How many photos have you taken on your smartphone this week? The ubiquity of the camera phone and the popularity of photo apps like Instagram mean that we’re all amateur photographers these days. It’s fun to experiment with your exposure function, or play with composition and styling, but the real key to snapping a nice pic is beautiful lighting.
You’ve probably found yourself with an ideal photo opp once or twice, only to notice that a weird lamp or reflection blurred or otherwise ruined the whole shot. Bentley Meeker, a lighting artist and expert who has worked on massively star-studded events (like the weddings of Chelsea Clinton, Robert De Niro, and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones) explains how each setting affects your face. Take note for future selfies — and for when you flip the frame around to others.
“Until about 150 years ago, we saw each other only in daylight or firelight,” Meeker says, “and both are full-spectrum sources of light.” Natural light continues to be the most flattering — just think of your lush, bold beach vacation photos. If shooting in direct sunlight, take care to follow the most basic rule of lighting: “Whenever I take photos, I spin so my back is to the light,” Meeker notes. Let the sun be the spotlight on your subject. Just make sure you don’t blind them (or catch them blinking) in the process.
Of course, by definition backlighting breaks that most basic rule. “A camera is not dissimilar to the naked eye, in that it’s drawn to the brightest thing,” Meek says. “If you pose in the front of a window, I can’t see your face — only your shape silhouetted.” Your phone will capture a shiny halo, with all the details of your subject (or whatever main thing you’re trying to capture) blotted out. Of course, this tableau isn’t completely useless: It can give you a sort of artsy, dreamy look.
When it comes to artificial light, this is the most flattering (hence the name). Beauty lights just refers to lighting that is specifically intended to make you look pretty: a full-spectrum light that’s not too insanely bright, or incandescent bulbs, or Meek’s personal favorite of halogen. “Halogen brings out the rosier tones in the skin,” he says, which makes anyone look warm and alive. While it’s pleasant to do your makeup in a mirror that’s beautifully lit, he advises to apply it in whatever lighting your upcoming event will have. “I’ve had women show up [to events] and once they’re under the lights, I can see the differences in their face and neck color from foundation,” Meek says.
No, you don’t just look miserable in your office because of an annoying boss. Offices often use fluorescent or LED lights directly overhead, the perfect place to cast funky shadows on your face. “Everyone is pushing LED bulbs now, but they’re very unflattering on human skin,” Meek says. They tend to cast a blue-ish light, making you look yellow or green. Don’t believe him? Go ahead and post a selfie take in your cube.
With all this in mind, overcast can be the Goldilocks of lighting — not too harsh, not too dim, not too exposed, not too shadowy. So go ahead and experiment, but consider what you’re trying to accomplish when you take your pic. “What makes a person pop the most is shooting them against the a dark background, so all you notice is their face,” Meek says. Lastly, he quotes Mae West’s famous adage: “First thing I do when I arrive on set is to sleep with the lighting guy.”