Studio portrait photography is much different than the type of photography most amateur photographers engage in. It requires a certain skill set, some equipment and, of course, a studio. Or a room that’s equipped for this type of photography. Although many beginning photographers enjoy learning about nature and landscape shooting, studio and portrait work can be highly rewarding. Subjects are encapsulated in a “set.” They listen to direction. You can generally dictate what you’d like to happen and you can test, adjust and take your photos.
In today’s post, I’d like to offer a few quick and easy tips that might just help you out when it comes to lighting and portrait work. Oftentimes, it’s the initial setup that beginners aren’t sure of and that’s where this post can help. I’ll describe a very simple lighting configuration and then I’ll talk about how you can move things around in an effort to make your subject look either flattering or fierce. Lighting is a huge factor when it comes to portrait photography and it should be treated as a primary one.
What Gear Do I Need For Simple Portraits?
I remember back when I first began experimenting with indoor photography. I really had no idea what I was looking for. I’d see videos online of professional studios with all their lights and cameras and I was totally intimidated. I remember not even wanting to try that type of photography out anymore. I figured that I’d just stay outside and shoot flowers and things. The truth of the matter is, you don’t need much to take incredible looking portrait shots inside.
Here’s what you need to start out with: one light, a stand and a diffuser with some sort of a stand to hold the diffuser in place. You could always use another person to hold it, but that’s a real pain. If you want to get fancy, you could also use a reflector to illuminate the shadowed areas, but that’s not a necessity. What is a necessity is the light and the stand and the diffuser. The stand holds up the light and the diffuser softens the light so it’s not harsh on your model.
Do you want to hear something really cool? You can get a light kit right now on Amazon for $64 that has the diffuser built right into what’s called a “soft box.” And they come with the stands. Yes, stands (that’s plural). There are two lights in this kit. Click here to see what I’m referring to. I bought these a long time ago for my food photography and I still use them today. They are simple and just perfect for my uses. Of course, the stands aren’t twelve feet tall or anything and they’re pretty lightweight, but the lights certainly get the job done. It’s honestly one of the least expensive ways to get into portrait work. They’re effective and won’ break the bank.
As you get better with your photography, you can always upgrade your equipment. There’s no shortage of very expensive and very high quality lighting gear out there.
What Are the Best Portrait Lighting Angles?
As you first experiment with your portrait photography, you’re going to take a lot of very ugly pictures of people. Everyone goes through this. The most likely reason for this is the lighting angle you’re working with. If you were to place the light directly over someone’s head, facing downward, they would end up looking horrible. If you placed the light directly underneath them, facing upward, the same thing would happen. Terrible shot. Angles matter and they make all the difference in the world.
Take a look at this next photo. You can clearly tell where the light is for this shot. It’s almost directly in front of the girl in the photo.
The center light position is one of the most flattering positions for portrait work. That’s why you see this type of setup with school pictures. The kids want to look good. And again, all that’s needed is one light, a stand and a diffuser. With one light facing directly at the person, head on, many wrinkles and irregularities on someone’s face won’t show at all. If you used sharp angles for your lighting, any irregularities would actually be accentuated. That’s not a good thing, unless that’s what you’re going for.
I want you to take a look at the first photo in this post. This photo was taken with a single light that was placed off to the side as opposed to directly in front of the model. While I think this image looks very good, many folks will think it’s dramatic and that the lighting angle isn’t good for everyday use. I’d agree with them because it’s not for everyday use. Or for every photographer. This is a bold lighting angle that’s meant to evoke some sort of a feeling. You certainly wouldn’t want to do a family portrait with this lighting angle. Can you imagine?
So to recap, one light facing head on is flattering and one light off directly to the side creates drama. And your models will need to match the angle. Look at the two different types of people in the photos above. They both match the lighting setup and the feeling the photo gives.
Using a Reflector
Reflectors look just like diffusers and you can get a diffuser/reflector kit for not much money on Amazon as well. Here’s a kit for $20. You can’t beat that!
The reason I like reflectors so much is because they only reflect a portion of radiance that the light gives off, which not only fills in the shadows, but keeps the lighting soft as well. You’ll need either another stand to hold the reflector or a person standing there with it in their hand, but as you’re finding out, this photography gear is really inexpensive these days.
What’s very handy about the reflector is that they’re so easy to move around for the perfect look. You won’t get what you want right off the bat, but with some trial and error, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with your lighting soon enough.
Have a Light, but Not a Diffuser?
Sometimes people haven’t gotten around to picking up a diffuser yet, but need to take a portrait photo. I’m here to tell you that a good substitute for a diffuser is a white bed sheet or a tablecloth. As long as both of these things aren’t too thick, they’ll do a great job at scattering the harsh rays a direct light can give off. Again, you’ll need a stand to hang these things over or for someone to hold them, but that’s easy enough to figure out.
Experimenting & Moving the Model
Trust me when I say this; you’re not likely to get the perfect shot as soon as someone enters the area you’re planning on taking your photos. Unless, of course, you’ve done this a zillion times and know the exact spot in which they should stand. Because we’re not experts here, you’ll need to do a lot of experimentation with your diffusing and your lighting angles. The easiest thing to do, as opposed to moving your light, is to move the model. Have the person turn slightly so you can get an idea of what they look like at different angles. You might be surprised how lighting affects different people. Some angles make people look very attractive and some angle make even the best looking of us look not so great.
Experimenting & Moving the Camera
I just wrote about experimentation with moving the model and now I’m going to write about trying things out by moving the camera. This is one of the most powerful changes you can make with portrait photography. As you change camera position around your model, you’ll see entirely new appearances open up. For this technique, you’ll ask your model to stay completely still while you hand hold your camera to gauge what looks best. You’ll walk your camera around the model and once you find the best look, keep your model where they are and set your camera up on the tripod in its new position. Then, have at it and take your photos.
When working with lighting, the key is experimentation. It’s not a very difficult skill to pick up and learn, but you will need to practice and get used to what’s necessary to accomplish your goals. As I mentioned above, the equipment isn’t expensive, so what’s truly important here is that you set things up, pick up your camera and start shooting. If you don’t have people to experiment on, use a doll or an object of some sort. Or just go over and ask a neighbor. I’m sure there’s someone who would be will to help out a friend.
I hope I gave you some good pointers on how to get started with portrait photography. If you have any questions around this post, please let me know in the comment section down below. Or, you can ask any question you wish in the photography discussion forum. Thanks for reading!