How to use flat painting in flawless portraits
Portrait Photography Basic Photography
July 13, 2018

What is Flat lighting? How to use it for flawless portraits?

Portrait photography is as much about the expression of the subject as the lighting involved in shooting the same. We have seen studio setups with several lights required for portraitures. Portraits are however shot outdoors as well in order to offer a more natural perspective. The 3 point lighting setup is the most used one when it comes to portraits. This includes the main strong light source known as the key light, the softer fill light and the hair or rim light. The concept is that the key light will actually illuminate the subject properly. This is the reason it is called the key light. Since this light is very bright as compared to the others, some shadows will be created at certain positions on the subjects face. To eliminate these shadows, we use a light of lesser intensity from the opposite direction. Since this light actually fills in those shadows, it is called the fill light. The hair or rim light is actually fired either from top of the subject or from behind the subject. This is to separate the subject from the background and lend a three dimensional effect to the image. While this lighting setup is used all over the world, right from movies to photography studios, portraits can be shot without this setup as well. What if we remove the lights with different intensities? What if the fill light has the same intensity as that of the key light? The resulting image will seem to have a single light source illuminating it. The contrast that was present earlier will disappear. This lack of contrast between the highlights and shadows in the image results in the rise of the terminology called flat lighting.


Flat lighting is caused when the entire scene is evenly lit up. Since the contrast is missing, many photographers consider this sort of lighting as dull and boring. Contrast helps photographs thrive. Flat lighting can be caused when we use a single direct flash on to our subject. Flat lighting can also be seen in overcast conditions since the clouds act as the natural diffusers of sunlight. The entire scene gets evenly lit with the beautiful soft and natural light. Hence flat lighting has its own set of advantages and disadvantages which we will explore now.

The problems with flat light:

We have often heard the phrase “the image has come out a bit flatâ€. This typically means that the contrast or the punch is missing in the image. This actually means that the scene looks very uniformly lit up. Hence the three dimensional lighting effect doesn’t seem to work here. This is what results in a very flat and boring image. Several photographers dread this scenario. Flat lighting often fails to grab the attention of the viewers. The question thereby rises: Is flat lighting of any good at all?

 Is flat lighting of any good at all?

This is debatable. Many photographers prefer to shoot in flat lighting conditions. Let us take a look at the few advantages of flat lighting and how we can use this to create flawless portraits:

1) Beauty photographers: When we are shooting beauty images or fashion images we have to smoothen the skin of the model. This is normally done in the retouching stage during post production. What if we can do this in the camera itself? Consider the scenario where we are using a single light source or multiple light sources to create a flat lighting effect. What this does is that it automatically eliminates the unwanted objects from the face of the model. Since the lighting is flat and the contrast is minimal, the face will look smooth. Pimples, warts and other facial imperfections, which are often removed during post production, can be removed by the effective use of flat light. This is a major advantage of using flat lighting. A lot of photographers use this kind of lighting nowadays for beauty shoots.


2) Catalog shots: Catalog shots are used to focus entirely on the products. These are shot with bright flat backgrounds. Normally the backgrounds used are single coloured to make sure there is no distraction. The purpose is to have the viewer’s attention entirely on the costumes for which the photo shoot is being done. Photographers tend to use flat lighting in these kind of shots. The lack of contrast can actually be the advantage here. The absence of stark contrasts and flashy lights makes sure the subject appears smooth and well lit and the attention undividedly focused on the particular product.

3) The cloudy sky portraits: Cloudy conditions are a paradise for photographers. This is because there is no harsh light in the surroundings which can completely destroy the portrait. The clouds act as the natural diffusers of sunlight and evenly lights up the entire scene. Portraits shot in cloudy conditions look very beautiful due to this evenly distributed light. Remember, this lighting is also an example of flat lighting.

You may have seen extremely bright portraits, portraits that seem over exposed. These are called high key portraits. High key portraits are also a result of flat lighting. High key portraits are portraits in which the highlights take precedence over the shadows to the extent that the entire image is dominated by highlights itself. This is the reason why they look quite bright.

The conclusion:

We have discussed the different types of lighting setups, right from 3 point lighting setups to a single point lighting setup. Flat lighting is used quite a lot in the fashion industry to get bright portraits. A lot of fashion magazines have used flat light portraits as their cover shots as well. So is flat lighting a boon or a bane? This depends on your perspective as a photographer.The way you use the lighting setup available to you is going to go a long way in determining the quality of your work. Flat lighting can be a bane in certain photo shoots but if used effectively as suggested above, it can be a huge positive!

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