Light as a Feather

Feathering the light is using the shadow edge of your light to control your shadows.

Most beginning photographers seem to start out in the studio with their light pointed directly at their subject. And this works in many situations. You can keep doing that and all will be well. But if you want to take things up a notch and gain more control over the light on your scene you will need to learn how to position the light to control its coverage. And that’s what we are here for today. Control the stamp of light on your subject be feathering the light.


The first thing to learn about feathering your light is that it does NOT make your light softer. We know that the larger the light source as seen by the subject the softer the light. What happens when you feather the light? Take a look at the images on the right where we are looking over the model’s shoulder at the light. On the top the light is pointing directly at the subject. On the bottom the light has been pivoted towards the camera to point more across the face of the subject. In doing so the light has become narrower, which is smaller. If you think back to the post about shadows you will see this is more like a strip light where the shadow edge quality will be the same up and down (the long dimension of the softbox is still the same size), but the shadows from right to left across the face (the nose shadow) will be harder because the width of the light is narrower.

The light across the face is slightly harder, but it is more even. The coverage is wider. But it isn’t any softer.

We can also feather the light away from the camera, towards the background. This will make the light across the face narrower and harder with deeper shadows. It is more akin to a split light when you do this. Let’s look at examples.

Feathering the light using a hard light source (an 11-inch deep zoom reflector)

Here I am using a hard light source to emphasize the shadow edges. On the left the light is pointed directly at the subject. In the middle the light has been pivoted towards the camera to cover a wider area of the face, opening up some of the shadows while at the same time making the shadow edge harder and more defined. Over on the right side I pivoted the light towards the background for another look that is even more shadowed and contrasty. Again notice that the nose shadow to the side has become very hard edged due to the light becoming much narrower.

Feathering becomes an even more powerful tool when working with multiple subjects in the photo. Here I have two subjects and a hard light.

Again, with the light pointed directly at the pair there is a strong falloff in light from left to right with deep shadows on both faces. By pivoting the light towards the camera the light evens out between the two faces as seen in the middle. Pivoting towards the background makes the difference in exposure between the subjects even farther apart.

Now let’s look at it with a softer light, this time a 2x3-foot softbox.


This time I changed the order and you will see why in a moment. I started out the same with the softbox pointed directly at the subjects. Turning it towards the background exacerbated the problem of uneven exposure on the two subjects. Feathering the light towards the camera for the third image evened out the exposure. And in the bonus image I turned the light even more towards the camera and you can see that this lit up the subject farther from the light more than the subject closer to the light.

Here is a diagram to help explain.

There is your control via feathering.


Light as a feather

What does it mean to “feather” your light?

The first thing many people will say is that it makes the light softer. But is that really true? Let’s take a look. To feather the light means that you turn the light so it isn’t pointing directly at your subject. As we should all know, the softness of the light comes from the size of the light in relation to the subject. A big light in close gives a soft light with its size allowing light to reach the subject from multiple angles and filling in its own shadows. That same light backed up farther away becomes smaller as seen by the subject. Light comes in from more restricted angles and the shadow edge quality gets harder.

What happens when you take a softbox and rotate it away from your subject? The height of the box remains the same, but the width gets narrower (smaller) as you turn it away, making it look more like a strip light to the subject. As the height remains the same the up/down shadows (under the chin, under the nose, under the eye sockets) will remain the same. But side-to-side shadows (the side of the nose) will get slightly harder. If you don’t make the light source larger, it will not get any softer.

OK, if feathering doesn’t soften the light, what does it do?

Feathering gives you control. You get to place the edge of the light from your softbox and you get to control the balance the intensity of light on the cheeks of your subject. Let’s take a look.

For this series of images I used a flash meter at the point marked in the upper left image to measure an exposure of f/4 (ISO 100, 1/125 sec.) and I varied the flash power between each image to maintain the same f/4.0 reading on all five images. The inset diagrams show the lighting setups from above and the second row of photos shows the setup from the side. There were no fill cards or fill lights used. All images are straight out of camera with no exposure or color adjustments. The light, an Interfit Photographic Honey Badger was modified with the 24x24 popup softbox that comes with the light. Both the inner and outer diffusers were in place and it was 18-inches from the nose of the mannequin in the middle image. (FCC Warning: that is an affiliate link, I may be compensated if you purchase something there using code “cornicello10” at checkout—and you get 10% off!)

Pay close attention to the nose shadows in the photos above. They stay pretty much the same throughout the series. What changes is the exposure balance between the two sides of the face. Pointed behind the subject the cheek closest to the light is much brighter than the other cheek. As the light is turned towards and then beyond the subject the highlight moves across the face. At first the two cheeks come closer to each other in brightness. Then finally with the light pointing away from the subject and towards the camera the other cheek gets slightly brighter than the cheek on the side with the light. The power on the light had to be brought up quite a bit on the last image because it was pointing quite a bit forward, lighting up more of the environment in front of the subject, causing a bit of a change in color, too. My last blog post was about environmental bounce. Check it out if you get a chance.

Distance matters, too. As you move your light back farther from your subject the light pattern grows and transition area gets larger. This can help when photographing groups of people with a single light. By backing the light up and pointing the light across the front of the group you can get even coverage across the group. Here is a group photo of the staff of PCNW in Seattle. It is lit by one large umbrella slightly to the side and slightly feathered across the group.

Click on the image to enlarge it

To answer some questions that might come up…

What is the difference between using a softbox with a recessed front panel versus one with a flush front panel? The recessed panel with its miniature barn doors gives more control over where you place the edge of the light and has quicker fall-off with darker shadows. Here is a set of comparison images lit with the same size softboxes with and without a recessed front diffuser. For the third row I added a white foam-core bounce board as a fill light.


