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 – sun 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.
Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know
Why use flat lighting?
There are two main reasons for using flat light in portrait photography:
- Flat lighting is kind on faces with lines, bumps or scars, because the whole point of flat light is to eliminate shadows.
- 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 these 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. For the right image, the light is higher up, to camera right and angled down, so it skims across her skin and accentuates texture.
How do you use flat lighting?
Any light that skims across the skin is going to pick up bumps and dents and then cause shadow. So the light direction of flat lighting is always from the front of your subject to allow the light to flow over their face and fill in all bumps and dents.
Further reading: Understanding direction of light: how to use front lighting
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, the softer the light will be.
2. Diffusing light for flat light
When you diffuse light, you increase the effective size of a light source by scattering it over a greater area, which then softens the light further. Examples are:
- Natural light – overcast sky vs the sun shining in a clear blue sky
- Flash – putting a layer of diffusion material in front of a flash vs a bare bulb
She is backlit by the diffused sunlight filtering through the woods. I used a reflector to bounce light back into her face to illuminate it 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 strobes 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 both flash 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 natural light.
When you place your subject in the shade facing out to the light source, which is what we mean by open shade, they won’t have any direct light hitting them, so the light 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, then 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, if you’ve placed them in open shade under a tree, have them face towards the light with the tree behind them. Make sure that there’s no dappled light on them though as this will create strange light patterns on their face. They need to be completely in the shade.
But trees aren’t the only source of open shade. Buildings are great for shielding your subject from direct sunlight for flat lighting.
Time of capture: 12.50 in the afternoon on a sunny day. I positioned her in the shade of a shed and the wind wafted some of her hair forward into the light as I took the shot.
2. Look for light bouncing off objects
Alternatively, if you come across a white wall with the sun shining on it, you’ve just found yourself a natural reflector, which is perfect 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 is not a good look for portrait photography!
If you don’t have a handy wall to use as a reflector, use an actual reflector. 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 trip grip reflector as it’s designed to be held in one hand so you don’t have to have an assistant to hold it.
The advantage of the five in one reflector is that one of the options is a diffuser, which is another way to achieve flat light. Simply hold the diffuser to block sunlight hitting your subject and you’ll have flat light anywhere you want it.
Time of day for flat light outdoors
The ideal time of day would be the start and end of the day, because of the low angle of the sun. You can 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’ll have the perfect flat light. How long you have depends on where in the world you are and how quickly the sun sets.
Taken 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 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’ll need windows that don’t have direct sunlight shining in. So, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, your north facing windows are perfect and if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, use your south facing windows. Basically, the windows that never have sun pouring in.
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 further and you couldn’t ask for a better flat light source.
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.
Further reading: How to use window light 3 ways for very different looks
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.
Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one
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.
Very soft natural light. Taken at 7pm on an overcast evening in the shade of a courtyard of buildings. The light on her jacket is coming through the gap between buildings.
Flash flat light photography
The beauty of flash photography is that you can move the light to where you want it. Plus you can manipulate the light with light modifiers such as 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 soft boxes are ideal. Plus, as the light will be behind you, it needs to be big so that you don’t block it.
Also, make sure you position the light as close to your subject as possible. Even if you’re using a huge light modifier, the closer it is to your subject the bigger it will be and therefore the softer the light will be.
And just like with natural light, you can add a reflector to bounce light back into you subject and further flatten the light.
How to position flash for flat light
Place the light directly in front of your subject, 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…
- with their back to 12 o’clock
- and both the light and the camera will be at the 6 o’clock position
Be careful not to place the main light lower than their face, as it will shine up and create “monster lighting”.
If you’re comfortable with using a second light for fill, it will help with preventing shadows. Unlike your key light, you can position the fill light lower than your subject, shining up in a clamshell light set up, to reduce shadows under the chin.
Further reading: Using fill light – essentials you need to know
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By Jane Allan
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