Tips + Techniques

Photography Basics: How Light Placement Alters A Subject’s Face [VIDEO]

May 27, 2021

By Jacqueline Tobin

© Zach Sutton

The following is excerpted, with permission, from the article “How Light Placement Alters Your Subjects” on the Lensrentals blog. Read the entire article by author and photographer Zach Sutton at Lensrentals.

When teaching photography basics and fundamental lighting principles, I break down how to light a subject into three basic variables: intensity of light, quality of light and direction of light. The intensity of light is pretty simple in its execution—how bright or dim your light is. Quality of light refers to whether it’s soft or hard light and all of the principles within that category. The third topic—direction of light—is the principle that I’d like to talk more about here.

Different lighting for photography basics primer.
Courtesy of Lensrentals

I’m using studio photography here as my key reference as it’s a controlled environment, but these rules apply across the entire photography spectrum. I’ll also preface this by saying that there is no single right or wrong way to light a subject; using your light position in unique ways is a great way to be creative. That said, some core fundamentals are considered more natural in execution, so we’ll be touching on those as the standard.

Photography Basics: Lighting Your Subject From Above

To the human eye, lighting someone from above feels the most natural. After all, when you go outside, the sun lights you from above, and when you walk indoors, lighting is most often on the ceiling shining down. When you light someone from above, you most accurately display them as the world sees them. As such, when you light someone from below, you most frequently get an unnatural and almost sinister vibe from the subject.

[Read: How to Shoot Varied Portrait Looks on a White Backdrop]

To illustrate this, I had my lovely friend Evonique come by the studio. Using a Profoto C1+, a couple of Manfrotto Super Clamps, some scrap wood, and a lazy susan kit I picked up from a local hardware store, I was able to construct a pendulum system to illustrate how light direction changes the shape of the face and the feelings it invokes. By cutting a hole in the center of the two connected pieces of wood, I am able to use the camera lens as the rotational axis point as the light spins around the lens. Think of it as a strange rotating ring light.

With the video above, you can see how drastically Evonique’s features change based on light placement. Our eye’s perception of features is very much dependent on where the highlights and shadows most often lay on the face, so when the light rotates around and lights Evonique from below, her face appears to shape-shift and change to something far less natural. Slowing this video down, you’re able to see where the light is most flattering for her face, and you’ll start to see trends as they correlate with traditional portrait photography.

photo light placement at different angles on subject's face.
While all faces are round, each person has different angles on their face that will help correlate which light placement works best for them. There is no one-step trick to finding which light is most flattering for all people. Experiment to better understand your subject’s face so that you can light them in the most flattering ways. Short lighting faces can help slim them down, and broad lighting can help soften details on the face. © Zach Sutton

The 45-Degree Standard

One of the most common photo light placements is at 45 degrees, meaning the light is placed at a 45-degree angle from your subject. At 45 degrees, you are most closely emulating what is referred to as Rembrandt lighting, which produces a natural and generally flattering light on your subject. Changing the light’s degree angle on your subject will make highlights and shadows more prevalent depending on your placement.

Visit to read the rest of the article.

Zach Sutton is the editor and a frequent writer at He’s also an editorial and portrait photographer in Los Angeles, California, and offers educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.