Tutorial: Lighting for Impact

By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

Let’s face it, photography is about lighting. Yes, composition is important and emotion is important, but without lighting, you have nothing. Light is everything … almost.

As a piece of music has rhythm, harmony, and melody, so there are elements to lighting that must be included for the image to have impact. Light has the ability to invoke emotion on the part of the viewer. We relate emotionally to different types of lighting and even our moods are affected by light. Light is necessary to our very survival and existence.

Light is a force to be harnessed for our photographs as well. One difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is that the professional is in control of the light. On location, the professional photographer has to position the subject within the environment as it exists. They have no control over where trees have grown or where buildings have been built. They must utilize the existing surroundings and lighting conditions, and the client expects beautiful images. Most photographers make the environment the primary factor and then position the subject within that environment. They make lighting secondary to the location.

The correct approach makes lighting the determining factor for the location and then positions the subject within that environment. Often in the first scenario the lighting is flat and diminishes the features of a beautiful environment. By looking for the “sweet” light first and then carefully placing your subjects in the best possible light, you create a better portrait that has both elements working for it: pretty lighting and a beautiful environment.

In the studio, the photographer has complete control of both the props and the lighting. The photographer can control the light quantity (f/stop), light quality (modifiers like softboxes, parabolic reflectors, umbrellas) as well as light direction. When you’re working in the studio and the light is coming from the wrong direction, you can simply move the light. If the quality of the light is not what you want it to be, you change your light modifier. If the shadows are too harsh, you can add some form of diffusion material in front of the light source. If your contrast ratio is too high, you can use additional fill light. Everything is within your control when you shoot in the studio.

Photographers often fail to utilize the accent light, though. The accent light is the icing on the cake. Properly applied, this light finesses the finished photograph, adding subtle detail to the face, or a line of light to the shadow side of the subject.

You can add accent lights to the same side as the main light, to the opposite side of the main light, or to both sides of the subject. Look at the accompanying images and notice how much interest accent lighting adds to the finished image. In Figure 1, you can see the entire image as captured. Imagine in your mind the same image without the accent light. Would it have as much impact? I don’t think so.

Figure 1: "Old Soul" ©Don Chick 

Figure 2 illustrates the areas of the photograph where the accent light adds interest: the highlight on the hat and hair, the highlight on the side of the face in the cheek area, and the line of light going down the side of the arm from shoulder to elbow.

The accent light adds light in what would otherwise be dark areas of the image. These light areas alongside the dark areas work together to create harmonious light in the image. As in music, harmony adds richness and fullness to your image.


Figure 2 

Figure 3 is a lighting diagram for “Old Soul.” The diagram shows the simple lighting setup used to create a powerful final image: two powered lights and two reflectors. The main light is modified by a 4x6 Larson Soff Box. The fill light is provided by a 27-inch square hand-held reflector bouncing light from the main light back onto the subject. The background light has a snoot on it to control the direction of the light and to keep it only on the background. Finally, the accent light is provided by a Larson 42x72 Reflectasol with silver fabric.

Figure 3 (above) 

Figure 4: "Weathered by Choices" ©Don Chick 

The lighting for the portrait “Weathered by Choices” is again a very simple lighting setup. Three powered lights and two reflectors complete the entire setup. The only change to the lighting from “Old Soul” is the addition of a hair light. “Weathered by Choices” is cropped much tighter on the upper body of the subject than in “Old Soul.” Also, the light enters from the right side rather than the left side of the image.

The accent light is vitally important to the success of the images. Without accent lighting, the temple areas would be in complete shadow and the images would lack the necessary separation from the background. These small details add a sense of dimension and drama. Without the accent light, the impact of the finished image would be lost.


Figure 5  

Figure 6 

Adding an accent light to a photograph does not have to be difficult, it simply depends on what lighting equipment you have. If your current lighting setup consists of small light modifiers such as a parabolic reflector with barn doors, then you could add an accent light by using a light and stand, a parabolic reflector, diffusion material with a holder, and a set of barn doors. This is an expensive way to add accent lighting, If, however, you are using large light modifiers for the main light, then adding an accent light on the opposite side of the main light simply involves using a reflector with an efficient material to bounce the light back onto the subject.


Figure 7: "From the Darkness" ©Don Chick


Figure 8 

For the image “From the Darkness” (Figure 7),  I used a lighting setup similar that of “Weathered  by Choices,” but there is one important difference in the use of the accent light. In Figure 4, the subject is lit with a narrow, or short, lighting pattern, while in Figure 7 the subject is in a broad lighting pattern. You can see the difference by comparing Figure 5 with Figure 8.

Because of the narrow light pattern on the subject in Figure 5, the head is turned in the direction of the main light. The light from the accent light doesn’t hit the subject’s nose. In Figure 8, however, the subject has his head turned away from the main light and toward the fill (in a broad lighting pattern). This placement of the subject’s head allows the accent light to reflect a highlight down the length of the nose, which separates it from the darker area of the cheek. In Figure 7, the accent light also creates a beautiful highlight on the leather jacket, helping to add dimensionality to the portrait.

Figure 9 

Figure 10: "Needlework" ©Don Chick 

The image in Figure 10 again illustrates the use of an accent light to illuminate a key area of a photograph. The quantity of light is enough to accent the subject but not so strong that it draws attention to itself. Because the subject in “Needlework” is leaning forward and resting his head on his hand, his left shoulder is in a much higher, actually blocking the light from the accent reflector behind his shoulder. There is, however, still enough accent light to create a nice highlight on his left temple (Figure 11).


Each of these images demonstrates the impact that an accent light can make in the final image, and in turn on the viewer. Want to take your photography to another level? Consider adding accent lighting to your next session.

Each of the images included in this article has been accepted into the PPA Loan Collection. “Old Soul” was accepted in 2004. “Weathered by Choices,” “From the Darkness,” and “Needlework” were all accepted in 2005.

Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP
Image ©Dennis Craft

Don Chick is an alumnus of the New England Institute of Professional Photography, and has studied with some of the finest portrait photographers in the United States and Canada. Chick is a Certified Professional Photographer with Master Photographer and Photographic Craftsman degrees from Professional Photographers of America. He also holds the Colleague of Photography degree from the NHPPA. Chick will receive his 4th Photographer of the Year Award at the 2009 Imaging USA Conference.

Visit Don's Web site at www.donchick.com for additional resources.


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Comments (7)

Mark A. Krauss:

This is a very nice introduction to accent lighting and studio light management. I'm wondering how much more powerful it would be to have comparative images side by side (with and without accent lighting) visually showing the differences, rather than leaving it to the imagination.

"Light has the ability to invoke emotion on the part of the viewer."

I'll keep chanting it, thanks for a great article Don.

Annie Gensheimer:

Great article - thanks so much for the diagrams and pointing out the accent light in each photo. It was straight-forward and easy to use. This is a great learning tool.

Reading these notes is like opening up a door that has not been opened in a while. These are easy techniques that make a big difference. Thanks!

Thanks for very helpful information!


Love the article. Is accent light the same as kick light? If not how do you distinguish between the two.

Just trying to clarify my definitions.


Hello, William.

Some photographers may call the "accent" light the "kicker" light. The jargon in our industry is rather loose. Some also call it the
"garlic light". I believe Don Blair started that term.




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