Photographer's Lighting Handbook: Portrait Lighting for Profiles

There are many styles of lighting for portraits: Rembrandt, butterfly, Paramount (okay, the last two are the same), short, broad, and then there are lighting ratios. Whew! All of them have one thing in common: The source of illumination comes from the front or side of the subject. Profiles are different because the dominant source in a profile comes from behind.

The trick to effective profiles is contrast control. Higher contrast means photographs with bright highlights and dark shadows are dramatic. Usually this style is reserved for men. Profiles are different because the dominant source in a profile comes from behind.omen are a different story. Soft, directional light coupled with lower contrast makes their profiles glow. Controlling contrast is all about the shadows. For high contrast, take light away from them; for low contrast, add light to them.


Here’s a profile of radio personality Tessa Hall. The background is a dark-brown painted muslin. I begin with one light and build the effect, setting one light at a time. This profile is lit with a 12×71″ Rime Lite Strip Softbox. Its length covers Tessa from her forehead all the way along her bust line. It’s close to her, so it has a relatively soft quality. 

portrait lighting for profiles

The source of light (or main light) paints an edge around Tessa’s profile. The light is angled toward the camera. It’s important to make certain that light from it does not strike the lens. I always use a lens shade. I also check by standing directly in front of the subject then looking at the front element. If I see the light reflected in the lens surface, there will be flare. A strategically placed flag shading the lens is the fix. You’ll see what a lens with no flare causing reflections looks like in a minute.


Tessa has strawberry blond hair. The first photo does it no justice at all—it’s too dark and cries out for light. I placed a smaller 11×42″ strip light over her head and slightly to the front. Her hair shines with life as its true color is revealed. I had Tessa turn her shoulders away from the camera and more toward the source. This evened the light on her face, bust, and neckline. 

portrait lighting for profiles

Fill Times Two

The camera side of her face has a shadow that extends from her forehead down her cheeks all the way under her chin. The side of her nose looks sculpted—fine for guys but not so much for ladies. These higher contrasts must be lowered. Contrast is reduced by adding light to the shadows. These lights and reflectors are also called fill light.

portrait lighting for profiles

The primary fill might surprise you. It’s a 16-sided, 35″ silver Grand softbox by Rime Lite. It features a bright center that quickly falls off at the edges. This characteristic lets me target the side of her face and hair. Its vignette effect starts at her jaw line and keeps her features bright while maintaining the deep shadows on her camera-side shoulder. 

The last fill is provided by a 16×20″ piece of white foam core held by makeup artist extraordinaire Tomas Espinoza. Behind the camera is the assistant for the shoot, photographer Theresa Sicurezza. She’s filling in while I shoot the setups for this article. This view shows the strip light that serves as the source of light, the hair light, and the reflector.

portrait lighting for profiles


The closeup of the reverse angle shows there are no bright reflections in the lens thanks to the lens shade. I’m a big, big fan of lens shades! Also notice how well lit the side of her face opposite the camera is. That same brightness outlines her profile and casts the highlight on her cheek when viewed from the camera.

The overview of the setup in reverse shows how much the source is angled toward the camera. The hair light is turned ever so slightly toward Tessa. This light is on a boom with a sandbag on the other end of the boom to balance the weight. The circular fill light is almost directly in line with the camera. Both the hair light and the fill are one stop darker than the source. Tomas does double duty by holding the bounce card and providing a focus for Tessa. I asked her to look at him so the edge of her iris appears. If she were looking directly ahead, we would see only whites. 

portrait lighting for profiles

The Result

Tomas stepped away from reflector duty to apply finishing touches of makeup on Tessa. I shot a quick test shot that he checked on the computer that was tethered to the camera. A bit more fussing with her hair and he again took up the bounce card. All I had to do was shoot. 

portrait lighting for profiles

By the way, the photographs I show in the “Handbook” are not retouched. They’re right out of the camera so you can see exactly what the light does. 

Have a great time profiling profiles with light. Until next time, light well and prosper! 

For more on Portraits, check out this class on Beauty and Portrait Retouching or maybe this one on Capturing the Modern Family Portrait