30 Ways To Light A Portrait On A Black Background

30 Ways To Light A Portrait On A Black Background

   This is going to be a long read. Grab a cup of your beverage of choice and relax as I explain how I shot 30 photos with different lighting setups. I've got lighting diagrams, ideas for alternatives and some food for thought that will hopefully get you thinking about lighting in ways that you may not have thought of in the past. I really wanted to hone in on the lighting with these photos, so no fancy concepts (usually) and just a simple black backdrop to make the lighting the main focus. I limited myself to no more than three lights max so you don't need a huge studio with a million lights to try these out for yourselves. So without further ado, let's get started with photo number one.

#1 - Gelled Rim Lighting

   This is actually a variation on one of my go to lighting setups. One light in the front to the side and another light behind the subject and on the opposite side. The back light creates an asymmetrical rim lighting effect in the hair and shoulders. The red gel makes the separation between the front and back lights more apparent. The front light creates a nice shadow to the side of the face that's away from the camera. Having both lights putting out the same power allows them to work in unison without letting one light grab too much of the attention.

#2 - Edge Lighting

   So you might be wondering, "What the hell kind of pose is that?". It's a good question and one I don't have an answer to. The question I can answer is, "Why is this lighting so awesome?". It's a very dramatic, edgy kind of lighting setup with pronounced shadows in the middle and light coming in from the side. It's a great setup for a more athletic style shoot, although clearly nothing sporty is going on in this photo. If you'd like a little less drama, you could always add a third light to illuminate the face while still keeping the intricate play between light and shadow. Once again, both lights are at the same power settings.

#3 - Beauty Lighting

   This is a fantastic lighting setup for a beauty shot. Unfortunately for you, you have to stare at my face instead of an actual beauty ;). Nevertheless, it's very flat lighting that kills all of the shadows in the image. While that's great if your subject as amazing skin (or makeup) I, of course, don't, HA. The really eye-catching (pardon the pun) thing about this setup is actually the cool looking catchlights in the eyes. Tight headshots help to emphasize the sweet looking catchlights. One thing to note, if your subject is on the paler side, this lighting does tend to wash out the color in the skin. So, just make sure to bring back a little warm back into their skin when you're editing.

#4 - Wrap Around Lighting

   There's a theme amongst some of these photos where I take lighting equipment and bring them together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Here, I'm using two softboxes to simulate a giant, curved softbox where the light wraps around your subject. It creates this interesting, window light kind of look. Curving them around your subject adds a bit of direction to an otherwise soft, diffused light. Having an actual softbox this size can get expensive and not only that but placing two lights next to each other adds some versatility to your setup. If you have the option, try adding a third light into the mix to make a huge source of light. Of course, the look of the lighting would change at that point, but just something to think about. As with the previous photos, the power settings for both lights are the same. Otherwise, it would kill the look of faking the look of one seamless softbox. At least I think so.

#5 - Overhead Lighting

   You know, there just hasn't been enough drama in these photos, so obviously I had to step it up a notch ;). This is a rather simple lighting setup, just a single overhead light. When you position your subject directly under the light, you get these intense shadows under the nose, mouth and chin. To make my point, and add drama, I put on a hoodie for you to see how a hood affects the lighting in a situation like this. Because the light is directly above me, there's no light entering the hood itself. This creates an incredibly intense shadow between my shoulders and my head. My neck almost completely fades away into the shadow of the hood. If it wasn't for my super pale skin bouncing a tiny bit of light onto my neck, you wouldn't have been able to see anything in there. By the way, even though my hoodie is black, it doesn't fade into the black background because the light from above is adding some separation by making my "black" hoodie an almost black color.

#6 - Silhouette Rim Lighting

   When most people think of a silhouette, they think of a black shadow on a white background. Here's the thing, you can actually create a silhouette on a black background too. All you need to do is add a little bit of light to create some separation from the background. I added a bare strobe, in this case, a speedlite, behind me to create a thin rim light glow around my hair and shoulders. Doing so allows the viewer to easily tell that this is an outline of a person, in other words, a silhouette.

