Tuesday Photography Tips & Tricks | Close up Portrait Lighting

Today we are talking about natural lit close-up portraits and how to get the lighting killer in-camera so it truly flatters your client. Jody and I have a simple rule when we are out with our couple’s and shooting their portraits, and that is, the closer we get to them, the more fine-tuned the lighting on their faces needs to be.

We are always on the hunt for the most awesome, soft (or indirect) light* sources that we can find that are also coming in at the correct angle to get great light in our clients’ eyes. We always want a catch light just above their pupils and are watching their eyes closely for that. But, many times when you are on location, you don’t always have the luxury of having beautiful, soft, directional light hitting your client just above the pupil.

On a lot of our shoots we need to fill in the gaps that the natural light is leaving by adding some extra light from anywhere that we can find it. On many days here in Nashville, we can have overcast days, or days where there are lots of clouds that are in and out, and even though when it is cloudy out and we have soft light, it is not always coming in at the direction that we want. Usually, on overcast days, all of the light comes straight down on top of our clients’ heads and creates those darker shadows in their eyes. Not cool!!

So, the solution to the problem is simply adding a reflector* to open up those dark shadows by introducing some soft light to them! You would think that using less light on a client would make their skin look better, but in reality, adding LOTS of soft light to their face actually hides their imperfections and allows you to do less retouching after shooting.

Imperfections are seen when subjects have harsh and contrasty light on them. Imperfections can also be more apparent when a subject has bumpy skin (aka a pimple or other imperfection) and the light set up creates a highlight and shadow area. However, by adding soft, indirect light, we actually minimize the shadows that show those imperfections and it ends up making skin look smoother (sometimes smoother than it actually is!).

When shooting in natural light, we use a reflector (or sometimes two, when we want to get super extra-awesome light and play around with attendees at our workshops) to get soft light! See images below!

So, the question is, what do I do with this darn reflector to get that look?!!

If we are out on a cloudy day, the closer we are to our subject, the more particular we get about how soft and direct the light on our client’s face is. Once we get into head-shot range, we want the most amazing light hitting our client and will do whatever we have to do to get it! (Which makes them look even more awesome and saves us tons of time in post!).

As you can see on this full-length shot below, the lighting is really nice, but if you look really close, or zoom in 100%, you may notice that her eyes could be a little brighter than they are. But, because we shot this from so far away, you would never notice that the lighting is not absolutely perfect, just really good. But again, the closer we get, the more critical it is to have spot on lighting.

In this next shot, we are really close to our client’s face, and any imperfections or bad lighting will be very visible, so it is critical to get that lighting dialed in!


Here are the steps for getting great light on a cloudy day while doing a close-up head shot:

1. Pick the location that has the best light to begin with (the light hitting our subjects is more important than the background because great light is going to make – or break the shot).

2. Position your clients how you want them and also where most of the existing light will hit their eyes just above the pupil.

3. Since most of the light will be coming down from the clouds, then position your reflector in the opposite direction of that light, or under their chin, in order to bounce the cloudy light back up into the shadow areas. (We use the gold/silver mixed reflector for cloudy days, since it bounces lots of light back and NOT the white, since white usually won’t reflect enough light on cloudy days)

4. Watch the eyes! You know the reflector is in the right position when you can clearly see the reflector in their eyes, so keep moving it around until you see that light popping!

If their eyes are the brightest part of your subject, then you are golden and going to get great looking shots. In the below close up of our previous image, you can clearly see the cloudy sky just barely reflecting in the upper part of her eyes, and the silver/gold reflector in the bottom portion of her eyes below the pupil. You also may notice the very soft shadows and smooth skin that this produces. This images has NO retouching done to it.

The image below was shot in the exact same lighting with the exact same exposure, same lens and same depth of field taken just seconds apart, but this image has the reflector removed. You can clearly see more imperfections in the skin in this shot and you can see how the cloudy light coming straight down on her creates shadows under her eyes that show every line in her face.

The above image in contrast, looks like we retouched her skin and dodged the whites of her eyes to make them brighter, even though all we did was add light while shooting.

5. Remember that the closer you can get that reflector, the softer the light will be and the less imperfections you will see on your clients faces, so get that reflector in CLOSE! (*Note for when shooting your clients: Unless they are used to having their photos taken all of the time, never start off a photo session putting a reflector all up in their mug. We always start our sessions shooting them from far away and then we work up to getting close to them. Then, when we bust out the reflector we tell them that this makes them look even more awesome and they love it).

6. Take awesome shots! :)

A few more tips for getting that creamy skin and soft light are to use a shallow depth of field, like 2.8 or 2.0, and then make sure that you have the correct color on your images by doing a custom white balance which will further help the skin look soft and buttery!

The last thing you want to do is soften the skin by pulling contrast out of your shots in post by taking down the clarity or by reducing contrast in any other way. It could seem logical to remove middle-range contrast (which is what the clarity slider in Lightroom adds or removes) since that middle-range contrast is what shows the imperfections in skin. But the reason we don’t want to do that, is because contrast is created by light and not by a computer, and if you start manipulating that natural contrast on anything other than an overall level, your images will start to look Photo-Chopped and unnatural.

You will also lose clarity on any other part of the image that has middle-range contrast and it will look like you added a soft-filter to your shots (like people did as a trend in film photography in the 90’s). Not cool!! (Try Google image searching “Soft Filter Photography” to see what we mean).

Here are a few more images from some of our weddings where we used the exact same principals to get great in-camera shots that look stellar with little or no editing. All of these were shot in either cloudy overcast days, or in soft, indirect lit areas and we simply added that silver/gold reflector to soften up the skin and add light.


Soft, indirect light – light that is not coming directly from the source (like the sun) but bouncing off of something evenly (like clouds, a big white wall, or the blue sky) that is LARGER than the source of the light in comparison to your subject.

Reflector – Material that bounces light off of itself to add light to another area of an image. Some reflectors can add soft light, and some can add harsher light depending on the material on the reflector. White reflectors bounce the softest light but reflect the least amount of light, and silver/gold reflectors bounce harsher light, and also reflect the brightest light back.


Hope you guys enjoyed this weeks tips!! Want us to blog about something YOU want to hear more about?? Email us on our photographers page by filling out the form HERE.