Back To Basics – Lighting Tutorial

November 3, 2007

in Lighting, Photography Tutorials

Written by: Brad Barton from TX Headshots

Brandon Carter

As someone who makes their living doing primarily headshots, I instantly fell in love with the I Heart Faces website. After some discussion with Angie, she talked me into writing some quick tutorials on how to use lighting with your subjects. I’m going to start with some basic concepts and will later cover some more advanced concepts including off camera flash and studio lighting… but first, some beginning points. (If you haven’t already got an understanding of exposure and operating your camera, you can also read the camera tutorials at this site. I’ve looked through them and they are great.)

Photography is nothing without light. The word Photograph literally means “Light Drawing.” But as anyone who has ever tried to snap shots of their kid playing in the park at high noon knows, just any old light doesn’t always work out so well. Too much sunlight creates ugly shadows and tends to make your subjects squint.

This first image of Grand Prairie Air Hogs‘ short stop Brandon Carter was shot late in the day while he was standing in the full shade of the stadium in the batter’s box. Exposing for his face meant the sky behind him was going to be so overexposed that it turned completely white in the photo. You can see the reflection of the stadium in his batting helmet.

TwigThe most basic solution to the “high sun” problem is to find what we call “open shade.” This term means shade that is covered from overhead and usually at least one side. A very good example of this are shade trees or pavilions like you find at your local parks. By placing your subject under these kinds of shade, you create “directional light” on your subject. This allows you some control over the direction of the light (and also cuts down the squinting).

You must be careful with using trees for this since trees don’t always cut out all of the light from above and create hot spots where the full sun peeks between leaves. This creates ugly bright spots that are usually over exposed (blown out) on your subject. This image of Twig Thistlebottom at Scarborough Renaissance Festival was done under a heavy tree canopy. She is facing out of the shade where the full sun was lighting the faire behind me. This is the source of the brightness in her eyes, they are lit by the afternoon sky and bright field in front of her. This is why open shade is so important.

A similar method of creating light in the subject’s eyes were used in the shots below, except that they were done when the sun was much lower in the sky and the shade was created by their houses. In these cases, overhead was open to the sky. The light in their eyes was created by reflecting the light in the sky above the houses. For the first shot, my son, Alex, has his head turned upward to catch the twilight sky in his naturally extremely dark eyes. In the second shot, this high school senior (also named Alex, as luck would have it) has her face turned in such a way that her eyes are catching the light between hers and her neighbor’s house.



The eyes are (usually) the most important thing in a portrait – especially a headshot – and bright eyes show energy and life. By paying attention to those details, your images will have more spark and more life. In the next article, I will talk more about lighting and lighting for the eyes, including talk about reflectors and catch lights.

BradBrad is a mostly self taught photographer based in Dallas/Fort Worth. He has had a camera in his hands as long as he can remember and got his professional start doing freelance work in college. Graduating with a degree in Math, his professional photography career was put on hold for a while, but ultimately he came back to his first love. Over the last 5 years, he has worked at establishing himself as one of the premier headshot photographers in Dallas and has had images published in a number of books and magazines. You can follow him on Twitter at @txheadshots. Homepage:

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

cindy manly-fields May 18, 2011

Thanks for the article on flash, and light. Its all helpful. I am an amateur photographer and have been shooting for many years.. I really appreciate the tutorials, as I always learn something new…

Thanks for the tips.


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