#7 - Half Lighting

   This is an example of a classic lighting setup known as split lighting or half lighting. As the name suggests, all you need to do is add a light to the side of your subject so the light only affects half of the image. The effect is more prominently seen when taken as a headshot. There's a little bit of spill over in my hair and on my shoulder but for the most part, you get this sharp line right down the middle separating light from dark. It's a simple, yet effective one light setup.

#8 - Lighting As A Prop

   Another thing I love to do is to incorporate the actual lights into the scene. It's actually another running theme you'll notice in the later photos. The great thing about making the lights a part of your composition is that they serve multiple purposes. Not only does this make for a fun prop or addition to the background, but it also affects the lighting in the scene too. I put two lights with the same power settings directly behind me and positioned them to be ever-so-slightly in the frame. These lights created a sweet white border to the sides and cast light over my shoulders and the back of my hair. I didn't want this to be a silhouette, so I added a third light in the front which illuminated the side of my face and body closest to the camera while letting the rest fall into shadow. You could, of course, get a very similar photo by putting the lights just out of frame. You know, if you're a killjoy and all :P.

#9 - Snooted Lighting

   I wanted to mess around with a modifier that I haven't really done much with in the past. A snoot. A snoot is something you place over the front of your strobe, in this case, a speedlite, that shapes the light into a very small, direct source of light. In my case, I made a snoot out of black construction paper instead of using a pre-made snoot. I wanted a very thin strip of light only spread across my eyes and let everything else fade to darkness. I placed the speedlite as close as I could without it getting in the shot. The closer you get your snoot to your subject, the sharper and more defined the light becomes. If I were to do this photo over again, I'd make that strip of light from the snoot appear even smaller. C'est la vie, I suppose. I also added in another light to light the one side of my face just a wee bit. This kept the focus on the snooted light while adding some fill so the whole image outside of that strip of light didn't fall entirely into shadow.

#10 - Clamshell Lighting

   This photo is an example of a classic lighting setup that a lot of professionals use for subject matter ranging from corporate headshots to beauty. Clamshell lighting is incredibly versatile looks fantastic with a minimal amount of gear. All you need is a soft, diffused light, like a softbox or a beauty dish, and a reflector to create this look. Clamshell lighting also lends itself to portability as well since it's quite easy to set up shop anywhere. I used a silver reflector here, although traditionally a white reflector is used. You don't necessarily have to use a reflector, any kind of bounce will do just fine. Side note here, if you're going to be using a silver reflector like I did, make sure your subject isn't wearing glasses or has anti-reflective lenses or you'll get this funky pattern in the eyes like in the photo above. Another cool thing about this set-up is the signature catch lights in the eyes that clamshell lighting creates. You can find out more about clamshell lighting here where I go into much more depth.

#11 - Playful Lighting

   There's no lighting diagram for this one because... well, you can see the lights in the photo. Like I mentioned earlier, I love incorporating the lights themselves into the scene. I thought it was kind of a playful lighting set up, so I donned a shirt to emphasize that. What you're seeing are two Wescott TD6's with 6 florescent light bulbs each in them to either side of me. This creates a really harsh, dramatic shadow right down the center of my face and a cool, edge-lit look with the highlights. I like the look of it. Of course, you could always pull the lights back a little out of frame to get something similar, lighting wise. Speaking of which...

#12 - Side Lighting

   This is basically the same set up as the last photo except I added softboxes to the lights and removed them from the frame. I wanted to show you what the light would look like without the distraction of the actual lights in the frame. With the softboxes on, there's this amazing light play between the light and shadow areas without looking too harsh. You can really see the effect in the wrinkles of the fabric I'm wearing. This is a nice, edgier light set up that emphasizes the folds of fabrics and things like layered, flowy dresses. And, of course, the lights are both the same power settings so neither side overpowers the other.

#13 - Special Effect Lighting

   I wanted to try out some special effects for this one. Once again I brought my makeshift snoot out, but this time instead of a thin rectangle, I shaped it into a small circle. I used a red gel and placed the light as close as I could without getting into the frame for the same reason as before. I thought it gave off a kind of a cool, shot through the heart vibe. You may notice a little bit of spill over on my chest. That's actually because I didn't have the circle closed off properly and there were some leaks that let out light where I didn't want them too. I could've retaken the photo, but I think it looks fine. Just some advice if you're going to try this out for yourself, make sure you seal up your makeshift snoot well ;). I added a soft light off to the side to give it some drama, which is apparently one of my favorite things to do.

