How to set up light in your photograph (portrait)

Image of dog and woman

This is an article about setting up, or making use of lights and natural lights in your photograph.

Setting up your photo means getting the right angle and crop of the subject; and also, making sure that the light is right. So that you can see the subject!

It’s simple enough, and we don’t think too much about it in the modern world when we are taking many photographs, perhaps on a daily basis with our mobile-phones etc.

However, when it comes to creating a portrait (you may want to use a photograph as a reference material, for the artist), you will want to make sure that the light set-up is right.

This means typically that you can see the subject well. Or at least that you can see the parts of the subject that you want to see. This is the basic approach.

The more advanced consideration is to make sure that the photograph works well as a composition. If, for example, part of the subject is much brighter than the subject, that may attract attention away from the subject face. See for example below:

Self-portrait with selfie lens. The problem here is the bright background [major light source] puts the face in shadow. An immediate dis-advantage.

In this picture you can see that the lighting is behind the subject. This means the subjects face is essentially in the shadow. Even though we can see it clearly enough, the fact that the background is so bright, it draws attention away from the face. Also, the face is kind of dark. You can see that even the brightest parts of the face are much darker than the background (window). Our eye is naturally attracted to bright areas (the light) so to try to use a photograph like this immediately sets up a tension in the viewers experience. This is a no-no, unless it is something that you want to do (perhaps for some artistic reason? – probably not).

However, shadow can be used for dramatic effect in a photograph. See the examples below for examples.

Dramatic shot where light only hits the most important parts/chosen parts of the subject.

This is a naturally lit shot. Presumably from a window where sunshine is coming in onto the persons face. This is most likely shot with a professional camera that controls how much light comes into the camera; and for how much time. Having control over these factors allows us to pick up on the details of an image in ‘low-light’ conditions.

See also the following shot, which seems to have been professionally set-up, using a single light source in an other-wise dark room. This is admittedly not an easy one to set up, but the principle is good to keep in mind as we move forward.

Dramatic shot with side-lighting. Possibly professionally set-up with fancy lights.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Here we see an example of a single light source on a subject in an other-wise dark room. There is lots of shadow as the light only hits certain areas. This is powerful for creating dramatic effects in portraits. The previous images were probably enhanced using computer software to adjust the brightness and contrast to achieve such stark results. However the darks and lights in the original photography have to look similar to this to avoid looking too manipulated.

Self portrait with sunlit window. The sun puts one side of the face in shadow.

Here we can see a naturally lit shot. It is lit from the side, by sunlight, through a window.

The phone (camera) is mounted on a wall (with blue-tack attached to the phone case, and the phone then inserted, to avoid damaging it with pressure) and then set on a self-timer. This is a nice trick if you want to have free hands in the photograph and don’t have a photographer or friend around. Also a tri-pod or similar will work for you. You basically just want the phone/camera to be still in one [correct] position.

This is also a good place to note that the selfie lens on most cameras can actually distort the image of a face. You may have noticed this where the selfie lens makes your face appear wider than it should perhaps. The reverse lens of a phone will usually create a more accurate image. This is important, particularly if you are sending the image to an artist as an accurate reference image.

Girl with dog. Image lit from sun. Important parts of faces and bodies are well lit-up.

This final image brings together a lot of what we have talked about. The light comes from the side, yet is so bright that it illuminates a lot of the subject. We can see everything fairly clearly in terms of the dog and the womans face. This means we can get an accurate description of the subjects for a portrait representation; and also, we have good light that add’s a lot to the mood of the piece. For example here, giving good warm energy to the piece. These are also important considerations when choosing/creating reference material for a photograph.


To summarise, the portrait should be well lit to a degree where ‘the important’ aspects of the subject are well lit. This might be just the eye as we saw earlier. Or it might be the full face. Or just part of it. You decide what is needed to communicate your angle on the portrait.

The light source can be natural or man-made (or a combination of both; though care should be used in mixing them to ensure that colours are not too much affected). Whatever kind of light source you are using will create a shadow. The shadow’s should be looked for when composing your shot to ensure that you have a ‘balanced’ image.

You should also ensure that the light is on the areas that you want to ‘highlight’. That is to say, if the brighter part of your image is not the area that you are necessarily looking to speak about—you may want to re-consider the composition, or the angle of the light (perhaps facing the sun, for instance, if it’s a naturally lit shot). You generally want the most important part of your picture to be in the light, or the brightest part of your image.

There are of course ways around every scenario, but these are rules of thumb that should help to keep you on the right track when creating your portrait.

If you are having difficulty with this- reach out and let us know your problem. We will try our best to help you.

Author: admin

Andrew Brett is a successful Artist working in the Republic of Ireland. You can find more about his work at

One thought on “How to set up light in your photograph (portrait)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *