Easy Lighting Laws for Better Portraits

For seasoned photographers, lighting becomes an instinct as much as a skill. But beginners are often flailing – placing their lights in different spots and getting wildly different results, becoming frustrated in the process. The following is a list of lighting laws to help you navigate the sometimes unpredictable lighting world. Knowing these basic laws will calm you down when things aren’t going your way and will also produce more consistent results.


Bigger, closer light sources produce softer light than smaller, distant light sources.

Lighting Law 1: The bigger the light source, the softer the shadows

The exception is when this big light source is far away. This is why the sun, when not diffused by clouds, produces hard shadows. It is a large light source but is also very, very far away.

If you’re finding that your light looks harsh, consider if your light source is large enough. This doesn’t have to mean grabbing a bigger light. A modifier, like a big softbox or umbrella, will help expand your light – even when paired with a small Speedlight. If you’re still not getting the softness you’re after, consider moving that light closer to your subject.

Similarly, the bigger the light source not only are your shadows softer but the highlights will be softer and less specular, too. If you want hot spots on your subject, a quick way to get them is to use a small light source.

Lighting Law 2: The fewer angles your light is coming from, the harder the shadows

When rays of light are coming at your subject from all the same direction, the more sharply defined shadows will be. This is what is happening when the light is described as “hard”. Light coming from one direction will illuminate the subject only in areas the light can hit. Everything else will be cast in shadows. The quickest way to get this effect is to narrow your beam of your light.


Narrower light sources will produce more contrast and harder shadows because rays are pointing in 1 direction, casting shadows on the opposite side of the subject. Adding a diffuser, like a softbox, scatters the rays more evenly around the subject, producing softer results. This is why the light looks more even on cloudy days than sunny days – clouds in front of the sun act like a giant softbox diffuser.

When rays of light are coming at your subject from multiple directions, the less sharply defined the shadows will be. Bigger modifiers do this far more effectively than smaller, more narrow modifiers, like snoots, strip boxes, or softboxes with grids on them. Diffusing the light is simply taking a light source and pairing it with a modifier that will allow rays to approach the subject from many angles. This is described as “soft” light.

Lighting Law 3: Black absorbs lights, while white reflects it

This might seem like a no-brainer but it is amazing how easily we forget this in the heat of a shoot. If you’re seeing light on your subject in places you don’t want (but love the lighting in all other aspects), then a strategically-placed black card will help. Conversely, if there is a dark spot on your subject you want to lighten up, a strategically-placed white card can do wonders. Too quickly we want to move our light. Modify it, don’t move it.


A small, rectangular white card was all I needed to bring in a touch more light on the cheek of this test shot portrait. If you look closely, you can even see the reflection of the white card in the eye (right). See the final product here.

For an edgy, moody, noir look, do one or more of the following:

• Reduce the number of angles light is coming from with a narrowing modifier, like a snoot or grid.
• Move the light further away from your subject.
• Add black cards to absorb or block light.

Recommended modifiers for this look:

Profoto 1′ x 3′ Strip Softbox – Strip softboxes, or “strip boxes” will limit the spill of light and are a great choice for edge lighting, especially for sports portraiture. Also available as a 1 x 4 for longer edge coverage.

MagMod Creative Flash Kit – Designed for small flash units, this kit comes with a MagGrid, which focuses light and narrows your flash beam to ~40°.

Profoto OCF II Grid/Gel Kit – Compatible with Profoto heads such as the B1/B1X and B10/B10 Plus, this kit will get you familiar with using a 20º grid and the narrowing effect it will have on light. Plus, it comes with a full CTO and half CTO gel.

Always do one at a time. Changing multiple things at once will make it too difficult to figure out what to change next (or undo) if your results aren’t to your liking.

For an ethereal, soft, airy look, do one or more of the following:

• Increase the number of angles light can hit your subject with diffusion from large light modifiers.
• Increase the size of your light with modifiers or by bouncing the light off of white cards or reflectors.
• Move your light closer to your subject.

Recommended modifiers for this look:

Westcott Scrim Jim Reflector Kit – Set a scrim in front of any light for softer look. These also make great sun diffusers!

Profoto Large Deep Umbrella – Compatible with any light that has an umbrella shaft (or sits on a bracket with an umbrella shaft), this versatile no-nonsense umbrella is the perfect learning tool for soft light shaping. Also available in Small, Medium, and Extra-Large, these umbrellas have a a unique deep parabolic shape for better control over light spread without losing beautiful softness.

Angler Cylinder Omni Softbox – This unique omni softbox is the ideal overhead modifier to give you soft, even 360° lighting to lift your entire ambient exposure or eliminate any wayward shadows. It works by being sandwiched between your Bowens-mount reflector (common mounting for Aputure, Godox, and more) and your light.

Put these reminders on a note card for your next lighting practice session. Take a bunch of before-and-afters with notes and you definitely will improve your lighting game.

Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. See her lighting tutorials here. She is a Marketing Associate Manager at BorrowLenses.com. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. Before focusing on studio portraiture, she shot motorsports for X-Games, World Rally Cross, and Formula Drift. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

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BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.