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Basic portrait lighting


Digital Photography Tutorial - Basic Portrait Lighting Part 1

Nearly all of us have had our portrait taken at some point in our lives. Whether it’s the traditional school photograph, complete with bad hair and nervous smile, or the photo for your rail pass taken in an automatic booth at the station, which somehow always manages to make you look like an escaped convict, any photo for which we sit and pose can be considered a portrait. Even a police mug shot is a portrait of sorts, although probably not one we’d want to frame and hang on the wall.

Taking decent portrait photographs is an art in itself, as well as being a highly profitable industry, but contrary to the popular conception you don’t need a big studio and thousands of pounds worth of lighting equipment to produce good results. In fact you can take professional-looking portraits with gear that you probably already have in your camera bag, plus a few inexpensive accessories.

The equipment

A digital SLR is the best choice of camera for this type of photography, but many of the better fixed-lens digital cameras are also suitable. The other thing you'll need is a good powerful external flashgun, so your camera will need to have the ability to trigger that external flash, either via a flash hot-shoe or a separate flash-sync socket.

These sockets are increasingly rare except on high-end professional SLR cameras, so you’ll probably need to buy a handy little gadget called a hot-shoe adaptor, which clips onto the flash hot-shoe of your camera and allows you to connect a remote flash via an extension cable. The adaptor and extension cable will cost only a few pounds from your local camera shop.

To complete your basic portrait lighting kit you’ll need a few other accessories. The first is a tripod to support your flashgun. Almost any tripod will do, although a tall one would be better, and if the head (the bit that you fix the camera to) can be unscrewed that’s even better still.

You’ll also need a brolly reflector, which you’ll find in any good camera shop for under £25. For a basic home portrait lighting setup you don’t need a particularly big one, about one meter diameter is ideal, but do try to find one that has a gold reflector, since this provides the most flattering light for portrait shots.

To attach your flashgun and brolly to the tripod you’ll need another special adaptor, such as this one from accessories specialist Hama, although there are several different brands and types on the market. Here’s the one I use, made by Photax as part of its Interfit lighting range.

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