8 Portrait Lighting Setups Every Photographer Should Know

by | Oct 5, 2021 | Portrait Photography

To create a great portrait, you need to understand lighting. This set of slides introduces the basics of studio lighting. The most important factors are the ratios, patterns, angles of view, and facial positions.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with light and shadow when shooting portraits. Start with these 8 lighting positions, from a basic setup to a more dramatic look.

Starting Out

Shroom has a soft, mild yellowish tint in each of its photos. The Shroom photo above was taken in natural sunlight, but you can use bulbs for a more dramatic look. In this photo, the bulbs were positioned dupe directly under the lens, so the white scattered light takes on a yellow tint. That isn’t typically what you’d see on a smartphone, but the contrast is nice (and it balanced the photo). As a personal preference, I usually flip the bulb arrangement for dramatic effect.


The Shroomswarm photo above was shot under artificial light. Next time you drive by, pay attention to the front headlights – they usually stay on at all times. This creates a soft, yellowy tint, which is the most realistic of them all. Use that profile slide on a larger canvas to give your subject a more realistic look.


The Shroomsight photo below was shot under actual sun. This one looks even more amazing with the lights off. Try placing a couple red lights under your subject’s eyes to get a more dramatic secondary effect.


This is the primary effect in the Shroomswarm photo, and it’s also used in the Shroomsight photo. Notice how watery the middle two photos are, with hardly any color in the middle? That’s because I’ve lit the skylight perfectly, and the skylight reflects even the most subtle of sunlight. The shroomshade photo has a spectrum of colors, which actually looks richer.


These photos were taken under artificial light. Notice how the light bounces around like the Shroomswarm photo, but the background has lots of contrast? The Warm image won’t look quite as flat as a white background, but your subjects will generally be better defined. If you were to place a few bulbs in this photo, the string of light above would become a very bright white.

This photo was taken under natural sunlight. Notice the blue balances the colors nicely between the whites of the skylights and the nontinted background? You might think the photo looks pink, but the lighting and the skylights made it look warmer and more natural.

Bathtub Fluorescent Light

The Bathtub Fluorescent Light photo was taken under continuous artificial light. In this photo, instead of having one huge bouncing beam, the light comes from a series of hanging tubes, sitting in a row. A few bulbs here, a few bulbs there. The effect is exaggerated, but it works well.

1. Standard pose

The standard pose is used when you are shooting a couple while still holding photos. Start by making sure the person in the center stands still, arms out to the sides. The light on the body can be from the side or the back, which isn’t important, but a soft, even light is best.

Person A: 45° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise

Person B: 45° counterclockwise and 90° clockwise

2. The semi-open shot

This position is ideal for shots where you must be able to see the subject. Place the light right in the center and keep the background gently blurred to create a semi-open shot. If you place the light too close to the subject (which isn’t ideal), the background will be very bright and distracting. The big key to this position is to get good focus even with this close up, as you need to be able to focus on the subject.

Person A: 45° counterclockwise and 90° clockwise

Person B: 45° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise

3. The front row, cover up shot

If you have a model that makes the front page of the newspaper or other popular magazine, the photographers call this the cover up shot. It’s a very flattering position, as you are concentrating on someone that’s probably very hot and interesting. Place the light box just behind or to one side of the subject. It’s best if you use the light the same time as when you would use a flash to set the flash speed.

Person A: 45° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise

Person B: 45° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise

4. The row up shot

This old classic is essentially the same as position 2, but for the model you’re photographing up. Some people prefer that position because it improves depth of field and gives you a nice background.

Person A: 45° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise

Person B: 45° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise

Why snap photos?

There are six basic reasons that people use photography as a reference tool. However, these reasons are not necessary for taking great photos — they’re only excuses to take the photos.

This is a very interesting experimentation technique, because more than one or two lights is not the standard scenario. Cinema lighting includes in addition two lights, one on each corner. The light behind the subject can bounce or come from behind the subject. It seems that every location for a serious portrait needs a bit of filmic oddity, like a faux tapestries, French doors, and the obligatory Hollywood screen. With any of these props, you’ll need to prepare the shoot in advance.

This is the absolute opposite of movie studio lighting and under the lights, and does some serious damage to the illusion of lighting. The lighting is divided between directly behind your subject and behind any other shiny object that may cast a shadow over him. Like under the lights, it can be soft or strong, with anywhere from two lights to three lights behind your subject.

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