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?

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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

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

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.

He's way off...

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

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.

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.