feathering light

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?