#14 - Simple, Yet Effective Lighting

   Here's a simple, yet effective lighting set up for a multitude of situations. Just one big softbox off to the side in front and a bare speedlite behind me to give that nice rim light. The rim light adds some separation from the background while the front light gives a soft, diffused light across my face that slowly fades into a light shadow. I know that sounds oxymoronic, but the shadows in this photo aren't a deep, strong type like some of the dramatic photos above. This makes for a safe, simple setup that guarantees results and allows you the liberty of experimenting with some riskier shots later in your photo shoot.

#15 - Mysterious Lighting

   You may be wondering what's going on with those softboxes in the background. Well, this is a technique I've used in the past, you can check more out here, where I actually wrap the softbox itself in cellophane instead of using a gel. Why wouldn't I just use a gel? These lights you're seeing are actually constant lights, the same as the ones from photo 11. Those lights are next to impossible to actually gel, but cellophane works in a pinch. I positioned the lights behind me and slightly to the side so they wrap around to the sides of my face. This creates a deep shadow right down the center which adds a bit of mystery to the image. Adding in the color provides another layer of mystery and feels almost extra-terrestrial. It's a cool effect for a sci-fi shoot or something futuristic feeling.

#16 - Adding Variance To Lighting

   So here we have an almost flat lighting setup. Notice how I said almost. Setting up the one light directly to the side and another in front of your subject at a 45º angle casts light everywhere. Everywhere except this one strip of shadow in the hair that is. This creates a little bit of variance from the earlier lighting setup in photo 3. It's also a great reminder that you don't need to reinvent the wheel with your lighting setups. Try to mess around with some of your go-to's and you might just find that slightly altering things is all you really needed to get the shot you were looking for all along. The light directly to the side of me is one stop brighter than the front light just to add a little bit of a stronger highlight in my hair without completely blowing it out.

#17 - Strip Lighting

   I know I've been using a lot of softboxes in the previous few photos, so I wanted to switch it up a little a show you a different kind of softbox. This is what strip lights look like. A strip light is a narrow softbox where the length is around four times the width. Strip lights come in all different sizes, but the idea is the same. You still get the same nicely diffused light as a softbox, but now there's more direction to the light. Instead of spreading all over the place, the light from a strip light falls off much faster. These are usually used in places where you only want to affect a smaller portion of the image, like as a hair or rim light. Of course, you can use them however you'd like, as I did here for this shot.

#18 - Horror Lighting

   Boo! This is old school horror lighting at it's finest. Ever see those old black and white movies where the villain walks over a light and it shines up his face making him look almost demonic? How about sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories with your flashlight under your chin? I'm sure everyone has done this at one point or another, but I wanted to point out that we should really be having fun with lighting every once and a while. Sure, the world of lighting diagrams and technical lighting is fantastic, but you know what? I still do this every once in a while just because I can. Don't forget to take a step back, especially when you're frustrated, and relax with some silly lighting every now and again ;).

#19 - Hard Lighting

   A lot of these photos have been using soft lighting but that doesn't mean you can't use hard lighting in your portraits as well. Hard lighting is usually frowned upon with portraits as it's not a very flattering light. You know what? Fuck 'em. There's plenty of amazing photographers who use hard lighting effectively as part of their style. Hard lighting is really great for bringing out the details in things like the layers in my hair in this photo or the intricate designs of a dress. You can also use hard lighting in situations where you're shooting something grungier, like an urban photo shoot in a dingy back alleyway. A hard light source is any small light source or a small light source relative to your subject at least. You can even use a bigger light if you put it far enough away from your subject. Just something to think about when you're choosing how you want to light something.

