Introduction to portrait photography and lighting

What is a portrait?

A portrait is a formal photograph under a controlled environment which has a focus on the face of the subject. The portrait can include the rest of the body, but the focus of the shot should be on documenting the face. It may be about a single person or a group of people, but most of the time, it's confined to an individual.

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It's good to show a little personality in your portraits. This is "Doctor Love" our weekend romantic song DJ
© Ray Villalobos 2009

The People

A portrait should show someone's personality and not only document someone's face (That's what the Department of Motor Vehicles is for). It's your job to make the people look good since people are often aprehensive about getting their picture taken.

Portraits are one instance where the subjects are not likely to be professionals, so extra care should be taken to build rapport with the people involved in the shot and make them feel at ease. Talk to them through the process to make them feel comfortable with you. I would suggest not only talking to them about technical issues, but also about themselves...get them to open up and create a connection. When you talk to people, they will relax and make the session go easier.

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A portrait is a collaboration between the photographer and the subject so make sure you build some rapport with the person by taking to them through the shoot.
© Ray Villalobos 2009

You should also treat the session as a collaboration between the subject and the photographer. Talk about the goals for the shoot, ask them if they prefer one side of their face or the other, talk about wardrobe. I often ask people to bring more than one set of clothes with them...something casual, something sporty, something more formal.Look at the wardrobe they bring and think about how it works with the background.


The first step to portrait photography involves picking the right location. A portrait will always include some sort of background, but remember that the focus is on the people. You should make sure that it is not too distracting and that the focus is on the people.

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This portrait of my daughter was taken in my in-laws backyard. By using a longer lens and a narrow depth of field, I was able to blur the background and make it less distracting
© Ray Villalobos 2009

This is a great time to use a narrow depth of field effect to pull the eyes towards the subject. Alternatively, if you choose to have things included in the picture, you should make sure you pay close attention to make sure the items are helping to communicate something about the person.

Another thing to consider when choosing a location is the available light and how it will affect your photograph. The time of day, location of the sun, wether or not there are clouds in the sky and man-made lighting factors will affect the quality of your photos. This is especially the case if you're not using any additional lighting equipment.

If yours is a complicated shoot, you should think about conveniences like availability to power, water, a location for the model to change, bathrooms, etc. Bring water and snacks for everyone in the shoot if it warrants it, some can last for hours and a quick snack will pick everyone up.

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Take a few minutes to walk around your location, you'll often find interesting props and excellent lighting opportunities
© Ray Villalobos 2009

Before the shooting starts, I always to a walkthrough of the location, especially if it's a new location and mentally come up with a quick order of how I will shoot. Keep this flexible, but people will appreciate having some guidelines for what's supposed to happen. Discuss the plan with your subjects, they might have some additional ideas about what to do.


Sometimes people will be more at ease with a prop. A prop is simply an object they can use to hold or interact with. Obviously the props should be related to the goal of the shoot. At our studio we often use microphones, headphones and other sound equipment since we shoot a lot of DJs. Props can be a fun way to spice up the shoot and it really helps people be at ease since they have something to do other than look at the camera.

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A great prop will make the subject feel more at ease and give them something to do with their body.
© Ray Villalobos 2009

Basics of Lighting

The traditional studio portrait has three lights. The Key light is the main source that fills the subject, it's usually diagonal and in front of the subject. The Fill light is normally at the other side of the key light in the front of the subject and is weaker than the key helps soften the key source and controls the dimensionality of the subject. The third light is the rim light and it's behind the subject to either side. It separates the subject from the background and provides some interesting contrast to one side.

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The traditional studio portrait has three lights...a key light, a fill light and a rim light.
© Ray Villalobos 2009

Not everyone has a professional studio setup, so without a lot of lights, there's still a lot you can do, but it's useful to remember the concept of Key, Fill, Rim. You can simulate professional lights using these methods and light modifiers. There are limitless ways to light a subject using different light sources, positions, ratios, modifiers and reflectors.

