Cosmetic Lighting and Portrait Photography


How many times have you heard someone say "that's a terrible photograph of me", or even said it yourself?

The point of cosmetic light is avoid unflattering lighting and viewpoints.

Modeling and texture is a consequence of lighting. Moving the angle of illumination closer to the subject / camera axis generally flattens modeling and reduces texture, while increasing the angle increases both.

Similarly, more directional (intense) lighting produces harder shadows, while less directional (soft) lighting diminishes them.

The following tips describe how to deal with common problems by making simple changes. Experimentation is required to achieve the best results.

Making faces wider or narrower

Very few people have perfectly symmetrical faces. For example, one side may be slightly larger or flatter than the other. If the subject is illuminated so that the main light falls on the side that is wider, and the other side is kept in shadow, the viewer's imagination will lead them to think that the shaded side is equal to the lit side. The overall impression will be that the face is wider than it really is. Conversely, if the narrator side of the face is illuminated, the viewer will think that the face is narrower than it really is.

This illusion can be varied by changing the angle of lighting, and the maximum effect comes from very dark shadows, since this leaves more to the viewer's imagination.

Altering eye sockets

If the subject has deep eye sockets, lowering the main light will provide more lighting, and make the eyes sockets appear shallow.

Conversely, shallow eye sockets, or bulging eyes can be altered by raising the main light source, and moving it further away from the subject / camera axis (Ie more to the side). This needs to be done in conjunction with making the fill-in light a little brighter, and the overall effect will be a flattening of the planes of the face.

Large noses

Large noses can be de-emphasized by moving the main light source closer to the subject / camera axis. This will cast a nose shadow on the upper lip, rather than the cheek, so making the nose look less large.

Attractive hair or baldness

Hair can be emphasized by raising the main light and the camera view point. The subject will need to be re-positioned slightly, so that they look up to the camera. With a bald subject, this is will have the opposite effect and further emphasize their baldness.


If the subject has a weak chin, get them to tilt their head back a little, which will make their chin stick out. If they have a strong jaw, have the subject tilt their head forward reduce its prominence.

Soft focus

Soft focus reduces and skin blemishes. Soft focus can be achieved by using the largest lens aperture possible (however the effect will most likely be determined by the capabilities of your camera lens). Briefly, larger apertures have a smaller depth of focus, so any feature beyond the focal point will be very slightly blurred. You should always focus on the eyes, but this becomes doubly important when employing any form of soft focus.