Explained lighting schemes, lighting a face

The lighting technique must be a tool totally under the control of the photographer, so it turns into a creative resource, not into a wall to our creativity.
To light a model's face is the first challenge for lots of photographers, specially those shooting fashion and portrait photography. A badly lighted face can be the key for a failed photo, and most of the times it's something that we do not pay the attention it deserves.
As human beings, we observe the human body with a lot of attention: There are lots of guidelines in the pose, the expression and the silhouette of a human body, all of them gives the observer an enormous amount of information. To overlook this is a warranty of a failed photo, or at least, of a photo different to that we were searching for.
Specifically in the face is where almost all the visual guidelines reside. Of course, we're not only talking about the physical features of the model, but also about its expression, its attitude, three-dimensional volumes and its morphological proportions. All this information can be yield to our control: Applying lighting techniques in a smart way, we can work consciously the volumes, the lines, the textures or the lightness-darkness contrasts, and mold most of the factors that will modify the final expression of a face.
In the following examples we'll gradually analyse some common failures when lighting a face, and we'll take a look at how we can mold a face with the light, or with the absence of light.
Although there are lots of possible lighting schemes and combinations for a face, in the following examples we'll focus on a lighting scheme which is, probably, the most used one, and it's also very easy to accomplish with just a bit control:

Completely frontal lighting

Frontal elevated lighting

Lateral centered lighting

Elevated lateral lighting

Fill light


  • Starting with the aforementioned elevated lateral lighting, we add a backlight in the opposite side of the main light.
  • We are defining the silhouette behind the shadows of the main light, emphasizing the real width of the face.
  • Often used to remark the jaw's prominence. This can be used to indicate masculinity and roughness, and sometimes to emphasize a stylized jaw's silhouette, when the model allows it.
  • Many times a line of light will appear below the cheekbone, maximizing even more the aforementioned effect.
  • A strong three-dimensional effect is created, thanks to the definition given by all the lightness-darkness contrasts.
  • The backlight effect will disappear if the model's hair catches the light before the face does.
  • In models with curly hair, or very spare, numerous small light and shadow structures out of our control will appear in the cheek.
  • We can adjust the width of the light line by varying the angle of the light.
  • The more we put this source of light behind the model, the more flares and unexpected light effects we will get in the photo. We can control them by using a shader in the lens, in the source of light, or any other similar accessory.
  • Depending on the final effect we intend to get, a different light intensity can be applied to the backlight. A good starting point is to set this light one f-stop above the main light.
  • We can adjust the range of the effect by elevating or lowering the light.
  • We can use the backlighting also in the hair: If it is straight and shinny, a simmilar light line will appear. If it is dry and backcombed, the hair will appear as it is lighted from inside. In both cases, the effect will be even more noticeable with blonde hairs.

Putting together the three aforementioned light elements

  • Elevated lateral lighting.
  • Fill light.
  • Backlight.

Circular background light

  • Specially with a black background, this effect light will show the silhouette of the entire face.
  • Will virtually put the face or the entire model in a different three-dimensional plane further from the background.
  • Will direct the attention of the observer to the circle of light.
  • On a black background, changing this light's color is as simple as putting a color filter in the source of light. In a white or lighted background, the color effect will be more difficult to reach and it will become sometimes out of control and unpredictable.

Gradient background light

  • As with the previous light effect, but intending to create a gradual tonal range from one point of the background to another.
  • We can adjust the gradient intensity and its range by bringing the light closer the background.
  • lots of times, we will get unwanted light in the model reflected from the background or coming from this background effect light. This is why sometimes this light can be used at the same time to get a backlight into the model.

Complete illumination

  • Elevated lateral lighting.
  • Backlight.
  • Gradient background light.
You can also take a look at other article talking about some complete full-body lightings: Explained lighting schemes
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