9 Tips For Taking a Great Profile Photo in Natural Light

How to use natural light for the most flattering profile portrait (it's ALL about the lighting!)
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Dallas Curow
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How to use natural light for the most flattering profile portrait (it's ALL about the lighting!)

In part one of our series on how to take a great profile photo, I shared my tips on posing and how to move your face and body in order to look great on camera. Today, I'm focusing on how to find the best and most flattering lighting, and how to use it to improve your photos.

Because let's face it—light can make or break a photo. Good light can make you look radiant, with glowing skin and sparkling eyes, whereas bad light just doesn't do you any favours at all. (Don't believe me? Just compare these photos of Olivia Wilde to these ones.)

I enlisted the help of my sister-in-law Carolyn to demonstrate the different ways in which you can use natural light to improve your photos. Here are my top tips for creating beautiful profile photos using only sunlight and a smile.

Profile picture lighting tip #1: Avoid direct sunlight

Profile picture lighting tip 1

We've all been there: a photographer asks you to look right into the sun's glare and suddenly you're squinting, getting teary-eyed, and just feeling generally uncomfortable. If you want to look soft and relaxed in photos, ask your photographer or friend to change positions, or seek some shade so that you're anywhere but directly in the sun's path.

Profile picture lighting tip #2: Avoid side/split light

Profile picture lighting tip 2

If you change positions to avoid a staring contest with the sun, you'll also have to make sure it's hitting your face in a complimentary way. Ask whoever is taking your picture to check to make sure the shadows aren't warping the shape of your face. You can always turn farther away from the sun until the harsh shadows are less severe. When you're taking photos of friends, be sure to watch that the shadows aren't harsh or unflattering.

Profile picture lighting tip #3: Watch your exposure

Profile picture lighting tip 3

When you're watching for too much shadow on the face, also watch out for too much light. An overexposed photo makes your face look "blown out" and wipes away your actual features, creating a weirdly ghost-like effect. To deal with too much light, again you can seek some shade, or turn the face away from the bright sun.

Profile picture lighting tip #4: Avoid dappled/patchy light

Profile picture lighting tip 4

If you do go into a shady area to avoid the harsh sun, it's important to make sure the light hitting your face is even. Dappled or patchy light just looks plain weird, and definitely less than polished. Most photographers know the importance of looking for even lighting, but if you as the subject feel a random beam of light hitting your face, it's always good to check with your photographer, and move into more even shade.

Profile picture lighting tip #5: Backlight the right way

Backlight is when the light source is behind the subject—the subject being you. If used properly, it can be very soft and flattering and create a pretty halo effect with your hair. If used improperly, it'll just leave you as a silhouette or just really underexposed in your portrait. Here are two examples.

The wrong way:

Profile picture lighting tip 5a

The right way:

Profile picture lighting tip 5b

Most professional photographers have mastered the art of backlighting, but it's relatively easy for amateurs to try as well.

If you're using a point-and-shoot camera, position your subject with the sun behind them, point your camera at the darkest part of your subject's body (often their face, neck or chest), and then press your shutter halfway down. This tells your camera the right amount of light to properly expose for the subject, rather than for the bright sky behind them. Once you've locked your shutter halfway down, you can re-frame your shot the way you want it (still holding your finger on the shutter), and press your shutter fully when you're ready to take the photo. If it worked properly, the photo should look a bit like the one above, with the subject's skin exposed evenly and the sky behind them brighter.

It takes a little practice to get comfortable with this technique, but once you've got it, it's a great way to create portraits with a really pretty look.

Profile picture lighting tip #6: Seek open shade

Profile picture lighting tip 6

Open shade is a large area of shade, usually in a large shadow cast by a building or trees. It's a large enough area of shade that there is room for your subject to move around comfortably without stepping into the direct sun. In open shade, the light is soft and pretty, and you'll notice there are no harsh shadows of any kind on our model's face. This is usually your safest place to be on a sunny day.

Profile picture lighting tip #7: Watch your shadows

Sometimes even open shade can be tricky, like on a really cloudy or overcast day when the light is flat and grey. Here are two examples of using open shade on a grey day.

Wrong:

Profile picture lighting tip 7a

Right:

Profile picture lighting tip 7b

In the first photo, the flat light is casting dark shadows under our model's eyes. This is because the light is coming from directly above her. To deal with these harsh shadows (the dreaded "Two Face" look that Michelle has mentioned), tilt your head slightly up towards the camera like our model is doing in the second photo. You can also duck slightly or ask your photographer to stand above you while you angle your head up towards the camera. Voilà! Shadows begone.

Profile picture lighting tip #8: Change your angle

Profile picture lighting tip 8

This tip is a little more advanced, but if you're up for a bit of extra knowledge, by all means, read on! The angle at which the light hits your face can have a pretty dramatic effect. The photo on the left is an example of "short lighting," where the light source hits the shorter side of a subject's face. She is turned towards the light and the photographer is shooting from the shadowed side. See how the shadows carve out her cheekbones and coutour her face? This is a great option, particularly for people with wider or rounder faces who want to add some definition.

The middle example is known as "butterfly lighting." This is when the light source (the sun) is facing the subject directly, from slightly above. It creates nice even shadows under both cheekbones, the nose and chin. You can typically pull this off when the sun is low in the sky, so in the morning or late afternoon.

The photo on the right shows "broad lighting," which is when the subject's face is turned slightly away from the light source, so the sun hits most of her face. It's most flattering on narrow faces, and not as flattering on those who'd like to slim their faces.

Isn't it amazing what a difference light can make in the way it shapes your face in photos?

Profile picture lighting tip #9: Look for natural reflectors

Profile picture lighting tip 9

This final tip is my favourite one, because it's really cool and creates a gorgeous effect. When you're using natural light for your photos, natural reflectors are all around you. Watch for sun reflecting off buildings, bouncing up off of sidewalks, or beaming back at you off of any reflective surface. In this case, I used a large white garage door as a reflector. I stood with my back to the garage and had my model face me so the sunlight reflecting off of the garage would hit her face. See how soft and pretty the result is? You can even see the reflection of the garage creates a beautiful catchlight in her eyes.

The next time you're ready to take new profile pics, don't forget to look around and see what you can use as a natural light reflector.

On a final note, here are the products I used to create Carolyn's makeup look featured in the photos above:

Profile picture lighting makeup

PS: Don't forget to check out part one of how to take a great profile picture, if you missed it!

Tell me:

Have you caught yourself making any of these profile picture lighting mistakes?
Got any neat lighting tricks of your own?
Have you tried any of the products I used on Carolyn?