’ll find all the techniques you need to tick your lighting up a few notches.

If you’re hungry for more creative lighting techniques and insight, read up on next-level lighting tips for wedding and engagement photographers, honing your portrait lighting basics, delving into artistic and cinematic lighting setups, perfecting how to photograph with only natural light (and, when you don’t have it, how to imitate natural light no matter where you are), and mastering your lighting tools.

creative lighting techniques from Jared Platt.
© Jared Platt

Foolproof Creative Lighting Techniques in Three Simple Steps

From the very beginning of the art form, portrait photographers have been utilizing create lighting techniques for better portraits, mainly by harnessing and shaping light. From trays of explosive gunpowder to powerful mirrors to north light windows, techniques and tools have been the pursuit of every portrait photographer throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Fortunately, we are living in an age with powerful and versatile lights and ultra sensitive camera sensors (our ancestors would call that film). But all the camera and lighting gear won’t do you any good without the techniques to back them up. That’s where lighting guru Jared Platt’s foolproof portrait lighting steps come in. Read more HERE.

artistic and creative lighting techniques from Chris Knight.
© Chris Knight

Artistic and Cinematic Lighting Setups for Portrait Photographers

We asked several portrait photographers who are known for a more artistic and cinematic lighting style to give us behind-the-scenes looks at how they manage to make their photos look so darn artistic and cinematic. They each broke down three photos, with diagrams, to show us what they did and tell us how they got there with their lighting equipment.

A creative portrait of a dancer from Seth Miranda.
© Seth Miranda

10 Ways to Create Stylized Light

Creative portrait photographer Seth Miranda defines the possibilities of playing with light to yield unique, salable imagery. These tips are for the portrait photographer who has a solid handle on a suite of lighting gear but who still wants to expand their repertoire of creative techniques for implementing that gear. Miranda explains some signature moves—from the “drag, pop and blur” to rear synch, multi-pop, sculpting, and everything in between. We bet there’s at least a couple of lighting tactics in here that you haven’t tried before. Click HERE for the full article.

A portrait Subject by Kyle Dorosz.
© Kyle Dorosz

3 Ways to Use Light for a Portrait Subject in Motion

It’s one thing to practice your lighting skills by directing subjects to sit still, but it’s quite another when you’re keeping up with their movements. Kyle Dorosz is an editorial and commercial photographer who chose three different scenarios where motion directed his shots, and lighting amplified the frame. For instance, in the portrait of Anthony McCall (above), a New York-based artist known for his “solid light” installations that he began in the 1970s, Dorosz gave him a flashlight to paint the scene with a beam of light, carefully incorporating a reflector and a beauty dish to complete the picture. Dorosz breaks down that setup and others HERE.

Creative portrait lighting
© Clay Cook

3 Methods to Remixing the Usual Portrait Lighting Setup

Lighting not only emphasizes the figure and features of your subject, but it can also enhance the overall concept and idea behind your shoot. Clay Cook, an editorial and advertising photographer based in Louisville, Kentucky, showed us three different shoots with very specific concept briefs, and then he explained how his lighting setups—one hard specular light, a reverse-engineered umbrella, and two strobes with a diffuser—brought everything up a notch and wowed his clients.

Pictured is one of his examples, a portrait of the dancer and choreographer Albert Blaise Cattafi, who flew in from New York to shoot for his publicity campaign. “We built a set of stacked chairs to symbolize a man at the top of his game—one, unfortunately, that could tumble down at any moment,” Cook says.
Read more HERE.

subject on top of mountain.
© Jay Watson

Creative Lighting Techniques: 3 Ways to Make Your Subjects Look Larger Than Life

Sports photography benefits immensely from lighting when you can freeze action (or emphasize motion by dragging it), but you can also use lighting to make quieter portraits of athletes. Photographer Jay Watson showed us how he uses lighting to make them look more heroic in outdoor, indoor and studio settings.

For this shot, featuring rock climber Jacob Forrer after his bouldering session at The Buttermilks in Bishop, California, Watson recalled a lighting method he learned back in high school that essentially mimics Rembrandt lighting. It’s a setup called the “45º/45º,” which places the light at a 45-degree angle between the camera and subject, aimed down 45 degrees from a height above the subject’s head. Watson used a mid-large Octabox, a tool he finds to be one of the most versatile out there—”big enough for shooting a single person full length and stunning when brought in close for a waist-up portrait,” he says. Read more HERE.

Up-Close portraits by Angela Marklew.
© Angela Marklew

3 Up-Close Portrait Studies with Studio Lighting

How can light interact with a subject’s face in compelling and striking ways? Fashion and beauty photographer Angela Marklew explored that question in these close-up portraits, each with a different conceptual vision—one imitating sunlight (left), one incorporating complementary gels (middle), and one intended to emphasize the model’s hair with a bright background. The key to these portraits is understanding how light bounces around the frame and using the right tools to direct it where you want, given the smaller space you might have. Read more HERE.

Bright Flash portrait as creative lighting technique.
© Jeff Brown

Using Bright Flash in Three Different Portrait Scenarios

Anyone who is familiar with his work knows that editorial photographer Jeff Brown is a bright light kind of guy. A lot of his fascinating photos evoke something somewhat unsettling, a very unique quality that has quite a few big-time clients hiring him to illustrate their stories in evocative ways. We thought he’d be a great person to explain how he uses his bright lights, and thankfully, he broke down three different setups for us: one of his niece in his kitchen, one of Mitch McConnell in a deli, and another (pictured) of a model acting out a tragically fated character in an opera. Read more HERE.

Glittery portraits by Daryna Barykina.
© Daryna Barykina

How to Light and Photograph Glittery Portraits

Beauty photographer Daryna Barykina approached us with this story concept around New Year’s, and we loved it for how fun it was. Glitter portraits as a hyper-niche in beauty stem from Barykina’s artistic and creative freedom that she says she is often granted by clients. Here, Barykina breaks down all of her creative lighting techniques that make the most of the sparkle—from a soft shimmer to dramatic glitter trails. Read more HERE.