Portrait Photography Lighting Techniques & Setups


Portraiture is a specialized genre of photography that requires artistic flair and a love of people. Photography uses light as its medium. Learn great lighting techniques and you'll create great portraits.

Natural Light

People are best photographed in natural light. That's good news for the photographer because natural light is free. Even when lighting conditions aren't ideal, a good photographer can work around it. When shooting outdoors, look for a place that is shady and has a steady light pattern. Avoid hot spots and try to keep the light source behind your subject. Nobody will be pleased if the subject is squinting against intense sunlight. If you need more directional light, use a mirror or an accordion car shade as a reflector. Place your reflector in front of your subject at an angle, and the light will bounce back onto her. Schedule outdoor shoots early in the morning before the sun is too high or about an hour before sunset. Don't despair if the weather is cloudy and overcast. This can be the ideal light for soft, flattering portraits. The clouds act as a natural diffuser and spread the sunlight in an even pattern. When you find a location that provides good lighting opportunities, take pictures there often.

Studio Lighting

Studio lights offer consistency and when you just need to get a great head shot you'll be glad you have a set on hand. A large softbox attached to a powerful flash head should be your main light source. Place it at a 45-degree angle about four feet from the subject. Place an umbrella behind the camera at eye level with your subject. To provide additional lighting around the head, use a hair light. This is a small lamp that provides directional lighting. It is placed above and slightly behind the subject. If you don't have one, use a clip-on desk lamp with a 100 watt bulb. To direct the light toward one place, attach a cone made of aluminum foil to the end of the lamp. This will give your subject a halo effect and separate him from the background.


Shift your subject toward the light to illuminate the broad side of the face. To leave the broader side more shadowed, turn the subject away from the light. People usually have a "good" side, so decide which side best suits each client. Rembrandt lighting is a particularly beautiful variation and is named for the master of light himself. The light creates a triangle on the short side of the face. To achieve this effect, have your client turn toward the short side with her nose facing the light until a triangle pattern is visible on the short side of the face. Practice is the key to taking great pictures. Experiment with your lighting techniques until you become the portrait photographer you know you can be.

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About this Author

Jennifer Gibbons is a freelance writer in Florida. She has been writing professionally since 2001, and her work has appeared in magazines such as "Senior Living" and "Mature Lifestyles." She is working on a Bachelor of Arts at State College of Florida with a major in mass communications. Gibbons is also a professional photographer and an accomplished portrait artist.

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