Studio portrait lighting: essential tips and setups explained

Want to shoot professional-looking portraits? Here’s how to get to grips with a basic home studio kit.

Studio lighting can seem daunting if you’ve never tried it before. However, it’s not nearly as scary as most people think. By using a simple home studio kit, with just a couple of flash heads and a few basic accessories, you can get great results in no time at all. In fact, here’s one of the best photography tips: it’s arguably easier to use a studio lighting setup than a speed light. 

While these are a great starting point, it’s best to experiment. So if you’re working in your own home studio, don’t be afraid to tweak these setups.

Studio setup

Light stands

Studio flash is all about positioning the light source away from the camera, so stands are crucial. They support the flash heads, which means they can be positioned at the right distance and angle to the subject. 

Flash heads

Most kits have two flash heads. Along with a flash tube, there’s a modeling light. Most have a switchable ‘slave’, enabling one flash to be triggered by another, so you only need to have your camera connected to one of the heads.

Umbrella

A brolly is the most standard form of lighting accessory. The flash is directed into the brolly so the light is reflected back onto the subject. They are available in different reflective surfaces – typically white, silver or gold. 

Softbox

Softboxes are slightly more sophisticated than brollies and, once you’ve worked out how to assemble these tent-like devices, they create a softer and generally more flattering light, with more even illumination. 

Snoot/honeycomb

Both of these tools help to concentrate or ‘focus’ the light. They’re ideally suited for use as backlights or for isolating a particular part of an image.

Reflector

A simple reflector can be really useful in a studio lighting setup, especially if you’re only using one light. You use it the same way you would with natural light – to bounce light back onto your subject and fill in any hard shadow areas.

Rembrandt

Position one flash head with a silver brolly at a 45° angle to the model at about six feet high. This creates a strong, hard, direct light from the side and above. This is called a key light. To even the lighting, position a reflector on the other side of the model to bounce the light back into the shadow side. There should be a small triangle of light on the subject’s face – this is referred to as Rembrandt lighting.

Kit needed:
• One flash head
• One reflector
• Two light stands 

Clamshell

This setup is great for beauty images as the lighting is flat and even. It’s pretty easy to achieve this effect too – all you need to do is place two softboxes on either side of your subject at the same angle and at an equal distance. Set the power so it’s the same from each light. Try using a reflector under the face – your model should easily be able to hold this. This will bounce light up and onto the face.

Kit needed
• Two flash heads
• Two 66cm softboxes
• One reflector
• Two light stands

Rim lighting

Place both lights slightly behind the subject, pointing back towards the camera. This setup requires some tweaking and can work really well with nudes as it helps define body shape. You’ll need to watch out for lens flare, though, as the lights are pointing back towards the camera. A set of ‘barn doors’, a lens hood, or a shield can help prevent this. An assistant who can hold a carefully positioned reflector is useful – this will help fill in those areas of deep shadow. Advertisement

Kit needed:
• Two flash heads
• One reflector 

portrait photography

Amazing Techniques to Take Stunning Portraits

Professional photographers shoot 30+ weddings a year, and in doing that, sometimes it is easy to fall into the same old technique when it comes to portraits. Even with new poses, taking portraits can become very mundane if the same compositions and angles are used for every couple–we’ve definitely been through that creative rut where our pictures start looking very familiar. Throughout the years, we’ve challenged ourselves to stay on top of our game with a few useful techniques. Here are some of our best tips to help keep things fresh and unique for each couple.

1. Using a longer lens.

A lot of photographers say that their 50mm is a “must-have” portrait lens, but what a mid-range lens offers is a very familiar perspective, something that our eyes are used to seeing all the time. To create a more interesting image, we avoid shooting portraits in mid-range because the images look too ordinary. Most of our portraits are shot at 200mm or 85mm to create beautiful image compression that a 50mm would not be able to produce. The compression will not only flatter your subjects with less feature distortion but shooting at a longer focal length will also create more dramatic background blur and brings the background closer to your subject. It may be more difficult to communicate with your subjects while shooting at 200mm, but the difference will be apparent and well worth it. Our solution to this problem was to have one of us interact with our couples at close range while the other shoots from a distance.

2. Find angles that are not eye level.

Many times we are stuck seeing what is right in front of us. It is, after all, the easiest answer to everything. Challenge yourself to find a different angle from above or below eye-level to bring a new perspective to the image. This technique can also be used to flatter subjects of different body types and heights. In the image below, we asked the bride to sit on the ground in order to focus on her face and hair ornament while blurring out the rest of her body. It makes a more interesting image than the typical straight-on bridal portrait.

3. Use off-camera flash

During a wedding, our speed lites are never on-camera, even during the reception. Flash rarely flatters a person’s face when it is straight on, and the image loses its dimensionality. Using flash to light our subjects from the side, we are able to create both light and shadow on our subjects, flattering their features and bringing a greater range of highlights and shadows to the image. It also helps us bring out details in the background to create a more dramatic landscape.

4. Overpower the sun with flash

Shooting at mid-day is no easy task when using natural light. But with some artificial lights, something as simple as a couple of speedlites can diminish the power of the sun and darken the image for better exposure. We use this technique especially when we are trying to create environmental portraits that focus on the landscape. Using our speedlites, we are able to overpower the sun and underexpose the sky while only lighting up the subject. To create this amount of artificial light, we have to use 2-4 off-camera speedlites (with no diffuser) in order to generate enough light to overpower the sun. Holding the speedlites closer to the subject (to the side) also helps put more light on the subject and allows us to underexpose the background even more for dramatic effect.

5. Find back-light

It takes time and practice to train your eye to find great light. Once you learn how to “find the light” in any situation, it will help you master taking some amazing portraits. Lighting is, after all, the essence of photographic images. Whether you are using the sun, a window, or an ordinary light bulb, these light sources can be used to create beautiful edge light (a.k.a. hair light, rim light) when the light source is place behind your subject. The effect that rim light creates can enhance the dimension of your image by separating your subject from the background, outlining and focusing on your subject.

6. Shoot through objects

When objects are in our way, we like to use them to our advantage. In fact, many times we are purposely trying to find elements to place in the foreground of our image. Learning to find holes between tree branches, abstract objects, or even ordinary household items are simple, everyday things that will help enhance your images by bringing an interesting, and sometimes colorful, element to your composition. Using a longer lens will help blur out the foreground objects to frame the subjects in a more intimate way.

7. Use video light for night portraits

Video lights are very useful when no light source is available to light up your subject in dark situations. The great thing about video lights is that they are a constant light source so you can see what the image will look like in camera. We use LED video lights, which give us enough power to last 2+ hours. They are a great alternative to speedlites for low light situations and are quicker to adjust for dark situations.

8. Use gels on your speedlites

Adding CTO (orange) or CTB (blue) gels to your speedlites will change the mood of your image. Sometimes shooting in an environment which is overcast and very blue, adding a CTB gel will warm up the whole environment if you adjust the white balance correctly. CTO gels can also be used to emulate sunlight.

For guidance of camera equipment for portrait photography, please contact us.