Yes, you can feather up and down to control the balance of light from the forehead down to the chin. It is not uncommon to have your light look like it is pointing at the ground in front of your subject or pointing up into the air above your subject to get the desired pool of light on your subject’s face so that the forehead is not too bright compared to the nose and chin. Your light might end up looking like it is not pointing at your subject at all. The important thing is what the light looks like on your subject, not what the actual light looks like.

Yes, you can feather an umbrella or a hard reflector or a beauty dish. WIth an umbrella or beauty dish be careful to not turn the light so far that the bare flash can be seen by the subject, hitting them with harsh direct light from a small light source (the flash tube).

What are your questions about feathering light?

Feathering your light

For my fine feathered friends!


Back again to help clarify studio lighting terms. This time I am taking on the concept of feathering. Feathering is pointing the light ahead of your subject instead of straight on to your subject. Feathering usually produces a nicer looking image. People often say a "softer" light on the image, but that isn't quite correct. Remember that the quality or character of light is determined by the size of the light in relation to the subject. You see this in the shadow edge transition. The larger the light source is the smoother the diffuse highlight to shadow transition is and the softer the light is.

Let's take a look at what happens when you feather the light. Here are photos of a 2x2-foot softbox straight on and the same softbox feathered off to one side. What do you notice first? I hope you see that the feathered light is SMALLER than the direct light. So, if the light remains the same distance from the subject, it is potentially slightly harder when feathered. But at the same time, it spreads out more across the face of your subject, giving a more pleasing look. 

Straight on the softbox is larger than when feathered

Straight on the softbox is larger than when feathered

Hard Light

Working with a softer (larger) light source it isn't so easy to see what is happening. Let's start with a harder light. This time a 7-inch standard metal dish reflector. 

7-inch reflector straight on and feathered 

Take a look at the 3 points labeled in the photo. A (the nose), B (the lower lip), and C (the ear).  A is the same brightness direct and feathered. Why? Because it is a specular reflection and is the same brightness as the light source, no matter the distance. If the light was moved in closer the brightness would stay the same but the reflection would get bigger. If the light source was moved back the brightness would again be the same, but the reflection would get smaller. The feathering doesn't have much of an effect here.

B is somewhat similar with the small hard light source. Basically the same straight on or feathered. At point C we can see that pointing the light more in front of and across the subject a little bit of light catches the ear. I would probably retouch out that little highlight on the ear. 

Go back to point A and the nose. This time look on the shadow side of the nose. The edge of the main dark shadow is about the same. With the feathered light the shadow is not as dense, but the edge transition line is pretty much the same. The feathering lowered the contrast, but didn't make a softer transition. It didn't soften the light.

Soft Light

Now let's work with a softer light. This time a 2x2-foot softbox. 

24x24-inch softbox straight on and feathered

The differences are more subtle, but they are there. Look at the same three points as before. The brightness of the specular highlight on the tip of the nose is the same brightness straight on and feathered. But this time there is a difference in point B on the lower lip. Feathering the light changed the shape of the wide highlight on the lip, but the brightness is still the same. The larger light also allowed more  light to reach the ear than with the 7-inch dish above. 

Again, I invite you to look at the shadow side of the nose. There is very little difference in the shadow edge transition. Feathering did not make it softer.

Comparison sliders drag to the left to see the feathered light, drag to the right to see the direct light

Hard vs Soft

Below are the feathered light images with the small and the larger light sources

Comparing the 7-inch and the 24-inch light sources

Look at the same points again. A is pretty close in brightness, but the shadow edge on the shadow side of the nose is very different. That comes from the difference in the size of the light sources, not from the feathering. The larger light makes for a nicer looking highlight on the lower lip (B). If I had move the softbox back further away from the face it would have been smaller and brighter. Brighter because the rest of the face would have received less light and I would have to have compensated by turning up the power of the light (strobe) or used a longer shutter speed (constant light, which is what I used for these demonstrations). As noted above the specular highlight remains the same brightness, but I would have had to brighten up the entire image, including the specular highlight to maintain proper exposure on the face. I know that  this can be confusing. So let's look at another illustration.

Controlling the size and brightness of specular highlights

Again I am using a constant light, so I am controlling my exposure via my shutter speed. If I was using flash here I would vary the power of the flash to maintain the same exposure on the subject of the photo. With the light 40-inches from the can the highlight is thin and bright--too bright to read the text on the label. As the light is brought in closer a couple of things happen. 1. The highlight gets wider because the light is closer and therefore larger in relation to the subject. 2. I have to lower the overall exposure so the diffuse reflection of the can is properly exposed. This brings down both the overall exposure and the specular highlight brightness, bringing them closer in line with each other. In the third image the light is very close and its reflection is even less noticeable because it is spread out over a larger area and the brightness of the rest of the can has been brought up closer to the brightness of the highlight (and then the overall exposure was lowered to bring it all back to give the proper exposure of the overall subject). I know this can sound counter-intutive. Bringing the light in closer reduces the mirror-like specular reflections.

We see the Inverse Square Law doing its thing here. As the light is moved closer to the subject it falls off faster and the background gets darker. As the light is moved in closer the specular highlight remains the same brightness, but gets larger. As the light is moved in closer the overall diffuse reflection exposure gets brighter and we have to lower the intensity of the light.


Feathering your light can change the size and shape of specular highlights, but the brightness will stay the same. Feathering your light will help even out the exposure across your subject, but won't have much effect on the shadow edge transition (softness). Feathering your light is the right thing to do. If you want to tone down a hotspot you need to move your lights in closer. But that also affects the depth and spread of the light. So many tradeoffs in photography. More details about the tradeoffs are in my book, Anatomy of a Studio Portrait.

Thanks again for stopping by!
John Cornicello