How To Feather Studio Light

Sometimes a gentle, subtle portrait is the best representation of your subject. Here I used feathered, low key lighting and a narrow tonal range to capture a studio portrait of a young woman, Julia, wearing a hat.

Low key lighting and the ‘feathering’ technique

Low key lighting refers to the predominance of dark tones and shadow areas in an image. This lighting style can be more atmospheric and give a greater sense of depth and shape than high key lighting; a good shoot/portfolio will include a mix of both lighting styles.

For this portrait I positioned a soft box at 45 degrees from Julia and then ‘feathered’ the light. This sounds technical but just means that I turned the light source slightly away from the subject. As a result, the light that falls on her is from the edge of the soft box, rather than the higher intensity beams from its centre.

Light from a soft box is bounced around inside the box’s frame before being diffused through the fabric across its opening, so it’s already pretty soft when placed near to your subject. Using only the edge of it gives you access to a whole new level of softness: gentle highlights and shadows combined with a beautiful light quality. Try it out – you’ll need to adjust your exposure settings to compensate for the slight decrease in the amount of light reaching your subject.

Catchlight placement

Without catchlights – those white shapes caused by reflected light – your subject’s eyes will look dull and lifeless.

Our days are lit by the sun in the sky while our nights are lit by bulbs in the ceiling, which means light most often comes from overhead. As a result, we’re used to seeing catchlights in the top half of a person’s eyes, as this is where they naturally appear when the light source is above us.

When creating a studio portrait I usually raise the main light above eye level to replicate this natural catchlight placement. The most aesthetically pleasing catchlights tend to be those near the top of the iris and a little to the side. If you imagine the iris as a clock face, aim to place your catchlights in the 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position.

What is unusual about this portrait is that the catchlights fall in the 9 o’clock position, which is quite low down. If I had raised the lights any higher, however, Julia’s hat would have created a shadow across her eyes and wiped out the catchlights. To avoid this I set the height of the soft box just low enough to creep light in under the subject’s hat.

Colours: less really is more

Fashion photographers want the clothes to be the focus of the image. As a portrait photographer, I want my subject – and particularly his or her face – to be the star of the show. That’s why I love outfits with a narrow tonal rage – the muted colours give a sophisticated, gentle feel to this portrait, while ensuring bright colours and patterns aren’t stealing all the attention. I’ve emphasised this effect in post-production by bringing down the saturation levels of the colours to mute them further.

Drawn to the light

Julia’s face is the lightest part of the portrait here. Our eyes are drawn to certain elements in a picture, including the lightest parts. Light your scene so that your subject’s face is the brightest area of the image to take advantage of this. A black vignette, added to the edges of the image in post-production, has exaggerated this effect.


  • Focal length: 70mm
  • Aperture: f/8
  • Shutter speed: 1/180 sec
  • ISO: 100