A Common Mistake Photographers Make With Portrait Lighting

There is a common misconception about strobe lighting that might be holding back your images, and it's an easy one to make. Here is a concise and clear explanation of the problem.

For the most part, great strobe lighting is based on understanding light and understanding composition. However, there is a sea of nuance hiding under all of that. To really master light, you need to master how to control it and bend it to your will. If you are fairly new to this, there are some counter-intuitive truths that may be negatively impacting your final image

One element of strobe lighting that is plainly important is the positioning of the light. Usually, when new photographers think about this, they think about the height and the tilt of the strobe, which is undoubtedly important to flattering light. But, another common mistake — and one Manny Ortiz superb displays here — is the distance of the light from your subject. You might be tricked into thinking that the farther away the strobe, the softer the light. While it's obvious why someone might think that, it's unlikely to give you the best light. If you have a softbox or diffuser on your strobe, then moving the light closer to your subject will not only create better-looking light, but it will make your subject look better and the light won't look harsh. If it does, then you either need to diffuse the light more or to lower its power.

Ortiz goes through some common errors in this video with real clarity to the explanations. What common mistakes do you notice portrait photographers make with their lighting?

Log in or register to post comments


Lee Christiansen's picture

Hold on a second...

The text here says that moving a light closer, (making it softer), creates a "better looking" light...?

I'd disagree. Not withstanding the fact that softer is not better, it is just, well... softer. There's a reason we have different types of light - because one type of light does not suit all, and that includes with portraits.

I routinely do headshot sessions with a number of different modifiers for each "look" for a client. Recently I wanted a softer form of light on my male subject, so a 6ft white deep brolly was weapon of choice, giving a beautiful soft and gentle form to the face. But then I changed to a 70cm Elinchrom Deep Octa for a more chiseled look - which was really great. (And I pulled the 70cm octa back a bit to ensure it gave a slightly harder look.

We've got to stop prescribing absolutes in tutorials. Learning how light works is one thing, saying a light is "better" is a different kettle altogether.

I tend to use a beauty dish at between 2x and 1.5x the diameter distance, whereas others will swear by a 1x diameter every time. All of these are correct - depending on the dish and depending on the look we're after. Sometimes harsher light is more flattering if our subject has great bone structure.

Let's not also forget, the closer the light source, the more problematic differentials will be in relation to light fall off and the inverse square law - particularly when we have a light tilted downwards, (closer to the forehead than the chin) so sometimes close is too close.

Given that it seems this article is aimed at less experienced photographers, I thought it important not to have preconceptions contaminating the playing field. :)

Jay Turner's picture

"We've got to stop prescribing absolutes in tutorials"

Yes! Unfortunately it's a huge marketing tool, which is why this persists.

Jan Holler's picture

Wait a second...

In his example, it's the other way around. He moves the tripod further away, the light bounces off the walls and ceiling, and since the direct light is less in comparison, the light is softer. Take a look at the video at 1:22.
I disagree just like Lee above: there is no "better" position. Simply put, the video is not worth watching.

Alex Herbert's picture

Manny Ortiz isn't someone that anyone should be learning lighting theory from.

Jay Connor's picture

I agree completely
I was scratching my head when I saw the side-by-side and the one with the SB further away was softer
I think you hit it on the head with your explanation of light bouncing off the walls and ceiling rendering it softer

Ronald Witherspoon's picture

Taking into account modified light falloff is more when the light is closer to the subject making contrast more and making the light APPEAR softer, because the coverage is less. Further away covers more area (inverse square law), and has less contrast. Less contrast has the appearance of softness.

Paul Trantow's picture

The headline should actually be "a beginning photographer's guide to using modifiers for portraits" because the current headline is way off.

Pierre Boudoir's picture

Noooooo way! That's very harmful video. Why? Because it lies. There is not only one factor changing the way, the light works. Next: If there were black walls... but now - larger distance makes light (shadows) softer - because it's bounced many times around. And - additionally - changes colours of light (green esp.) Another reason - it all depends on proportions - light source vs. object. If the light source is big enough comparing to model - u can move the light 10 m and (almost) nothing happens. And there is another issue, often forgotten - deep of light. If the light source is close to subject - u can observe intense light falloff on the face of model. That's the reason for use of quite big umbrellas (or octas, paras) and positioning them far from scene. To avoid such a problems and get the scene with well balanced light. For this video is sa many cons, that it can not be used as educational material.