Photography lighting tips | High-contrast lighting

Soft diffused light makes great portraits


Beginner portrait photographers quickly learn one thing about lighting – You need a soft light source. Soft lighting gives excellent results time after time.

Model in multi coloured coat posing in front of waterfall
This portrait was taken on an overcast day where the sun’s light is diffused by clouds. Notice the smooth transitions between shadows and highlights. Only diffused light can give the subtle lighting we see from the bridge of the nose to the beginning of the eyes.

You see most of the time, portraits require gentle and subtle light transitioning from one part of the face to the other. This smooth transition allows for softer skin tones, trueness of colour, and overall flattery to anyone’s face (male or female).

Harsh lighting for portraits is also a good idea


But there is a time where high contrast lighting can add an artistic element to your portraits. With High-contrast lighting, borders between shadows and light are very well defined. If these light borders are well painted or even skewed in an artistic way, they can create some really captivating and stunning photos.

Woman looking into a sunlit window. Shadows cross her face
The shadows have such sharp borders that re-define the shape of the subject.

Discovering high contrast lighting advantages

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Two recent photoshoots found me in a studio that had some really crazy afternoon light coming through the windows. The window panes drew very distinct lines on the ground.


My gut reaction was to get worried about any natural light shooting. But I decided to just try shooting in this crazy lighting anyway.

Although I had brought my flash kit, softboxes, and backdrop gear, I was enamoured by what the light was doing over my subject’s faces and bodies.

Two female torsos laying on the ground
This level of high contrast list actually reshapes the image. Most times this is a disadvantage but sometimes it can be fun.

Dipping in and out of highlights and shadows


The dipping in and out of the light makes for interesting results and can quite literally re-sculpt your subject. By asking your subject to move while posing, the face and body take on new and interesting forms.

Woman crouched on floor
woman in fetal position on the floor
Additional pictures from the same photoshoot
Two women huddled together against a wall that is far away
It is crucial to sieze the exact moment that the light will be at its best.

The results are quite stunning and it really gains to keep an open mind during any shoot.


So in all this discovery, I cannot leave you without giving you 5 tips when shooting portraits in very high-contrast light. Here are the 5 tops tips I got from my high-contrast lighting photography experience.0

Here are my high contrast portrait lighting tips


  1. Don’t expect anything. It is not easy to know the end result, so you need to be in an experimental mood when doing these types of portraits. Don’t do this type of shoot if you want predictable results. 
  2. Remember that ambient light is harsh, so previewing what you’ve just shot to make exposure decisions is not easy through the LCD or the EVF.
  3. Everything depends on where you position your model in the light. Be sure to work with a model that is not afraid to move around and take directions. The light is changing up on you constantly. They will need to try many poses and be patient while you try to find that little sweet spot for the photo. 
  4. There is a high risk that you will overexpose your photos in this type of photoshoot. Remember that overexposing is not recuperable even when shooting RAW.  Therefore, underexpose your shots a tiny bit and shoot in RAW. You will need all the dynamic range you can get to be able to play around in post-processing.
  5. Polish up your post-processing skills. The hardest photos to work and improve in Photoshop are these high-contrast photos.

About the author

I am a photographer, videographer, and copywriter living in Quebec City, Canada. I also have a YouTube channel and an Instagram account dedicated to creation and creativity via my main loves of photography, music, and writing.

To get in touch with me and discuss your collaboration, service needed, or advice, either go to the contact page and write to me via the contact form at the foot of this page.

Photographer adjusting his camera while circus artist takes position on a railway car

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