Great portraits made easy

To take a good portrait, you need to understand lighting. Good lighting can accentuate a subject’s best features while minimizing flaws. Bad lighting will do just the opposite. How you harness the power of lighting will depend on the tools at your disposal and the amount of work you’re willing to put into the setup. The rewards are well worth the extra effort.

Use Front Lighting

Many amateur photographers rely on a single light source for their portraits—typically the sun or a nearby lamp. The problem is that this lighting often hits the subject at an angle, creating harsh shadows that accentuate texture. This is great when shooting an adobe mission, but not so hot for pictures of your mom. A single light source from the left, right, or above gives wrinkles more definition, eye sockets more depth, and the nose Pinocchio-like proportions. Is this how you want to photograph your loved ones?

If you have only one source of light, make sure it’s coming from in front of your subject—ideally from your camera’s flash. Front lighting flattens out noses, illuminates eye sockets, and diminishes wrinkles (see top screenshot).

The best way to set up this type of portrait is to take your subjects outdoors and put them in an area of open shade with even lighting (for instance, under a tree). This has the added benefit of keeping the sun out of the subjects’ eyes. Switch your camera to Program mode—usually represented by a P—and then force your flash to fire. Many cameras refer to this as a fill flash. Program mode automatically balances the light from the flash with the background light, so the camera won’t overdo it. (If your camera doesn’t have this mode, try the Portrait mode instead.) Note the effective range of your flash. If it’s good for 10 feet and you stand 15 feet away, you may be disappointed with the results.

Reflect Your Light

Side lighting is worrisome mainly when it’s the only light source. But when combined with a second, softer light source from the opposite side of the subject, side lighting actually becomes more flattering than front lighting.

The easiest—and least-expensive—way to accomplish this balancing act is to position a reflector opposite the main light. If you don’t mind spending a few bucks, you can pick up a collapsible 22-inch Photoflex LiteDisc online for around $27. If you’re not in the spending mood, then white cardboard or foam core works just as well. For a more portable option, pick up a foldable sunshade from your local auto supply store.

You’ll need a second pair of hands for this technique. If you’re going solo, you may want to consider investing in a LiteDisc Holder (around $50) or building your own rig.

Say you’re shooting a portrait indoors with window lighting from the right (see middle screenshot). You would position the reflector on the left so the light is bouncing right into the subject’s face.

The nice thing about reflectors is that they provide a soft fill light without your having to invest in a second flash and deal with lighting ratios, dead batteries, and other flash-related annoyances. With a reflector, you just get it positioned and shoot away. The results are usually quite flattering.

Use Two Light Sources

For the greatest amount of control over your indoor portraits, use two different light sources. This will let you customize the lighting to best flatter your subject.

If your camera has a hot-shoe for an external flash, you can quickly set up professional portrait lighting just about anywhere, with the help of wireless flashes. Both Canon and Nikon offer great wireless flash systems. For example, you can get two Canon 420EX Speedlite flashes and one Canon ST-E2 wireless transmitter for around $600.

Insert the transmitter into the camera’s hot-shoe and position the two flashes anywhere you’d like. When you press the shutter button, the transmitter causes the flashes to fire until just the right amount of light has exposed the subject, and then it turns them off. The 420EX Speedlites even come with little adapter feet so you can set them on furniture or attach them to a light stand. All three pieces will fit in a large camera bag along with your other lenses and accessories, so they’re very portable.

How you arrange the flashes will depend on your subject—many times, having the same amount of light on both sides can cause a person’s face to look too full. A little graduation is good, and it can be slimming (see bottom screenshot). To create this effect, place your main flash at a slight angle about five feet from your subject. Then use the second flash as a fill light by placing it farther away on the other side—perhaps eight feet.

On the other hand, if the subject has a very narrow face, you might want to position the flashes at equal distances and angles to broaden his or her features. The great thing about digital cameras is that you can make your best guess for the lighting setup, take a few test shots, and then review them on the LCD screen. After a few adjustments, you should be able to create the best possible lighting for your subject.

It’s a Wrap!

With a little preparation and practice, you can capture portraits that will bring smiles to your subjects’ faces. And who knows—this could lead to the perfect part-time job (one that’ll pay for your next camera).

[ Derrick Story is a coauthor of iPhoto 5: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly Media, 2005) and the author of Digital Photography Pocket Guide , second edition (O’Reilly Media, 2004). He’s also the editor of O‘Reilly Media’s MacDevCenter.com.]

Outdoor lighting can be unflattering for the prettiest of subjects. By turning on your flash, you can put a sparkle in the eyes and downplay imperfections.Here, the main light is coming from the right. A reflector positioned on the left bounces light onto the subject‘s face, for a more pleasing portrait.Lighting that is too even can sometimes make a face appear too broad. By producing graduated tones and adjusting the model's position, you can slim your subject's face.

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