Lighting is the most important part of the photo equation. That's a big reason why professional photos always look so good. Learn how to harness the power of shadows so your future photo ops yield amazing results.
Have you gotten feedback that you look better in person than you do in your photos? Or maybe you just aren't matching as well as you should be.
Photo lighting is a HUGE deal. It can drastically alter what you look like for better or worse.
How Good and Bad Lighting Changes Your Face
To see good vs. bad lighting in action, check out these pictures that were taken on the same day.
Some things to notice:
Indoor artificial lighting, as in photos 1-3, usually has a strong color tint. This can make the skin, teeth, and whites of the eyes look dirty or sickly. Further, these photos lack catchlights in the eyes (those little flecks of reflected light) that make people look healthy and animated.
In photo 3, an overhead light is casting shadows down the face. This lighting is common in restaurants. See how the eyes look like black holes. This lighting is especially hard on people struggling with acne, as every facial blemish casts its own shadow.
Now, looking across all of the examples above, notice that some areas of the face are dark in shadow and other areas of the face are bright with light.
To understand the effect this has on your appearance, let’s talk about how makeup artists use a technique “contouring.” A quick search on YouTube for this term reaps thousands of results like this:
In contouring, makeup artists use dark and light makeup to create the illusion of shadows and light spots on the face. In doing so, the artist can make someone look like they have high cheekbones or a smaller forehead or a thinner nose.
In other words, shadows make our bone structure look different than it is! Wild, right?
So in shadowy lighting, as in photos 1-8, you’re at the mercy of however the light lands as to how your face will look. Shadows and bright spots landing willy nilly can exaggerate facial asymmetries, make your face look shorter or longer, change the size of your nose, and more.
The fix? Well it’s not camera flash. As you can see from photo 4, camera flash typically only makes things worse by creating brighter bright spots (called “hot spots”) that make the subject look sweaty or greasy without totally fixing the shadow problem.
A sunny outdoor picture doesn’t set things right, either. Direct sun, as in photo 7, continues to cast shadows into creases on the face.
For the best photo lighting, as illustrated in photo 9, you just can’t beat diffused natural light.
2 Ways to Get Amazing Lighting
If you want to look your best, diffused natural light is where it’s at.
Natural light is – you guessed it – light from the sun. And diffused means there’s no harsh dark and bright spots, just evenly-dispersed and soft light. Diffused natural light virtually erases imperfections, makes you look younger/healthier, and emphasizes your eyes.
Here are some ways to get that good light.
1. Face a window
Find a spot in your house across from a window.
Pull out your phone and notice how amazing your face looks!
To really nail this, make sure to turn off any lights in the room so the pictures only use natural light from the window. Take the pictures at a bright time of day, but be beware: if you feel the need to squint, you’re actually looking at direct sun.
You don’t want direct sun, so if that’s what’s coming through your window, you can either take the pictures at the other side of your house where the sun isn’t currently facing, at another time when the sun is moved away from your window, or you can experiment with using a sheer white curtain to diffuse the light.
2. Find a spot outside without sun
Direct sun creates dark and lights spots because it’s so harsh. But if you can’t see the sun from where you are, chances are the area you’re in has diffused sunlight. On overcast days, for example, the cloud cover results in diffused sunlight. Or in an alley where the sun is blocked by buildings, the sunlight is diffused.
This can change depending on the time of day, too. Google “what time is sunset today,” go outside at that time, and be observant. At some point, all the bright areas and shadows on the ground disappear. That’s your cue.
As an extra note: you’ll notice diffused natural light in your car — which is generally why people take so many selfies in there. But unfortunately, because car selfies are viewed unfavorably, we suggest finding that good light elsewhere. Sorry. 😕