The effect of various lighting on the human face is absolutely fascinating to me. Once I began to understand light, every portrait I captured was infused with meaning. Now I make it a habit to ask myself how the available light can turn an ordinary portrait into something extraordinary.

Window light is my favorite light source for intimate portraits. Sitting next to a window with the subject itself creates a sense of closeness. I can engage with my subject in a small, shared space. I love the way I can control the light steaming through a window. I can create catch lights in my subject’s eyes or dark shadows across her face, whatever helps me to convey who she is and what she’s experiencing.

1. Change positions.

Simply changing my position or my subject’s can drastically change the mood of a portrait. I can have the subject face the light directly with even illumination for candor, or turn her so the light is much stronger on one side for a bit of mystery.

Portrait lighting photo of girl writing in journal
Portrait lighting, photo of child holding cupcake

2. Embrace the perfectly imperfect.

When I see dappled light and lines on my subject, I run for my camera. The lines from window blinds can enhance the story I’m trying to convey. Some photographers may be bothered by such lines across their subject’s face, but I love the dramatic feel it brings. If my daughter is in a bad mood, dramatic lines across her face intensify that moody look. Sunlight peeking through bushes and trees can enhance my stories too.

Portrait lighting of window lines across child's face

3. Embrace the grain.

Low light and grain can create a timeless look in portraits. When a moment is happening and there just isn’t enough available natural light, I simply bump up my ISO and shoot wide open to make up for the lack of light. And I can always fix any unwanted noise in post-processing.

Portrait lighting outdoor in golden light, photo of child's legs

4. Get creative with rim light and silhouettes.

Silhouette and rim light convey a sense of stillness. I don’t usually enter a situation knowing I want to use rim light or silhouette. It comes to me after sitting back and watching my subject in that space for a few moments.

Portrait lighting, outdoor silhouette

5. The use of contrast.

When I was new to photography, I would either expose correctly or overexpose one or two stops. I soon discovered I prefer to underexpose because I love contrast in my portraits. The contrast and detail make me feel as though I’m one with my subject and in the moment with them.

Outdoor portrait lighting of child running

Photos by Tina Sherman

This article first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Click Magazine. Buy your copy here, or subscribe so you never miss a story like this one.

Portrait lighting