Basic portrait lighting

Setting up

A flash mounted on the camera is fixed in position, and obviously can only illuminate your subject from the front. By moving the light off the camera, you have the option to change the position the light relative to the subject, which you can use to produce much more attractive lighting effects than the “rabbit in the headlights” look of normal flash photos.

In a professional portrait studio the photographer will often use as many as five lights, including lights for the background, the model’s hair, and special lights to create “catch light” reflections in the model’s eyes. Since we are only using one light and a reflector, obviously our possibilities are rather more limited, but we can still achieve two of the most frequently-used portrait lighting effects.

The classic portrait pose is to have the model seated with their shoulders and head turned at approximately 45 degrees to the camera, but with their eyes looking into the camera, giving a three-quarters profile view of their face. This is a more natural and relaxed position than staring face-on into the camera, and gives a better impression of the shape of the face.

Types of lighting

Using our basic lighting setup, there are two ways to light someone sitting in this position. The most popular method is to have position the main light just out of camera shot, raised up a little above head height and pointing down at the side of the model’s face that is angled away from the camera, at an angle of about sixty degrees to the line between camera and subject.

Professional photographers call this “short” lighting, and it has the effect of slimming the subject’s face, so it’s a good idea to use it when photographing anyone with a round face.

Of course just using the light produces large areas of shadow on the other side of the face, so this is why we use the reflector. Again it is positioned just out of the frame of the shot, and angled in such a way as to bounce light back into the shadows. Unless your reflector is mounted on a stand, you may need the help of an assistant, or do what I did and operate the camera by remote control while holding the reflector yourself.

The other classic lighting setup we can use with our single light is “broad” lighting, where the main light is again positioned slightly above the subject, but this time pointing at the side of the face that is angled towards the camera.

This has the effect of making the face look wider, so it’s useful when photographing people with thin faces. Again we use the reflector to bounce light into the shadow areas on the other side of the face.

In the next tutorial we'll take a look at posing, themes and outdoor portraits, but for now I've given you a whole new way to annoy your friends and family, so go to it!

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