Flat light has nothing to do with the shape of the light source or what you use to light your subject. All types of lighting in photography can be created with the same lighting tools – natural light or artificial light (e.g. flash). Flat light describes how the light appears on your subject.
Sounds complicated, but really all flat lighting means is that there are no shadows on your subject.
What is flat lighting?
Flat lighting is the easiest type of portrait lighting pattern to use, because you don’t have to worry about controlling where the shadows fall on your subject’s face.
With flat lighting you eliminate shadows by allowing light to flow uninterrupted over your subject’s face.
I used natural light from behind the model as backlight and used a reflector to light her from the front with flat lighting. The soft backlight was created by the sun filtering through the trees.
Why use flat lighting?
The two main reasons for using flat light in portrait photography are:
- Flattering for portraits – flat lighting is soft lighting so it’s kind on faces with lines, bumps or scars, because the whole point of flat light is to eliminate shadows.
- Upbeat mood – flat light is often used for the light and airy style of photography, because the lack of shadows makes it cheery and uplifting.
I used the same light source, studio lighting with a large umbrella and one layer of diffusion, on the same settings for both photos. The only difference is the position and angle of the light in relation to the subject. On the left the light is behind me and only slightly above her eye level (flat lighting). For the right image, the light is higher up, to camera left and angled down, so it skims across the side of her face and accentuates skin texture.
How do you use flat lighting?
Any direct light that skims across the skin picks up bumps and dents and causes shadow, which is why Rembrandt lighting is so dramatic. So with flat lighting the direction of direct light is from the front of the subject. Frontal lighting allows the light to flow over the subject’s face and fill in all bumps and dents for flattering results.
For flat lighting you need soft, even light and there are two ways of achieving this:
- Size of the light source
1. Light source size for flat light
The most important factor for flat light is to use a large light source so that the light wraps around your subject, eliminating any shadows. The bigger the light source is in relation to the subject, the softer the light will be.
For example, on-camera flash is a small light source, so will produce harsh shadows on the subject’s face. However, if you’re in a room with white walls (ideally) and angle the flash at a nearby wall behind you so that it bounces back into the subject’s face, the reflected light will be soft.
By bouncing this small, single light source into a wall behind you, you create a large light source to light your subject from the front.
2. Diffusing light for flat light
When you diffuse light, you increase the effective size of a light source by scattering light over a greater area, which then softens and flattens the light further.
- Natural lighting – overcast sky vs the sun shining in a clear blue sky
- Flash lighting – putting a layer of diffusion material in front of a flash vs a bare bulb direct flash
The model is backlit by diffused sunlight filtering through the woods and I used a reflector to bounce light back into her face to illuminate it with flat light and even out shadows. Taken at 1.25pm on a sunny day.
Type of light source for flat light photography
Flat light can be created with strobe lighting indoors or outdoors, but you don’t have to use flash to create flat light. Let’s have a look at how to use flat lighting in photography with different types of lighting – flash light and natural light.
Natural light for flat lighting outdoors
Just because you need a diffused light source for flat light doesn’t mean that you have to wait for an overcast day to use natural light for flat lighting.
1. Look for open shade
Open shade is your best friend for flat lighting portraits outdoors with indirect natural light.
When you place your subject in shade facing out to the light source, which is what we mean by open shade, no direct light will touch them. So the indirect light on them will be very flat.
The reason they need to face towards the light is so that they are more lit than the background. Otherwise you end up with a bright background and your subject in shade and underexposed.
If your intention is to blow out your background completely, that’s fine, expose for your subject’s face and allow the background to overexpose. Most of the time, however, we want some detail in the background while our subject is well exposed.
So, for example, if you place your subject in open shade under a tree, have them face towards the light with the tree behind them. With tree shade make sure that there’s no dappled light on your subject either as it creates strange light patterns on their face. Your subject must be completely in shadow.
Trees aren’t the only source of open shade. Buildings are also great for creating flat lighting by shielding your subject from bright direct sunlight.
I took this flat light portrait at 12.50 in the afternoon on a sunny day. Rather than photograph in the midday sun, which would produce hard shadows, I positioned her in the shade of a shed. The wind wafted some of her hair forward into the light as I took the shot, which gave it a nice highlight.
2. Look for light bouncing off objects
If you come across a white wall with the sun shining on it, you’ve just found yourself a natural reflector. It’s a perfect source of light for flat light outdoors.
Stand with your back to the wall and your subject in front of you. The light reflecting off the wall will light them evenly and create the perfect flat light.
