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The Quest for the Perfect Portrait

Do you want to capture amazing portrait photos?

If so, then you need to master portrait photography lighting.

Which is what this article is all about.

I’m going to give you 5 highly practical tips for taking your portrait photography lighting to the next level–including tips for shooting in natural light, and tips for shooting with external light sources.

Are you ready to revolutionize your portrait images?

Let’s dive right in.

1. Shoot in Cloudy Weather for Subtle Portrait Images

If you like to shoot outdoors, then you’ve got to pay constant attention to the weather.

In particular, you should pay attention to the clouds–because cloud cover can make or break a portrait photo.

Why?

Because the heavier the cloud cover, the softer the light becomes.

And soft light is amazing for portrait photos.

That’s why I love to shoot portraits on cloudy days, when the light is nicely diffused by heavy cloud cover, and I don’t have to worry about harsh, contrasty shadows.

(Harsh, contrast-heavy shadows are what you get when you shoot outdoors on bright, sunny days, by the way. And they’re really unflattering.)

One of the cool things about shooting on cloudy days is that the soft light helps your subject’s skin to look its best.

Plus, it’s really easy to expose for subjects on cloudy days, because the light is very even.

Now, depending on the level of cloudiness, you still may want to bring a reflector into the field. This can punch up shadows under your subject’s face, or on the side of the face that isn’t directly illuminated by the light.

You can also use a flash to fill in shadows, though I’m not a fan of this because flashes are much more cumbersome than fold-up reflectors.

One thing to be aware of, however:

The later in the day it gets, the less light you’ll have to work with.

And because clouds reduce lighting strength, you’ll struggle to expose properly without a flash. You’ll end up boosting your ISO, which will cause noise, and noise generally doesn’t look good with portraits.

So make sure you’re aware of the light levels, and try to go out toward the middle of the day, when the light is stronger.

Make sense?

Of course, you don’t always want to wait for cloudy days in order to shoot.

That’s where the golden hours come in:

2. Shoot During the Golden Hours for Beautiful Backlight

The golden hours are the hour or so after sunrise and the hour or so before sunset, when the sun is still low in the sky and casts a beautiful golden glow across the landscape.

And while the golden hours don’t offer light that’s quite as soft as you’ll find on a cloudy day, they’re still great for portrait photography.

Why?

First, because the light of the setting sun is a soft gold color, and looks great in photos.

Like this:

Do you see how the warm light sets this image apart?

But also because while golden-hour light is soft, it’s also directional. Meaning that it comes from a clear direction, such as from in front of your portrait subject, to the side of your portrait subject, or even from the side of your portrait subject.

And this matters because backlight looks amazing in portraits.

If you position your subject so the light is coming from behind, and then you expose for the subject, you’ll get a shot like this:

Where the golden light from the low sun illuminates your subject’s hair, and the subject stands out beautifully from the background.

In fact, if you make sure there is some type of translucent item between your subject and the sun, the background will be filled with cool bokeh, like this:

For the photo above, I made sure there were some nice trees in the background. The low sun came through the tree leaves, and created the bokeh you see behind the subject.

Note that if you’re struggling to expose for the subject, then make sure you’re shooting in Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode. Point the center of your viewfinder at the subject to take a reading, and use the suggested exposure (from the exposure bar in your camera’s viewfinder, or from the settings your camera chooses in Aperture Priority mode) to take a shot.

If things are looking too dark, then go ahead and slow down your shutter speed or dial in +1 stop of exposure compensation. Take another test shot, see how things are looking, and make any further corrections.

Eventually, you’ll get the perfect shot–one with a well-exposed subject and a beautiful background!

3. Use a 45-45 Flash Setup to Give Your Portraits Depth

The tips above were both about shooting outdoors with fully natural light.

But for this tip, I’d like to talk about something you can do with a single flash when shooting in a studio (or anywhere indoors, really).

First, take an off-camera flash and mount it to a lighting stand. Modify it using an umbrella or a large softbox.

Then raise up the flash, so that it’s pointing down at your subject from a 45-degree angle.

Finally, take the lighting stand and place it 45 degrees from your subject. It should be sitting off to the side, so that the light is hitting your subject from an angle.

Now, set your exposure and take a test shot.

If all has gone well, you should have a subject with the side of their face illuminated, like this:

You want some light to fall on the other side of your subject’s face, but not too much–because the more light that falls, the flatter and less interesting your subject becomes.

You should also have a background that’s completely black. If this isn’t the case, then you need to bring your setup away from the background, or place black boards/sheets between your flash and the background to prevent light from illuminating the area.

In truth, this look isn’t a particularly difficult one to pull off. Once you get the light positioned and your subject sufficiently far from the background, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning by shifting the light back and forth a bit, as well as adjusting the power of the flash.

Eventually, you’ll get a 45-45 lighting setup, as it’s often called.

And here’s the thing about 45-45 lighting setups:

They’re stunning.

