Welcome to my portrait lighting tutorial.
It may appear challenging to shoot a professional looking portrait at home without a studio or specialist lighting, but it is in fact easier and cheaper to do than you might think.
Want to try your hand at studio style portraiture, but can't afford the cost of lighting? No doubt using a professional or semi professional lighting kit has its benefits, but you can actually get good results without the outlay.
Studio lighting can be as easy or as complex as you want it to be, so the best way to start is also the simplest: the one light, one reflector set-up.
In principle, this is the window light and basic ambient reflection used by the great portrait masters of past centuries. Window light in particular was their main light source and reflectors – anything from sheets to room walls – illuminated and added detail to the shadow side of the face.
Even today a single light source is still considered a viable option for portraits by a majority of skilled professional photographers.
To utilize window light, take the following steps:
1. Place your subject a few feet away from the window and make sure you don’t include it in the picture as it will show up in the image as a big, bright distraction.
2. Set your camera up on a tripod.
3. Position a gold or white reflector in such a way that it reflects light back on to the shadow side of the face to create a beautiful shape and mood. This will also ensure that you have details in the shadows.
Great if you have a commercially available reflector but if not, you can make your own with cardboard. Anything that correctly and softly reflects the main light source will suffice: a white sheet is a fine reflector, as is a large piece of Styrofoam.
The reflector needs to be quite close to the subject in order to be effective, but once again, make sure that it doesn’t make a surprise appearance in the picture!
If you don’t want to use ambient light, you can use your portable flashgun, or a tunsten or halogen lamp. Light is light.
While you can make beautiful photos using only one light, two lights make things interesting. An extra light can be used as fill light, which helps to control the amount of light on both sides of the subject.
Alternatively, you can also use the extra light as a ‘hair light’. Position the flash head behind and above the subject to illuminate the hair. It’s also a good technique to separate the person from the background.
For digital shooting, make sure that you have your white balance correct. Better yet, shoot in RAW.
There are various ways to modify light in order to avoid the harshness of most light sources – especially flash. You can reflect it, diffuse it, spread it, or soften it.
Here are a few options:
1. For the less superstitious, using an open umbrella with your studio lights is a great idea. Umbrellas can either reflect the light or diffuse it. Reflective umbrellas are usually white and silver and are used to reflect and broaden the light. Alternatively, you can use a translucent umbrella to shoot through and soften the light.
2. The softbox is a popular accessory for portrait photography. You can fit it to the front of your flash head to emulate window light. It comes in different sizes, from as small as 40 cm to as large as a car, but a one metre softbox is about average. The translucent white material that is spread over a frame softens the light and also directs it forward.
3. You can also explore the use of different color and size reflectors to control the strength and spread of the light. Be creative!
Position the subject on a slight angle to the camera for more dimension and make sure they’re comfortable. You can find more ideas on my portrait poses page.
Although portrait lighting is important, it is even more important that your subject is at ease. You will find that people usually relax towards the end of the session and the best photographs are normally those taken towards the end of the session.
For more on lighting techniques for portraits, feel free to visit my portrait lighting page.
Read, reflect and be inspired. If you find something of value on our Portrait Lighting page, enjoy its gifts and please pass it on to your friends.