How to create mood in your portraits using the subtractive lighting technique.


Welcome to this weeks portrait tips and techniques. This week’s blog post is about subtractive lighting. As there are so many photographers wanting to photograph with natural light outdoors, I thought a post on subtractive lighting very appropriate. It is by far my most popular technique for natural lighting outdoors using windows, doorways and buildings.

Many photographers think natural light is a safe and easy way to shoot outdoors, but in actual fact to do it properly, requires nearly as much skill as using studio lights. A photographer with studio lighting skills is going to have a definite advantage in understanding good lighting outdoors, as they understand shaping the face with light and shadows,

Those readers who have my eBook BLACK & WHITE - Natural Light Portraiture will also have an understanding of facial angles, short and broad lighting plus how to find subtractive lighting locations.

So what is subtractive light. Basically it’s the technique of removing or blocking light from a subject using shadows or an object. For example an object could be a black scrim or a wall.

Here’s an example we should all have at our disposal. Open up a garage door and stand your subject about 1 metre inside the garage facing out to the street. (opposite side to the sun - open sky not direct sun) The soft, diffused open sky is lighting your subject, but because they are facing this light, the subject is evenly lit, this is called flat lighting. (not flattering at all) Because the subject is under the roof line of the garage, you have subtracted (blocked) the light from the top. NB: Subtracting light from the top, eliminates dark eye sockets.

Now to create some modelling to the face. Turn your subject’s face to one side, this will create a shadow on one side of the face.This shadow is caused by the subtraction of light or lack of light from the inside of the garage. So now you have one side with soft light (from the open sky), one side in shadow. 

The camera angle would be somewhere around parallel to the garage or a slight angle out from the garage. Of course posing plays a big part in the final appearance, but this post is about getting you to think more about light shaping on the face and helping you to understand how to create it. Also the depth of the shadows can be controlled with reflectors.

The garage doorway is just an example, more common for me are shop awnings, under bridges etc.The eBook covers this in more detail with photo examples and diagrams.

The following image is an old shed I used for subtractive lighting portraiture for many years. The old white car wasn’t always there and for many years I was able to photograph larger groups in that position. One day it appeared and I had to work around it, so it was a small challenge.

The reflectance of the white car was a problem. If the car had been another couple of metres inside, it would have made a good reflector. As it couldn’t be moved, and was giving too much reflectance, I needed to throw something dark over the tailgate area to reduce or subtract this reflectance.


TIP - always carry black, neutral gray and white sheets with you (single bed size is a minimum) black will subtract the most light for deeper shadows and gray will give softer shadows

The boy belowl is sitting on an old chair approximately 1 metre inside the roof line, therefore removing the down light. He is angled across the doorway allowing a subtraction of light from his left hand side. The camera angle is slightly away from the shed as shown above. A white reflector was placed on the ground, pointing up to fill the shadows around the eye sockets and add extra sparkle to the eyes. Don't over fill with the reflector, if you can see the reflectance, you're probably too close.

The following three images are from the same doorway when the car wasn’t there.

 So the message is you can make natural light portraiture look more dramatic by using this simple subtractive lighting techniques.

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By learning these lighting techniques, your work will take on a distinctive professional look, but it does take practice and refining. If you want to learn more on natural light portraiture, my eBook BLACK & WHITE - Natural Light Portraiture has helped many photographers on all levels to understand the craftsmanship approach to natural light portraiture.

The eBook is laid out in easy to follow chapters on the important subjects of natural light portraits. There are many example photos and easy explained diagrams on the essentials to help you understand and take you to another level.

Until next time, happy shooting