What is Portrait Photography: Lighting People

Oh, boy! This is a big topic. There are entire Web sites devoted to portrait lighting, so we’ll do this in the most basic of ways, assuming you:

  1. Have already read my post on Natural Light Portraits.
  2. Are just getting started in using artificial light, and have a very basic and inexpensive one or two speedlight setup.

The truth is, you don’t need much lighting equipment to create awesomely lit portraits—just a little creativity and a little technical know how.

Here’s a quick step-by-step for lighting people:

1. Put your camera in MANUAL. Don’t be afraid—I’m still here with you. Keep your shutter speed at 1/100. This doesn’t need to be exact but below 1/60 you might not be able to hold the camera still enough to prevent camera shake (without a tripod) and above 1/160 and your particular flash unit might not sync. Start with your aperture as wide as it will go (this is a small number – f2.8 or f4 for example) and start creeping it smaller (bigger numbers – f7 or f10 for example) until the image is dark and you can’t see any outline of your subject.

2. Set up your light, preferably off of the camera. You can keep it on camera but the results will be less than interesting, so I’m not even going to talk about that. There are many different ways of connecting the camera to the off-camera flash. There are wires, infrared triggers, radio triggers, and sometimes the cameras themselves have the capability to control the flash. You’ll have to decide for yourself the best way with the equipment you have; I prefer to use radio triggers like PocketWizards but there are many less expensive and reliable options out there. Start with one light and test out how it looks in different positions. I’m going to use an umbrella in this example because it is cheap (about $20) and produces a softer quality of light, which is great for portraits, than the bare flash.

3. Put your flash in MANUAL. Are you freaking out yet? It’s going to be OK. Dial it down to the lowest setting. 1/1 is full power on most units, mine goes down to 1/128. Take it up by a full stop (from 1/128 to 1/64 to 1/32, etc) until you have a look that you like and the light seems even and you have good contrast between the light areas and the dark areas and so your highlights still have some detail to them.

Portrait Photography Lighting

4. If you are happy with the image then you’re done! You can also add another light to the mix. Repeat step 3 with the second light in a different position from the first. It’s likely that the first light will be your key light (and more powerful) and the second will be your fill light, filling in dark shadows. A classic look, especially on women, is a clamshell setup where one light is higher, shooting down on the model’s face and the other is lower, filling in the shadows beneath the eyes, nose, and chin. Both lights should be soft, meaning use an umbrella or softbox or similar modifier to make the light appear bigger than a bare flash, relative to your subject.

Light Photography
Lighting People

One of the advantages of using artificial lighting is that you also have control over the catchlight that appears in a subject’s eyes. Our eyes are reflective so you can see whatever light is facing the subject. Catchlights give a human quality to your photograph and can look really cool depending on the modifier you use.

In our case, we have a round catchlight from our round umbrellas. When looking at professional portraits you can sometimes get a full understanding of the lighting setup based on looking closely at the model’s eyes. Look at some advertising photos of faces. Can you see how many lights and the shape of the lights they used?

Be sure to also check out the blog post on the best studio lighting kits for your home studio!

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