In general, what steps should I take to deconstruct the lighting on a portrait that somebody else took?

  • Are there certain things I should look for that provide visual clues?
  • What can I look for to indicate the direction and number of light sources?
  • What should I look for to determine the shape of the light modifiers used (if present)?
  • What indications of softness and hardness are there?
  • Are there methods to judge how far the lights are away?
  • Are there any methods to judge apparent light size based on fall off or such?

1 Answer 1


Look for reflections of lights in the eyes, glasses, etc. They're usually a pretty good indication of the number, direction, and type of light sources that are lighting up the front of the subject.

Look for shadows beside/under the nose, or under the chin. The direction of those shadows indicates where light is coming from, and the number indicates how many light sources there are. They'll often be faint due to fill light (which is there to fill in such shadows, after all). If the shadows are crisp, the light source is small or far away. Softer shadows indicate a more diffuse or larger light source or one that is closer to the subject.

Look for a halo or rim of light around the hair. That indicates some backlighting to separate the subject from the background.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The nose is probably the best one, because it's so prominent. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 9, 2011 at 3:35

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