In fact, portrait photographers often start with a 45-45 setup, simply because it gives wonderfully flattering light that nicely illuminates the face.

Plus, the 45-degree angle creates a lot of depth, making your subject look like they’re about to pop off the page.

(Cinematographers also often use 45-45 lighting for this very reason.)

Now, you can further modify your 45-45 lighting setup by adding a reflector on the other side of your subject. This will bounce some light into the shadows on your subject’s face, but won’t destroy the shadows completely.

You can also modify your 45-45 lighting setup with some rim lighting, as I discuss in the next section:

4. Put a Flash Behind Your Subject for Stunning Rim Light

Rim light refers to light that comes from behind your subject and lights up the outline, or rim, of their body.

Like this:

And rim light is one of the easiest ways to make your portrait photography lighting setup more professional.

You see, rim light gives your photos a little extra oomph. It gives a very cool highlight around your subject, plus it helps your subject to pop off the background.

Now, there are two broad ways of using rim lights.

First, you can use it on its own. Just a single flash, which you position behind your subject, pointing toward yourself, the photographer.

This gives a very dramatic result, but not something that a standard family portrait client would appreciate:

Or you can rim light with another flash, such as in a 45-45 lighting setup. In this case, the rim light still goes behind your subject, but you’ll also want to position the main flash in the 45-45 angle.

With such a setup, your main subject will be illuminated, but you’ll also get a nice rim light effect:

Regardless, note that the rim light doesn’t necessarily need to be modified with an umbrella or a softbox, but it often pays to experiment with different options. You can even try adding gels for warm or cool color effects.

Oh, and speaking of experimenting:

Try moving around the rim light behind your subject. Position the flash so that it’s blocked by your subject–but then move it to the left or the right, so it’s just outside of the camera frame. That way, you can illuminate one side of the subject but not the other, for an interestingly dramatic effect!

5. Use Sun-Shade Combinations for Gorgeous Background Light

Here’s your final portrait photography lighting tip.

(And it’s a fun one!)

Whenever you’re shooting outside, and you’ve got some nice sun…

…why not try to use sun and shade together?

Here’s what you do:

First, find some nice shadow, perhaps under a tree.

And then find some sun behind that shade–an area where the light is bright, but not too bright.

Place your subject so that they’re standing in the shade, but the sunny areas are included in the background.

Then meter off your subject; you can do this by using your subject to fill the frame, then by using that exposure reading to set up the shot.

I recommend using either Manual mode or Aperture Priority mode, and dialing an aperture of f/2.8 or wider.

Because the wider your aperture, the better the sunny background will look!

Finally, take your shot.

You should end up with something like this, with a well-exposed portrait subject, and a bright, beautiful background.

Note that, if your shaded subject is far darker than the background, you may want to use some flash to brighten them up and fill in shadows.

But in such a situation, you’ll need a very high shutter speed to keep the ambient light at a decent level.

Why does this matter?

Because you can’t properly fire a flash at anything above your camera’s sync speed, which is often about 1/200s.

(You’ll end up with unpleasant dark banding on your photo.)

That’s why I recommend using high speed sync to allow you to boost the shutter speed–without harming the overall look of the image.

Make sense?

Portrait Photography Lighting: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have five new tricks in your arsenal for capturing beautiful portraits.

After all, you know how you can get some beautiful shots in ambient light.

And you know how to capture some gorgeous shots with external lighting, as well.

So all that’s left to do:

Get out and practice!

How many lights do I need for portrait photography?

There’s no set number of lights that you need for portrait photography. You can capture beautiful portraits using only ambient light (though you’ll want to pay careful attention to the type of light and its direction). Or you can capture beautiful portraits using 5 lights, all with complex modifications. In other words: portrait lighting is about how you use it, not the number of lights that you have.

What is the best lighting for portrait photography?

Outdoor portrait photography is usually done with either golden-hour lighting or cloudy, diffused lighting. Indoor photography can be done with window light, but studio portrait photographers often use diffused light to create a soft, flattering look. Of course, it’s always possible to capture beautiful portraits, no matter the light–but you have to be very skilled and very experienced to pull this off. That’s why I recommend you stick with softer, more diffused lighting whenever possible (i.e., cloudy light or golden-hour light when outside, flashes with diffusers when inside).

Do I need a flash for portrait photography?

No, you don’t need a flash for portrait photography. You can capture stunning portrait photos with only ambient light, even when you’re inside (provided you have access to a window). However, a flash is very helpful, especially if you’re shooting indoors. A flash can also help if you’re working outside but want to brighten up your subject’s face (for instance, if you’re shooting around midday, or if you’re shooting with a backlit subject).

How do you set up studio lights for portraits?

There are quite a few standard portrait photography lighting setups. But a simple favorite is 45-45 lighting. Here, you simply position a single light off to the side of your subject and up above your subject (so that the light makes a 45-degree angle up and a 45-degree angle to the side). You can enhance this lighting setup by positioning a second flash behind your subject (pointing back toward you, the photographer), which will add depth to your shot..

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