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Lighting for Portrait Photography

Author: Ben Reeves
He is a travel writer and photojournalist working in Phuket. Originally from the UK, he arrived in Thailand by way of Oman.
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Portrait Photography Lighting – Seeing the Light

Photography is all about light. This might sound ridiculously obvious, what with ‘photo’ being latin for ‘light’, but it is a point which does seem to be noticeably overlooked by the majority of amateurs, particularly when it comes to portraiture. If you are taking portrait photography to the next level – beyond simple selfies and holiday snaps – then portrait photography lighting is something you will have to put a lot of thought into when it comes to choosing your setting and realising your vision. Controlling it is the skill you will have to master first and foremost, well before you even think about how to direct your model.

Natural Light

There are two options when it comes to lighting your shot: natural light and artificial light. The former is the easiest to use and the best for all concerned, though it does still come with its disadvantages.

portrait photography lighting
The natural light of the sun is the easiest to work with, the reason being that it is always there. It is consistent. If you’re using a flash, the light is only there when you hit the shutter release, making it difficult to get the light meter setting right first time. Using the sun for portrait photography lighting means less fiddling with settings and endlessly taking the same photo with minute adjustments in order to get the picture you want.portrait photography lighting

It should be noted, however, that saying it is ‘always’ there is a bit of a misnomer. I was trying to take some portrait shots at an event one evening and, having only just arrived as the sun was setting, I had to rush around to find the best angle and most appropriate lens and settings in order to get the picture before the light failed entirely. I barely got it, but it still needed a lot of work in Photoshop to make it the picture I actually wanted.

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Hard Light

Another reason why natural lighting is better for portrait photography lighting is that it is generally softer, which is a particular advantage for the model. Practically no one looks at their best under the bright, stark glare of a flashbulb. It shows up every pore and blemish, reflects off sweat and grease and often creates harsh shadows directly behind the subject. The sunlight rarely does this, which makes the job of the make-up artist and the Photoshop retoucher that much easier.portrait photography lighting

The light from the sun, on the other hand, is very hard to manipulate. Unless you’ve found some means of moving a huge ball of burning hydrogen around the sky, you’re pretty much stuck with using the light as you find it. You are forced to adapt to the conditions instead of making the conditions suit your needs.

The most obvious example of this is the selfie silhouette problem. If you have a nice view you want in the background of your portrait, but the sun happens to be in that direction as well, you will end up with the subject’s face in deep shadow. A different problem occurs in the opposite conditions. If the light is in your subjects face, but at the wrong angle, you could find the shot ruined by the fact that the model is perpetually squinting. For portrait photography lighting, using natural light indoors, through a window, can save you from the squint, but often leaves half the subject in shadow.

Artificial Light

portrait photography lightingIn contrast, the artificial light created by a flashgun is entirely under your control, though it is quite a difficult thing to wrangle. As I said before, it often takes many attempts and lots of fiddling to get the shot you want. Even when I’m doing events photography, where practically every shot is roughly the same, you will always see me taking a dozen or so pictures of my drink or an ashtray or something, just trying to get the lighting right.

With practise, you can learn to control a flash and the effects you can create are quite impressive. The head of a good flashgun can be twisted and turned, tilted up, down, left and right, reflected, diffused and redirected, all of which alters the lighting of the shot.

Of these, the diffusor is probably the most important. It is a simple multi-faceted panel which goes over the end of the flash, scattering the light in all directions. This softens the light and the shadows the flash creates because the light is now coming in from more than one direction. Rare is the occasion when I do not use this.

Moving the Light

portrait photography lighting
One of the best but most expensive add-ons you can get for artificial portrait photography lighting a shot is an off-camera flash system. At its cheapest, this can be a simple cable which allows you to hold the flash a couple of feet away from the camera. More expensive systems use radio signals, allowing you to move the flashgun (or multiple guns) considerably further away, giving you complete control over the light source.

To a limited extent, it is possible to move the light of the sun around. You obviously can’t move the sun itself, but you can redirect its light with a reflector. This is quite a simple device – merely a highly reflective surface to bounce the light from the sun onto your subject. They are fairly cheap and you can even improvise one with a bit of stiff card and some tin foil. However, they come with one obvious downside: you can’t hold the reflector and your camera at the same time, so you need an assistant to do the reflecting.

Twinkle in the Eye

portrait photography lighting

In a portrait, the most important part is the eyes. They are the window to the soul, it is said, and they are certainly the part of the face that the viewer’s own eyes are immediately drawn to. If you don’t get your lighting right, at best they can look dark and dead. At worst, you get red-eye.

Red-eye is created when the flash is pointing directly at the subject. The light bounces off the subject’s retina and straight back into the lens. This is obviously impossible to do if you’re using natural light, so why do most good professional portrait photographers (myself included) use a flash even during daylight shoots?

A big part of it is to do with having complete direct control of the lighting of the subject’s face, but a key bonus is that it makes the eyes look more engaging by adding a little twinkle. This is just the flash’s light reflecting off the fluid on the outside of the eye. It can be created with natural light, if you are shooting indoors with light through a window, but it is significantly harder to do.

There is a lot more to even this single aspect of portrait photography, but I am limited in how much I can write here and how well I can describe the numerous techniques you can choose from. A far more effective way to learn this complicated art is with a photography course in Bangkok.

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