Professional portrait photographer and Sony Artisan Scott Robert Lim is an industry leader in photography education. He knows the ins and outs of lighting for different scenarios and environments, and he created a simple formula to help others know where to place their light source during a portrait shoot. Keep reading as he explains his magic formula and technique for creating soft and flattering portrait lighting both in the studio and outdoors. Get more of Lim’s lighting tips in 10 Pro Tips To Master Your Next Studio Session.
BTS from Scott Robert Lim's workshop
Sony Artisan Scott Robert Lim explains his magic formula for creating soft and flattering portrait lighting both in the studio and outdoors.
Quality Over Power
Lim says the biggest mistake he sees when people are starting off is they buy a nice, powerful light and a soft box. “They really negate the quality of that light with that purchase,” he explains. “You can buy this new powerful light with plenty of power, and if you put that say 6-10 feet away from your subject it might have enough power to give you a proper exposure. but what you really want is the quality of light. There are plenty of units out there that can have plenty of power to give you the right exposure, but there has to be a technique in order for you to get the quality of portrait light that you need.”
He continues, “When you're taking a portrait, what's flattering is having shadows on your subject, but they need to be soft and gradual,” says Lim. You want a shadow on the cheek to define your subject’s face, but you don’t want it to be a hard line. You want it to be graduated so it looks really soft and flattering for a portrait.”
The Magic Formula
So how do you get that soft and flattering portrait lighting? This is where Lim’s magic formula comes in. “It’s not what you buy necessarily, but how you use it. That’s why I came up with this magic formula for people to reference and go by. You need a three-foot or larger diffuser, at three feet or closer to your subject – that is going to create that professional soft portrait look, whether you're in the studio or whether you're outdoors.”
BTS from Scott Robert Lim's workshop
He continues, “If someone has a softbox for you to use, ask them how big it is first. If it’s three feet or larger you can use it. So if you have a three-foot diffuser over your light, you have a three foot wide light source, and you put it three feet or closer to your subject, you're going to get some beautiful light. It's pretty much going to guarantee you getting those soft shadows on your subject.”
Photo by Scott Robert Lim. Sony Alpha 7R III. Sony 25mm f/2. 1/1000-sec., f/2, ISO 100
You don’t need an expensive lighting setup to follow the magic formula. Lim says many times when he’s on vacation he will just have a simple 33-inch translucent umbrella that you can find for less than $20. “You would be amazed at the professional quality of light you can get from a small setup just by putting it through the right diffuser,” he says.
Using The Light To Create Shadows
Lim uses cameras like the Sony Alpha 1 and Sony Alpha 7 IV for his photography, which allow him to focus more on the shadows when creating portrait images. (You can learn more about his gear in his What’s In My Bag article.) “Many people can create a great exposure on your subject with the light, but master photographers are looking for the shadows that the light can create,” he says. “I have an amazing camera that can shoot at whatever ISO, I don’t even need light for my portraits. I’m using light, not for the right exposure, but to create shadows. It’s a different way of thinking about it.”
BTS from Scott Robert Lim's photo shoot
He continues, “If the light is too even and I’m not getting any shadows, I bring in my own light to shape it on my subject. If I don’t have a highlight and a shadow on my subject, then I’m not defining the shape and bringing out what they really look like. That’s really the key to portrait photography. It’s all about using the lighting to create the shadows, and the magic formula will definitely help you create the right type of shadows.”
Photo by Scott Robert Lim. Sony Alpha 7 IV. Sony 50mm f/1.2 G Master. 1/500-sec., f/1.2, ISO 250