Natural Hair in Portrait Photography

Natural Hair in Portrait Photography

From the first introduction of the camera in 1840, the portrait photography world has changed drastically. Kodak arrived on the scene in 1888. They quickly became the ruling authority when it came to all things photography. Issues in film processing nearly eliminated opportunities for deeper skin tones to be captured in a the right fashion.  The revolutionary age of fashion, products, and services for people of color spiked in the 1960’s. The result was portrait photographers and manufacturers were pushed to find ways of portraying natural hair and deep skin tones in a new way.  Natural hair in its unashamed glory is making a brilliant comeback to mainstream fashion. The photography industry is pivoting again to meet the needs of models of color. The movement to highlight natural hair in the media space challenges the European standard of beauty. It’s dominated images, fashion, and media since photography was invented.  Capturing the deep beauty of textured hair in portrait photography does require a few additional considerations that will bring out the essence of natural hair in every photo. 

Integrating Shapes, Lines, and Hair Texture with Lighting Techniques

Hairstyling is an art form in itself, and before shooting, photographers should come to an understanding of the style and look for striking angles, accentuating the hair’s shape, lines, and overall texture. Experimenting with hair lighting by changing the angles and placement should be the first step. Rim lights work well in framing the often darker compositions of textured hair, but many different lighting techniques can be used.  Photographers will need to analyze how deeper skin tones will look in contrast to the hairstyle and make sure to have enough lighting to bring out the skin’s undertones. Stunning spectral highlights can be created with lighting strips and v-shaped beauty dish lighting. And reflective lighting techniques will help to capture angles in the hair and your model’s face. 

 Using Motion to Capture Moving Hair

Capturing hair floating in mid-air is a breathtaking shot that produces a mind-blowing image. This popular style of hair photography that is encapsulated in many photos takes time and planning to achieve. The model will have to focus on moving just the hair in a controlled manner while attempting to strike the same pose in order for the photographer to capture the perfect movement.  A wind machine, fan, or using a piece of cardboard to generate airflow can also be utilized to create a flowing look. Photographers will likely need to shoot multiple frames in order to capture the hair in a favorable mid-air angle.  
Portrait of a beautiful African woman laughing.

Wardrobe Ideas that Compliment Hair

When trying to highlight natural hair as the focal point of a picture, the clothing that the model wears should not distract from the texture and color of the hair. Solid neutral colors are a safe option, but photographers can also think about wardrobe more abstractly. Articles of clothing that are culturally symbolic or provide healthy contrast could bring out certain dynamic angles and textures of natural hair.  Portrait Photographers that plan on using a darker background, should be sure to plot out how to create contrast and think through what the dark background will do to enhance your photos. For instance, lighting your model and the background individually could help to create a separation between the two. 
Beautiful model posing against a white wall with shadow


It’s impossible to capture the stunning features and symbolism of natural hair without understanding the story you are attempting to tell. Featuring people of color in a positive light is creating a new identity for Black and Brown narratives on a national level. The celebration of natural hair through images is a symbol of a new era of inclusive creativity, which advances equitable beauty standards that now include people of color within contemporary culture.  It’s critical to remember that capturing natural hair and deeper skin tones properly is not about figuring out how to lighten tones using harsh lighting and post-production tools. I t’s about finding the right lighting techniques and developing an eye for flattering angles by embracing the beauty of natural hair.  Abigail Baker is a writer for American Beauty School, one of the leading cosmetology schools for aspiring makeup artists, stylists, and other beauty professionals.