How to Take Portrait Photos Like a Pro: Working with Light

Taking professional portrait photos is a challenging yet interesting topic for both professional and amateur photographers who like to take shot for their beloved.

In the first part of this article, we explored the basic equipment required to take professional portrait photos such as the tripod and the lensed that can produce the best results.

We also explored the portrait photo composition and how to prepare the composition before taking the shot.

In this part, we will continue our talk and focus more on the light in portrait photos and how to setup the light and control it using reflectors, diffusers and flash.

Tips for portrait photos: light

There are two basic types of lighting source for portraiture or for that matter any type of photography. Natural light and artificial light. A great way to shoot beautiful portraiture is by letting the subject stand close to a large window that does not receive direct sunlight. The light coming in from a window that is at located at the northern side of the room is often considered to be the best natural light source. This is because this light is soft and uniform and produces no harsh shadows. This brings us to the second point of discussion and that is hard and soft light.

Hard light vs. soft light

It is necessary for a portrait photographer to understand the difference between hard and soft light. This difference will allow him to modify the available light using diffusers or reflectors and thereby creating a light that is more suitable for the type of photography that he is doing. Hard light is a source of light that is smaller compared to the subject. Your handheld flash light is a source of hard light find out. Even the sun is a source of hard light, because being so far away, it essentially becomes smaller compared to a subject. Hard light creates strong shadows. If you want to use hard light makes sure that your subject is prepped in advance as otherwise this type of light will bring out blemishes and other imperfections of the skin in the picture.

portrait photos

Photo by Charles Fred

The other type of light is soft. It is inverse of hard light as it illuminates the face uniformly and does not create any strong shadows. Source of a soft light is bigger compared to the subject being photographed. A large window, a big strobe light with a diffuser on, a large reflector are all sources of soft light. Between hard and soft light, the latter is more commonly used to create flattering portrait shots.

Ratio of main light to fill-light

In the initial paragraph we discussed about the possibility of using two strobe lights, one as the main source of light and the other one as the fill light. We also learnt about a useful ratio in which we should use this two lights. The 1:2 ratio denotes that the brightness of the two strobes should be in a ratio. The main fill light should be half as bright as the main light.

The use of reflectors and diffusers

Photographers tend to use different types of diffusers, reflectors and modifiers to adjust the light and make it more suitable for their specific needs. A reflector is a shiny surface made of a reflective material that is easily foldable and comes in golden, white and silver color. They are easy to setup and shoot on location.

We shall be discussing about three different types of portrait lighting arrangements here. If you are just starting out in portrait photography and have a financial and resource constraint these arrangements will not burden you with extra spending. All you need is a single off-camera light source, preferably a strobe. Placing the strobe at different heights and at different angles to the subject will allow you to experiment with light and shadow. Place the strobe close to the subject and preferably bounced of a reflector and you have a large soft light that will illuminate the subject uniformly. Placing the strobe farther away will ensure that you have a hard light source.

portrait photos

Photo by Joshua Hoffman

Placing the strobe directly over the head of the subject is going to cast small shadow under the nose in the shape of a butterfly. This is an example of butterfly lighting. During the heydays of Hollywood this used to be a particularly favorite lighting arrangement for photographers.

Another light arrangement is loop lighting. In this the strobe is placed at a slight angle of say 15 degrees and farther away from the subjects head. The resulting shadow is shaped as a loop just beside the nose.

Rembrandt lighting is yet another easy lighting setup requiring only one light. This is named after the famous Dutch painter of the same name and highlights the shadow and highlight arrangements so typical of his portraits. Rembrandt lighting requires the light source to be placed on any one side of the subject and the resulting shadow is strong across the side of the face facing away.

There are many other portrait lighting arrangements that can be accomplished with a single light source. One of them is partial light, which, in itself can be arranged in a multitude of ways to experiment and fine tune the results. It is to be noted that nothing mentioned in this article is a hard and fast rule. These are merely established practices in photography which are just ways to achieve a desired result. But like many other things, especially in a creative field like photography, you are encouraged to use your own judgment and experiment with lighting and camera arrangements to capture better results.

Flash & exposure compensation

When you have a Speedlight attached to the camera and the metering system set to TTL (Through-the-lens) you are essentially allowing the camera to assess whether the scene is 18% grey and if not to throw in enough light to make it as close to 18% grey as possible. Evidently that is what the camera’s sensor does because of the way the metering system is designed.

Mid-grey is a color that is half-way between white and black and reflects 18% of the light. When shooting portraits this may not be what you want. Let’s say that that groom is wearing white and the background that he is standing for his portrait to be taken is also white. With all that white in the frame the camera will meter that the scene does not need much light and thus the face is going to appear darker than usual.

In a situation such as above it becomes imperative to adjust the exposure / flash compensation and use it to slightly overexpose so that the subject does not appear dark. The terms flash and exposure compensation has been used interchangeably above and that is for a reason. When you have a flash mounted on a camera, whether built-in or external the exposure compensation button automatically works as the flash compensation button.