#20 - On Set Lighting

   I thought I was being real clever here with this photo. "I know, I'll try a lighting setup that looks like I'm on stage. I'll add lens flares and headphones, it'll be great!". Then I took this photo and later realized that headphones make no sense here if you're supposed to be on a stage, but I digress. I still think the lighting is really cool and I tried being a little inventive here. See, I have a bare speedlite in the frame that creates this lens flare effect since it's pointing directly into the lens. The interesting part for me was actually the use of a softbox as a bounce. When I originally shot this photo I had both lights in the front turned on, but I wanted a little more dynamism with the lighting. I turned off the left light and moved it away, but that was too little light being cast onto the right side of my face.

   So I came up with a compromise, add a bounce to the left to add a little more light without overpowering the scene or making the lighting look too flat. Here's the cool part, you can use any white surface as a bounce. So since I already had my softbox there and it's basically a giant white bounce, I decided to use that. Just a little tip for those of you out there. No need to carry an extra bounce around with you or pull one out from storage if you've already brought lights with you that can serve a dual purpose. This is why I love softboxes. You can use them as light sources, a bounce, prop, backdrop or as part of your set. Think outside the (soft) box and you can come up with some awesome uses for your lighting gear!

#21 - Super Strip Lighting

   This time I take strip lighting to a whole new level. For one, I stripped down for you, two I created a makeshift strip light that's even more strip-light-like than an actual strip light. As I mentioned earlier, a strip light produces a narrow source of light, but I wanted to take this idea a step further and make a super strip light. I modified a softbox I had with some black construction paper (professional, right?) so that the width of the softbox was only an inch wide, but the length of the softbox stayed the same. This resulted in a makeshift strip light that was 1" x 36". Now that's a strip light! This created such a narrow source of light that, if you look at the photo above, the fall off of light from my face to my shadow was visibly noticeable without any post processing to enhance it. Just inches from my face, I was already losing multiple stops of light. This is also a great way to try your hands out with a strip light without needing to buy any extra equipment. There's no real risk in trying this for yourself except possibly not looking very professional. But hey, you could always use some cine foil instead.

#22 - Reverse Clamshell Lighting

   Once more I'm adding a light into the scene. This is an example of what I call 'reverse clamshell lighting'. Basically, it's the same setup as clamshell lighting, but instead of placing the light in front of your subject, you place it behind them. This creates a nice glowing effect in my hair and shoulders while the reflector in my hands makes sure that the light still reaches the front of my body and face. Keep in mind that the fall off of light from the front to the back is a good two stops darker, but that's what (I think) makes this setup look so cool. You can, of course, remove the light itself from the scene by raising it up slightly and still get a very similar effect. I really love the deconstructed look it gives off with it in the frame, though.

#23 - Background Lighting

   I wanted to mess around with adding light onto the background for this one, so I once again brought my trusty snoot back out. I took my snoot and placed it right up against the background to create this cool looking pattern that sweeps across the backdrop. Of course, you can see all of the wrinkles in the backdrop now, but I left that alone because it looks neat. You may notice that I never fixed that light leak I mentioned earlier. If you want a nice crisp pattern, just make sure to patch any leaks in your makeshift snoot. Or, you know, buy a real snoot instead :P. The fun thing about this lighting is you can keep adding lights onto the background to make all kinds of intricate patterns. Add another one to the other side and create an x pattern or a third one from the top, the possibilities are endless. Note, the closer you put the light to the backdrop, the more defined the light becomes. If you want a blurry edge to the light, just pull the light a little further from the backdrop.

#24 - Electronic Lighting


   There's no lighting diagram for this one because the only light is the light from the iPad in my hand. I took this to remind everyone out there that the great thing about light is that it's everywhere. You don't necessarily need to buy expensive lights to create a compelling image. Of course, those lights do help, but why not try lighting things with the screen that lives in your pocket? Every electronic device with a screen can turn into a light source. You phone, tablet, TV, alarm clock or what have you are all opportunities to makes something great. You can use them as a prop like I did or hold them out of the frame and use them purely as a light source. Maybe you're on location and you need a little bit of fill but don't have any lights with you. Pull your phone out and try using that. Experimentation will help you become a better, more resourceful photographer.

