A face can have a range of “presence” in a headshot: from the three-dimensional quality that captivates the eyes to a soft and flat look that is pleasant to a quick view. This trade-off is something that a photographer decides for each shoot, and there is no one universally correct answer. But you might want to know what it means to you.
The leftmost panel, which we call shadowy look, adds a bit of charismatic or mysterious character. The lighting adds a moderate shadow, which emphasizes the jaw lines, high cheeks and full lips so that the viewers get a rich viewing experience and they almost feel you live in the picture.
This lighting also gives a slim face effect, because the shadow part of the face doesn’t contribute when people perceive the facial shape.
Although there are no written rules, this style of lighting suggests that the subject is standing on an elevated stage, being high end, or specialty quality. In advertising, you see this type of lighting in an expensive watch, jewelry, perfume, etc. and very rarely in bargain flyers. For headshots, the same effects can be achieved with moderation to avoid looking distant or unreachable.
The rightmost panel, which we call soft or flat look, creates very light shadows and substantially flattens the face. So, it brightens and softens the skin and reduces the surface texture, including wrinkles. It also diminishes valuable features like dimples, cheeks and jawline. The face also looks rounder compared to the shadowed look. To a limited extent, some of these downsides can be overcome by darkening the blush, lips and eye makeup. You could also bring the hair forward on both sides of the face. Because the picture looks simpler and cleaner with fewer features standing out, the picture can get a quick attention, but the viewer experience is not very deep.
What was changed among the four panels was the placement and angle of “fill light,” placed in model’s right (camera left). The middle two panels show intermediate levels. All four examples are within a range appropriate for most common headshots, not extreme.
A soft, flat lighting is commonly used in e-commerce websites and department stores’ bargain flyers since they are bright and easy to look at, and the audience is more interested in the picture as the description, rather than emotional engagement.
For headshot, use this effect with moderation, so that your picture doesn’t become too weak in features. Also, savvy people know that you are tying to look young when they see you overuse this lighting technique. You don’t want to give that information away too easily.
People’s preference depends on their age, gender, race and cultural background. Without getting too deeply, suffice it to say people often want certain qualities that they do not have. People who moved to the United States might still prefer their pictures to look like what’s more accepted in their home culture.
Besides aesthetics factor, this type of tweaks can be used to counteract some social bias. For example, if you are in an industry dominated by people who are younger than you, you might go for a youthful look anyway, even though they might underestimate your experience and you might be leaving money on the table at your salary negotiation. There may be situations where you might want to tone down your facial features or brighten your skin for a pale look. (Read news on corporate scandals if you can’t imagine whether and how these might affect you.) On the other hand, if you are still young and want to look more seasoned professional, go for the slightly shadowy lighting with a very confident facial expression.
Even with all the rational understanding of how the pictures affect your professional life, the strongest and most irrational pressure come from what people see the flaws in their face. That is, most commonly, round face and acne among young people, darkened skin with wrinkles from older people, and double chins from big people.
Some people above all consider it mandatory to use flat lighting to minimize wrinkles and brightens the skin for “youthful” look. For softening the skin without being too obvious, portraits taken with natural window light is very popular. Although the lighting flattens and “simplifies” your face, the picture will have a little depth and movement by using an organic background like a brick wall and a door.
Another, more powerful and versatile option to minimize the wrinkles and other kinds of problems is detailed retouching where wrinkles, under eye circles and double chins are selectively lightened or diminished, so this is the option that offers the ultimate combination of 3D quality and softer skin, for an extra fee.
This article described how a slight change in common portrait lighting technique could change the impression you make. One last point I like you to keep in mind is why you are taking your portraits. Is it for your professional career or personal life? If career tool, you want to make the picture to reach your career goal not personal “feeling good” factor. If this is for personal purpose only, you want to look cool and beautiful without worrying about your next job interview. Mixing these things will lead to a mediocre result.