Lighting ratios for portraits

Shooting portraits using classic styles of lighting ratios is a dying art. Many new photographers are completely unfamiliar with how to do portrait lighting and so they don’t even try leaving the current trend of wedding photography to be that of photo-journalism instead of being a mix of styles including traditional portraits. In this article we are going to try to teach you the typical lighting ratios that are used in portraiture.

Stop, Drop, and Roll

We we are talking about lighting ratios, we first need to understand a few key concepts. The first being what we mean when we refer to stops of light. For an in-depth article on this, please refer back to our article on Understanding Light Stops. To put it briefly, a stop is not a measurement of light output, it is the relative difference between two light values. If we double the output of a light source, we have increased our light by 1 stop, if we cut our light in half, we have decreased our light by one stop. This is an exponential increase or decrease since we have to again double, or half our output to change by a whole stop. For example, if we take the light output from a single light bulb, it will then take two light bulbs to increase by 1 stop. To increase by another stop we would then need four light bulbs, then eight, etc.

We we are setting up for doing portraits using light ratios, we typically want to have one side of the face lit properly and then the opposite side dropped by 2 or even more stops. Why do we want to purposely add shadows, because flat lighting (1:1 ratio) is actually unflattering. Using shadows will add depth, dimension, and realism to you portraits.

Common Lighting Ratios


Stops Difference



No Difference

Flat lighting


1 Stop

General photography


1 1/2 Stops

Mild shadows


2 Stops

Dramatic lighting, low key


4 Stops

Very dramatic, low key

Be yee subtle or be yee dramatic – that is the question

Working with shadows can give you very dramatic differences in the mood of an image from being soft and feminine to being very hard and more masculine. While that is typically the case, there are excellent examples even when reversing the gender roles. One of my favorite recent images is of Hayley and uses some very dramatic lighting and yet because the transition areas between shadows and highlights are fairly soft, the feminine nature of the image is retained.

By making the transitions between the shadows and the highlights harsher, you can change the mood. In the following two images, the models were light with pretty hard side lighting with high ratios in order to achieve a more rough look that would really make all of the details on their bodies stand out more.


Notice in both images the shadow side of the image is almost completely dark and featureless adding to the dramatic feel of the images.

Sculpting with light

In this final section we are going to look at how we can actually appear to change the shape of someone’s face with the use of light and shadows. In the first image, Taylor is light with a 1:1 ratio which appears to make her face seem flatter and really shows her cheek and chin structure. In the second image we throw shadows into the cheek and chin which give her a different look altogether.

With the 1:1 ratio broad lighting, Taylor’s face looks more featureless and wider. With a 2:1 ratio short lighting setup her nose has more detail and her face looks thinner and taller.


Based on the recent poll here on Camera Dojo we know that many of you are struggling with lighting and we hope that this, and future articles on lighting will help take your images to a whole new level.


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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8 Responses

  1. Jose says:

    Hi I have a doubt, you said if you double the source of light then you add a stop but in the chart where it says 8:1 ratio then i think I should you add 3 stops instead 4 because you are adding the double source of light
    I hope you can answer my doubt soon

  2. kgarrison says:

    I do believe you are correct, silly me for actually blindly copying that from three other websites.

  3. kgarrison says:

    I do believe you are correct, silly me for actually blindly copying that from three other websites.

  4. Kris says:

    Hi Kerry, thank you for your informative articles, I really enjoy reading them. I would be great if the pictures were available to. Have they been taken down?

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