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“Most good portrait photographers are good psychologists.” —William Lulow

Also, as photographers, our entire craft lies in manipulating and capturing light. So, in many ways, you could say the job of a portrait photographer is to use light to create a psychological effect.

This is definitely possible: there’s a reason people can make a decent living as a light designer. And don’t think that the psychology of setting up lights for real spaces or moving video is any different from that of lighting for still photos. It’s not.

No matter the medium, light can be warm or cool, happy or sad, dramatic or bland, revealing or mysterious; and the type of light often shapes the impression of the whole piece… What would film noir, for example, be without its distinctive chiaroscuro?

That’s why, to know what type of lighting to use, you first have to know what your goal in taking the picture is. Is it to expose your subject or to keep them partially hidden? To glamorize them or leave their warts intact?

Basic Lighting Psychology

A lot of what we know about this field can be traced back to John Flynn, a Penn State professor who wrote a lot about it in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He focused on architectural lighting, but it had significant implications for anyone who works with light: His work was based around the premise that as you change a room’s mood lighting from bright to dim, from uniform to non-uniform, from central to perimeter, and from warm to cool, peoples’ reactions to them visibly change as well.


One thing a lot of his research covered, but that he was certainly not the first one to notice, was that color temperature affects our mood in real life. This effect transfers to pictures.

Lower color temperatures feel warm, starting with firelight, at about 1,800 K, which is considered a universally attractive color temperature and is often sought in environments where the light is supposed to soothe. The ones generated by tungsten light, usually from 2,700-3,500 K, still fall within the spectrum.

See More: The Psychology of Color: Creating a Mood with Your Backdrop

lightingImage by Chris Watts

Color temperatures of over 5,000 K, which cast a bluish or greenish light over an image, are perceived as “cool.” Daylight is just a bit higher than that, giving it a slight blue tint.

lightingImage by Justin Maallhan

But the higher than that you go after that, the harder it is to work with. Have you noticed how no one likes fluorescent lighting?  How offices that use it inherently seem more cold, clinical, and deadening? The fluorescent color temperature, 4,500 K, is particularly grating, inducing a stress response on sight. If that’s what you’re going for, feel free to experiment, but if it’s not, be wary of that temperature range.

lightingPhoto by Michael Panse

Light and Dark

Obviously, the level of lighting can have dramatic psychological effects, as well.

We’re naturally drawn to light. Game designers know that they can subconsciously guide players by placing lights along the path they want them to take. Naturally, this is also true for highlighting spots of interest in a photo. This is why we use catchlights to draw attention to eyes.

Meanwhile, other research has proved that people are more likely to commit moral transgressions in the dark: even when we know people can see us, the lack of light itself triggers something on a subconscious level. Although I make no claims to be a psychologist, this is most likely why it’s associated with both violence and sensuality, which have always been labeled the two biggest sins.

Flynn’s research showed that brighter light increases the perceived size of the area it’s shined on, and dimmer light decreases it. Photos with bright backgrounds seem open and optimistic, like we’re placing the subject in a wide-open world.

lightingPhoto by Peter McConnochle

…Where dimmer ones seem close and intimate, like it’s just us and them in a tiny room.

lightingImage by Kuster & Wildhaber

It’s not that one-dimensional, though. Light isn’t always good: the right amount increases our mood, but too much of it, especially in the wrong color temperature, causes migraines, stress, and fatigue. Light that’s a bit too bright just seems slightly unsettling.

lightingImage by David Blackwell

Maybe that’s why overexposed photos look so bad.

Hardness and Contrast

The first concern of the human eye is contrast. It’s a key to our recognizing the boundaries between objects, which is how we know where anything begins or ends. There’s an optical illusion called the “Mach effect,” where they eye exaggerates the contrast along a given boundary to help you see it better. So, it logically follows that strong lines and stark contrasts almost universally make for a more noticeable image.

This is also why black and white images often have a stronger impact, and a more iconic look, than color ones—especially when they use chiaroscuro, or a very high contrast between dark and light.

But wait, before you throw away all your softboxes, this can apply either to the contrast on the subject’s face, or the contrast between the subject and the background. Light subjects on dark backgrounds, or vice-versa, will naturally draw the viewer’s eye to the image more than homogenous coloring throughout the image, meaning that you can light the face evenly without losing the picture’s overall impact.

And what if you don’t want all that drama? As I’m sure you know, there are plenty of portrait types that call for a feeling of gentleness, and soft lighting is just what it takes to provide that.

Lighting Shape

“Key,” in lighting, has two meanings. The more commonly-used one refers to the primary light in a multi-light setup. The second one, however, is the one we’ll be focused on: it refers to the proportion of light to dark in the image.

High-key images are primarily lit, with small dark patches used as the accents. Low-key lighting is the opposite. Usually, high-key lighting feels warm. Typical high-key lighting schemes provide even coverage from all sides, flattening out the image and getting rid of most dark shadows. This can look either boring and lazy, or flattering and optimistic, depending on how well it’s executed.

lightingImage by Loren Doesborgh

Low-key images are more darkness than light, and in contrast (ha.) to the former, they look very dramatic. They convey lots of atmosphere and tension, as well as lots of intimacy due to the perceived decreasing of the setting’s size.

lightingImage by Kristaps Bergfelds


A thorough coverage of this topic isn’t possible in a single 1,000-word article, so feel free to pitch in. Do you have any other tips on how to light for maximum emotional impact? What are your favorite lighting setups for the various moods? Leave us a comment.

C.S. Jones is a twenty-something writer, artist, and photographer: he currently freelances and blogs for multiple photo tutorial sites.  In his spare time, he runs an educational blog for web/indie comic artists. You can see his website and portfolio here.

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