Light Sources

Anything that puts out light can be used as a light source. Remember that the strength of the light will affect your ability to use different ISO, Shutter Speed, F-Stop settings so a stronger light gives you more flexibility. The weaker the light, the higher the ISO, slower the shutter speed and the lower the F-Stop you'll have to shoot. If the light is weak, you may also need to shoot on a tripod and ask the subjects to be still.

White Balance

The second thing to consider is the color of the light. If you use flourescent lights, your subjects will have a green tint. If you use tungsten (household lightbulbs), your photos will have a yellow tint. Your camera can normally adjust to a spefific light souce, but be careful when using multiple light sources that are not the same color. In that case, try to figure out how to get your camera to adjust to a custom white balance.

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The position of the light has a huge effect on the photograph. This is only a two light setup with a reflector on the top front of the subject. It's essentially a double rim light using the reflector as a fill.
© Ray Villalobos 2009
Light Position

The position of the lights will greatly affect the quality of the photograph. So you should always take into account where the light is. Move both the camera and the subject to take advantage of the light and explore different light positions and how they affect the look of the photograph.

Light Modifiers

Once you have a main light source, don't forget that you can control the light source with light modifiers. Modifiers are something that changes the light. They're really easy to work with, just remember what you learned in grade school. Black absorbs all colors and reflects none, white absorbs nothing and reflects everything. White also does something else, it diffuses the light...spreads it into differet angles out to look softer (depending on the material). Silver acts as a mirror, reflecting the light more directly than white and diffusing it less.

With that in mind, you can do a lot to control whatever light source you have. If you're using the sun as you main light, for example, you can create an excellent fill light by using some white posterboard or some other white item to reflect some of the sunlight back onto the subject. You can also use a piece of black posterboard or other material to prevent light from reaching an area of your subject.

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When the light is hard, you can use a diffusing material like a white bedsheet to soften the can use a reflector which can be a white piece of foamcore to put light back into a subject.
© Ray Villalobos 2009

White objects help diffuse light, but transluscent material like a white bedsheet or a white shower curtain can help you diffuse light even more. Diffusing light means making the light direction scatter to different angles. Even a white sheet of paper can be used to diffuse light.

Cross Lighting

If you don't have a lot of lights you can still get a good picture by using your flash as your key light and the sun as a rim light. To do this, simply position the sun behind the subject where the rim light would be and turn your flash on. You can get pretty good pictures with this method

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You can use the sun as a rim light and your flash to light the front of a subject.
© Ray Villalobos 2009

Posing for portraits

Since it's your job to make the person look good. Exploring different shooting angles and poses will hep them look better. Everyone has two sides to their body and they don't look the same. So it's true what you hear about someone having a "better" side, so it's ok to ask your subject if they prefer to be shot from a specific side. People know their own bodies better than you do, so take their advice to heart.

The approach that I take is to avoid using straight angles in the photo. I look for interesting angles that complement the person. Avoid shooting with the subject directly in front of the camera looking straight into the camera.

Three parts of a pose
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The three things you have to worry about when posing someone is the position of their body, head and eyes. It's a good idea to position things so that nothing is on straight angles.
© Ray Villalobos 2009

There are three main components to a speficic pose are the position of the body, the head and the eyes. A traditional and very effective pose is to have the body positioned so that the feet and the rest of the core are 45 degress from the camera. The weight of the body should rest on the back leg and one of the shoulders should be slightly higher than the other one. The head shoud move toward the same angle as the body, but only about 20 degrees away from the camera, it should also be slightly tilted to one side. Finally, the eyes should be looking straigth towards the camera.

I suggest examining magazines and websites for poses keeping a file of things you like. Analyze where each component (body, head, eyes) are. Bend everything that can bend and watch out for slumping models. Tip a man's head away from the shoulder facing the camera, but tip a lady's head towards it. For heavier subjects, raise the camera position (on an upper body portrait) and have them project the chin out a bit. Also light them using short lighting so that more of the face remains in shadow, especially under the chin. Here's a good site with excellent posing tips.

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