How Can I Set Up Lighting For Great Studio Portrait Photographs?


Staff member
This is a question many new photographers ask. I've heard it a lot and I'm not sure I've ever seen a simple and easy to follow answer. I'd like to remedy that, so in this post, I'll quickly touch upon a few different things you might want to try to add some interest and quality to any portrait photograph you capture.

Equipment You'll Need

Okay, the first area I'd like to talk about is the lighting itself. For portrait photography, you'll most likely need a light source, a diffuser and a reflector. Now, before you get discouraged, let me tell you that you can pick all these things up for less than $100, which isn't a bad deal if this is what you plan on getting into. You can get away with just one light and a diffuser that will be placed in between the light and your subject. You can also use what's called a light box, which had a diffuser built it, which will negate the need for a separate diffuser. Because the diffuser softens the light, it also reduces it somewhat. To compensate and to add a glow to any shadowed areas, you can use a reflector on the other side of your subject in an effort to bounce some of that lost light back.

Lighting Techniques

For a traditional looking portrait, you'll likely want to place your light source in front of your subject, near the camera itself. Either above the camera or beside it. The reason for this placement is that it reduces many of the otherwise visible imperfections in someone's skin and it also reduces odd looking shadows. Harsh light from the side accentuates these things and light from the front doesn't.

For added flair or for some creative photography that is much more dramatic than the first placement I discussed, you can place the light source directly to the side of your model with them looking forward This will illuminate one side of their face and keep the other in the dark. Just know that this is a much more harsh and bold type of photography, so this must be done with purpose.

To experiment with your lighting, you can do two things. Well, you can do a lot of things, but I'll talk about just a few here. The first thing is, you can keep all your equipment stationary and ask your model to shift their placement. For example, you can ask them to turn their face so the light hits it in different ways.

A second idea is to keep everything stationary, including your model, and you, as the photographer, walk around the model with your camera. Doing this will also open up different views and will give inspiration for new types of looks and shots.

Another thing you might want to try is increasing and decreasing the distances of the diffuser from the light source and your model for softness and the reflector from your model to add soft light to the shadows and to diminish it.

There's a lot you can do with just a handful of equipment, so the rule here is to try new things and to get physically involved with what you're trying to accomplish. Let me know if you have any questions or if you have additional tips and tricks for good studio portrait photography.