Here’s a general rule in lighting: The light source should be big. Bright is important, too. (Really, there are no “rules”, but this is bullet-point advice, not artistic training.) To create a big light source, you can bounce light off a wall or ceiling.
When it comes to equipment, you can get basic lighting kits starting at $150 or use what’s on-hand and available at hardware stores. See below for more about lighting options.
Bounce Light off Walls and Ceilings for Soft Shadows
Bouncing light off a wall or ceiling is often better than the same light source aimed directly at you. The wall or ceiling becomes the big light source. You lose some brightness, but you can make up for that with a brighter light or adjustments on your computer.
In the examples below, look at the shadows and bright reflections on the skin. With the bounced light, the shadows are softer.
The first two are the “good” examples. The rest are not so good.
See below for more about the light used here.
Bounce Light off Wall and Ceiling from 10 Feet
Here’s this set up viewed from above. The wall is about 10 feet away. The light is about six feet high aimed up and toward the top of the wall and ceiling corner.
Starting here, the diagrams are from the side. The light is centered in front of the desk.
Bounce Light Off Ceiling from 8 Feet
Here’s the set up with the light centered about 8 feet in front. This is the second “good” set up.
Bounce Light Off Ceiling Almost Directly Above
The “not so good” options start here.
Lighting from above can cause raccoon eyes and increase bags and the appearance of a double chin. This light might be great for a young, lean person with a sharp jaw light. Generally, light coming more from the front is better.
Direct Light from 3 Feet, 6 Feet High
This creates sharper, deeper shadows, and that’s usually not flattering. Again, this light might be great for a young, lean person with a sharp jaw light.
Direct Light from 3 Feet, 4.5 Feet High
This creates even sharper shadows. And with the light this low, the glasses really show a reflection.
Direct Light from 8 Feet, 6 Feet High
The Good: The light is coming from the front filling raccoon eyes and wrinkles.
The Bad: The shadows are really sharp and deep. Highlights on the skin are unflattering. Sharp reflections in the glasses.
If you can bounce light to create a bigger light source (first two examples above), you can have the good without the bad. This lighting could work for some people..
Light Used for this Tutorial
The light used here is a Westcott uLite, 20-inch square with a removable diffuser. It has four daylight LED bulbs, 100-watt-equivalent, the kind of bulbs available at the grocery store or hardware store. To fit four bulbs, I also used an Impact 4 Socket Fluorescent Adapter.
Basic Lighting Kits and Accessories
This kind of equipment is available starting at around $150. The kits have 2 or more lights and stands, so one kit could equip multiple people with one light. You can also experiment with two lights.
Here are links to a few options.
Lights You Find Around the House or at the Hardware Store
Directional lighting is essential to bounce lighting. You need to block the direct light and create a big spot of light coming off the wall. Work lights could suffice, and you can improvise with what you have.
Be mindful of the color of the light source. The lights below could have a significant color cast; they’re not made for photography or natural lighting. If color is a problem, look in you camera software for “white balance” or “color correction”; settings there might fix that.
If you already have these lights, you can start experimenting.
Work lights available at hardware stores are often directional. Some are very bright. Here are a few available at Lowes.
If your computer faces a wall three feet away, you might be able to bounce a light off that wall using a small clamp light.
A bare bulb near a wall in front of you could work. Position a piece of poster board between you and the bulb. Aluminum foil could work as a temporary flag and reflector. Don’t worry about what it looks like to you. Nobody else will see it. Get creative and play around with what you have.