I say perfect, but there’s just one thing to bear in mind – depending on how bright the sun is and how sensitive their eyes are to light, the white wall might be a bit bright. If it’s too bright they’ll screw up their eyes against the glare, which of course isn’t a good look for portrait photography!
If you don’t have a handy wall to use as a reflector, use an actual reflector. Photography reflectors are an amazingly cheap light tool and they’re also really easy to fold up and pack in with your camera bag.
There’s a big variety of reflectors available, but my favourite is a 5-in-one tri-grip reflector as it’s designed to be held in one hand, so you don’t need an assistant to hold it. Another advantage of the five in one reflector is that one of the 5 options is a diffuser, which is another way to achieve flat light.
Hold the diffuser so that it blocks sunlight from hitting your subject for flat light anywhere you want it.
Best time of day for flat light outdoors
The ideal time of day for flat lighting is the start and end of the day during golden hour, because of the low angle of the sun. Position your subject with the sun behind them and use a reflector to bounce light back into their face for beautiful flat light.
It helps with the exposure if you don’t have the sun or the sky in shot, so look for something to fill up the background like:
- A hedge etc
Then angle your camera so that you don’t include the sky or the sun.
For a short time after the sun has set you have the perfect flat light outdoors. This is known as the blue hour in photography, although it doesn’t last an hour. How long it lasts depends on where in the world you are and how quickly the sun sets.
I took this at 8pm during blue hour on an overcast evening, just after the sun had set over my right shoulder
That said, I’ve used flat light for natural light portraits in the middle of the day on a sunny day. I simply placed my subject in the open shade of a building.
Using natural light indoors for flat light photography
Windows are ideal for flat light photography. For indoor photography think of every window in your home as a potential light source.
For flat light photography indoors you need windows that don’t have direct sunlight shining in. So, if you’re in the:
- Northern Hemisphere – your north facing windows are perfect for flat lighting
- Southern Hemisphere – use your south facing windows for flat light
Basically, for great flat lighting from window light, use the windows that never have direct sun pouring.
The bigger the window, the larger the light source and therefore the softer the light will be. Add some sheer curtains to soften the light even further by diffusing the light and you couldn’t ask for a better flat light source indoors.
Position your subject as close to the window as possible to get the best flat light. The further they are from the window the more the light will fall off and the more shadows will creep into the image. Plus you won’t have as much light.
Use a reflector to bounce light back into their face as well to ensure the light is as flat as possible. For a reflector indoors you can use:
- White card
- A sheet
- Or an actual reflector
Just make sure that you position the reflector correctly.
You could also position your subject just inside an open doorway looking out at you, as long as no direct sunlight is flowing through the doorway.
I took this very soft natural light portrait at 7pm on an overcast evening in the shade of a courtyard of buildings. The light on her jacket is coming through a gap between buildings.
Flat light photography with flash
The beauty of flash photography is that you can move the light to where you want it. Plus you can manipulate the quality of light with light modifiers such as photographic umbrellas and softboxes. You can further adjust the light with diffusers to make any potential shadows even softer for flat light.
Remember, the bigger your light source, the better it is for flat light photography, so large umbrellas and softboxes are ideal for portrait work. Plus, as the light will be behind you, it needs to be big so that you don’t block it.
For the best flat light portraits make sure you position the light as close to your subject as possible. Even if you use a huge light modifier, the closer it is to your subject the bigger it’ll be and therefore the softer the light will be.
Just like with natural light, you can add a reflector to the lighting setup to bounce light back into you subject and further flatten the light.
How to position flash for flat light
For completely flat light with no shadows, use a large umbrella or softbox and position your lighting behind you shining directly at your subject.
Or place the light directly in front of your subject and slightly above eye level so that it shines straight at your subject’s face.
Imagine a clock face with the subject in the middle of the clock…
- The subject’s back is to 12 o’clock and they face to 6 o’clock
- Both the light and the camera are at the 6 o’clock position
Be careful with the angle of the light and don’t place it lower than the subject’s face, as it’ll shine up and create “monster lighting”.
Flat light with a little definition
The butterfly lighting setup, is very popular for beauty photography, because it produces even, soft light. You can add fill light to fill in the shadows for flat lighting.
- The light position is almost the same as above, but you angle the flash down slightly towards the subject. This creates a small shadow beneath the nose.
- Next, add a second light source as fill light to fill in the shadows for a flat light portrait.
- Position the fill light below your subject’s chin, shining up in a clamshell light set up, to reduce the nose shadow and shadows under the chin created by the key light (aka main light).
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