#25 - Window Lighting

   Sometimes the best light isn't all of your expensive gear sitting around your studio, but it's actually coming from your window. Just because you're in a studio setting doesn't mean you have to use artificial lighting. Window light is natural and flattering and available anytime... Well, as long as it's sunny and during the day that is. Here's the thing, you can still shoot on a black background outside. Why stay indoors and use a window when you have the free light provided to you by nature? Just something I figured I'd mention here. If you're stuck and nothing seems to be working for you, you can never go wrong with window light. As long as there's actual light shining through.

#26 - Adding Color To Flat Lighting


   You may look at this lighting diagram and think it looks an awful lot like photo number 3. That's because it's the exact same setup but with gels. There's actually a point to this, though. See, most people have heard the whole "it looks terrible in color but when I turned it black and white, the photo came alive" thing before, this is an example of the opposite. If you look at the right photo, the black and white just looks... boring. This flat lighting setup might look great for a tight headshot, but for anything else, it kind of falls apart. It's interesting to see that you can take a photo that comes alive in color but looks meh when stripped of all its color. 

#27 - Hidden Lighting

   I love speedlites because you can hide them just about anywhere. Unfortunately, even speedlites are too big to hide in some situations, like this one here. I wanted to take a photo where it seemed like my chest was glowing where my hand grasped. It's fun to try to figure out how to conceal lights to make them appear as if the light comes out of nowhere. I think it's fun at least but, you know, I'm a light geek I guess, HA. Seriously though, you can create some interesting photos that almost seem like they're photoshopped just by using clever, hidden placement of your lights.

#28 - Feathered Lighting

   For this shot, I wanted to introduce feathered lights into the mix. Feathering your light basically means to position the lights so only part of the light affects your subject. For example, I took the light in front and tilted it almost to the ceiling so the only bit of light that touched me would be on my head and a little on my upper body. You achieve something similar by using barn doors or cine foil if you have them handy. I tilted the light up like that to create a slight gradient of light as it started to lose power down my body. This was also the same reason I have the two side lights tilted down from above. I wanted those lights to be more powerful towards the top of the image and fade in strength towards the bottom.

#29 - Intentional Errors

   You might be thinking, "wait, didn't you already do split lighting?" and you'd be right. I did already do split lighting, but this isn't split lighting. What's happening in this photo is what most people would consider a mistake. That black side of the frame actually did have some light affecting the image, but it never got a chance to reach it before the shutter opened and closed. See I was using a speedlite and the sync speed of my camera is 1/250th of a second. Without HSS (High-speed sync) if I use a faster shutter speed, like the 1/500th of a second I did here, part of the frame doesn't get lit. Of course, if there was ambient light in this scene, that would still show up, but this one light is the only light affecting the photo.

   Now, I could have used HSS but that wasn't the point. It's interesting to note that you can turn a mistake into a striking photo. If, like I did, you know this is going to happen before you take the shot, you can use this "error" to your advantage. I can't tell you what settings to use to achieve this look, but whatever your flash sync speed of the camera you're using is, you want to use a faster shutter speed than that. So for me, the sync speed is 1/250th. The faster my shutter speed is than that, the less time the light has to affect your image and the more blackout you're going to get.

#30 - Black? How About Blue Instead?

   For the last photo, I decided to flip the whole series of photos on its head and change the black background and turn it into a color. I'm still using a black backdrop but now I added a colored gel to it. A lot of people don't think to add color to a black backdrop, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Using white or gray backdrops may be easier to color than black, but with enough power anything is possible. You are going to have to use a much higher power setting than you would with a white background since black absorbs light much more than white does.

   Finally, you made it all the way to the end here. I know it was a bit long, but hopefully you learned a few new tricks that you can try for your next photo shoot. At the very least, I do hope I sparked your curiosity and got you to think a little outside of the box for some of these lighting setups. If I even slightly peaked your interest, then for me that's a win. I hope you stay tuned to the future where I'll be talking about even more lighting techniques and go more in depth with some of these photo ideas. And hey, if you try any of these out for yourself, let me know what you shot! I always love seeing how other people approach the same concept. Send me a link in the comments or hit me up on one of the various social media links below. Until then, see you next time :).

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