Emotion-inspired portrait lighting with Kellie Bieser | Profoto (US)

Emotion-inspired portrait lighting with Kellie Bieser

28 May, 2019

Written by: Kellie Bieser

I am going to let you in on a little secret: I did not pick-up a camera to learn how to “capture light.” I don’t identify as a “light chaser.” And for a long time, I wouldn’t say that I was “inspired by light.”

Rather, I wanted to capture people and moments that were important to me. Namely, my family. I picked-up a camera not to harness light but to take pictures of my baby’s first steps and of birthday parties and of road trips and lazy Saturday mornings.

Now I am going to guess something about you: I don’t think that light is necessarily what inspired you to first pick-up your camera, either.

So now that we have cleared the air and spilled our secrets, we have to recognize the truth of the matter. And the truth is that light is at the foundation of what we do as photographers. While it might not be the initial inspiration, it is utterly necessary and can make all the difference in our success or failure behind the camera.

If we don’t harness light properly, our images won’t be properly exposed. Technical competence is necessary for photographic success. And what I see happening far too often is that photographers start to separate themselves from the initial inspiration to pick-up the camera as they pursue technical excellence.

So now I am going to let you in on another secret: technical excellence can (and in my opinion, should) be guided by emotional inspiration.

When I am creating light, I am not trying to follow a light diagram. I am not measuring angles or doing math equations.

Instead, I use light as a tool to communicate emotion. Because light? Light is powerful. Light can cause a viewer to feel before they even have time to register body language or facial expression. And as a photographer who wants to capture the people and moments that matter most to me, I want to use every tool I can to tap into those emotions.

All of this is, of course, subjective. But combined with the other variables in any given frame, I would argue that light is the most important tool in communicating emotion clearly.

So when I want to create a portrait that conveys mystery and intrigue (because my husband is the only person I know to get an “inconclusive” result on the Enneagram test), I can use deep shadows and split light. I am using light to let the viewer only see half of my subject’s face, thus putting the rest of him in darkness to be left unknown.

When I want to create a portrait that highlights the changing features on my teenage son’s face as he transforms from a child to a man, I want to use light that molds those features and gives them dimensionality. I want the shadows to convey a sense of drama (because teenagers, am I right?!) and timelessness that I always associate with the Dutch master portraits. And so Rembrandt lighting is the perfect set-up.

And when I want to show the fiery personality of a tween daughter, an orange gelled backlight creates a rim light that glows while the faux snow drifting down behind her catches that light to add to the drama.

I could have snapped pictures of any of these faces and immediately loved them because they are pictures of the people I love. But by using light to underscore WHO they are, I am able to capture so much more than their physical appearances. I am able to capture the emotions they feel, the emotions I feel toward them, and I am able to share that artfully with the world.

Don’t let light simply become something that is essential on a technical level. Allow yourself to feel what light can do. Allow yourself to reconnect with the emotion of a photograph and find the emotion that is within the science of light. That’s where you get to become an artist. It’s where the magic happens. And that’s worth chasing.


Learning how to create beautfiul light can completely changes the way you view photography.  Join Kellie Bieser, in association with Profoto, for a unique hands on workshop geared toward the natural light photographer. We are currently filling up spots in Columbus, OH ,Houston, TX, Portland, OR, Los Angeles, CA, Santa Ana, CA, and San Francisco, CA. Join us for this exciting oppurtunity in a city near you. 

Written by: Kellie Bieser