John Gress’ best portrait lighting techniques

Ask John Gress what he does for a living, and he’ll tell you he lights things. The whole truth is more detailed: a career spanning two decades of photojournalism, commercial photography, portraiture, videography, and more. Along the way, he’s become one of  the nation’s foremost experts on lighting, with an emphasis on using artificial light and light modifiers to enhance reality—natural light, only better.

Professional portrait photographer John Gress
© John Gress

In the run-up to his presentation at Imaging USA in January 2019, Gress shares some lessons about how to step up your portrait lighting.

Lighting naturally inside

When working in the studio, Gress’ main objective is to recreate window light. Of course, window light isn’t a uniform light source. It can adopt different characteristics depending on the time of day, the weather, objects around the window, and the time of year.

“So the challenge is to craft light that mimics what your eye sees during different natural lighting situations depending on the mood you’re going for in the portrait,” explains Gress. Do you want an image that’s dramatic, with more pronounced shadows, or one that’s airier, with a warm bright wash of light?

One key to recreating window light in a portrait is to use a good source of fill light. This may seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to recreate a single-source light, like window light, but it’s important to remember the differences between what our eyes see and what a camera’s sensor captures. Because our eyes see a wider dynamic range than what a camera sensor can record, we see bounced light that may not be picked up by a camera. To create a portrait that mimics what we expect to see in a window-lit scene, it’s helpful to employ a fill light—either from a secondary light source or a reflector—to create lighting that looks natural to the viewer.

Male portrait by professional photographer John Gress
© John Gress

Gress breaks down his recommended studio portrait lighting setups into two approaches. The first setup is simple: one light and some bounce cards:

  1. The main light is placed to the side of the subject.
  2. A fill card is placed opposite the main light, reflecting up to the subject to fill in the shadows and create a natural look.

The second approach involves multiple lights to produce a similar look with more specific control: 

  1. The main light is placed to the side of the subject.
  2. A kicker light is arranged opposite the main light to create an edge on the subject’s side.
  3. A hair light creates separation, ensuring the top of the head doesn’t fade into the background.
  4. A fill source (usually a soft box or fill card) reflects light onto the subject and fills in the lighting for a natural look.
  5. An additional soft box or beauty dish in front of the subject enhances the main light and controls contrast in the scene. This light source creates a circle of light that fades off gently.

Photographers can play with the ratio of these modifiers and accent lights to create either a subtle difference in contrast (just a little brighter, as you’d see on a cloudy day) or a dramatic difference (as on a bright, sunny day).

Female portrait by professional photographer John Gress
© John Gress

Enhancing the sun's light outside

Shooting outside necessitates working in a less controlled environment. That doesn’t mean supplemental lighting can’t be used to create a more pleasing image. Gress’ favorite technique for outdoor portraits is to place subjects’ backs to the sun. The ambient light from the sun provides the fill light for the composition and also serves as a hair light. Even on a cloudy day the sky behind the subject can serve as a little kick light on the subject’s head. Then Gress places a reflector, soft box, or beauty dish in front of the subject to reflect sunlight up onto the front of the body.

It’s critical, says Gress, to set the light’s power so it’s similar to the exposure coming from the sun. You can determine the correct exposure by looking at the image on the back of  your camera. Consider: Is the rim light from the sun too strong or not strong enough? Then adjust the intensity of your light.

The goal is to balance the sunlight and the supplemental light. “If the subject is lit too perfectly, then the image doesn’t look authentic,” says Gress. “Make a judgment using the image previews on the back of your camera. Maybe add backlight or move reflectors. You don’t want to overpower
the natural light with your supplemental lights because that’s when things start to look fake.”

Male dancer portrait by professional photographer John Gress
© John Gress

If you’re photographing in the middle of the day, when the sun is straight overhead, have someone hold a reflector over the subject to prevent the hard midday sun from creating excessive shadows. You can use a translucent screen to knock down some of the light intensity or a solid one to prevent any shadows from forming at all.

Building your lighting skills 

To build a more versatile bag of lighting maneuvers, Gress suggests injecting variety into your photographic regimen.

“Shooting in a number of different spaces with different subjects forces you to adapt because you won’t always have the exact light or modifier you need for every situation,” says Gress. “Then you have to figure out how to get the look you want without having everything available. That challenges you to elevate your skill level so you can reproduce what’s in your head no matter where you are.”  

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Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.