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Portrait Photography Lighting Tips & Techniques For Amateur Photographers

By on January 26, 2013
Many people believe that for taking great portrait shots, you need a load of expensive photography equipment to get the job done successfully, but that just isn’t the case today.

I learned quite a bit recently from a course I took by Don Giannatti called “Portrait Photography with Simple Gear”, and I must say it really did make me think differently about portrait photography, not only with regards to cost effectiveness, but also just how exciting this is for all amateur digital photographers on a low budget…

…It goes without saying that you will need some accessories or props to take great portrait photography, so let’s take a look at some of the options you have.

Now, virtually every camera on today’s photography market comes with it’s own built-in flash, so if you do want to take awesome looking pics, don’t ever use it as it will create harsh shadows on your portrait. So to avoid this, the majority professional photographers would use an external flash, which is mounted on top of the digital camera or a tripod if you use one. You can get a good quality external flash for under $100, so if you need one, just shop around online.

Generally, digital cameras come with an automatic flash setting, but that doesn’t mean using it will always produce optimum results. You’ll be able to take better portrait shots by controlling your flash manually. So if you’re just beginning to take your first portrait pics here is how I would start off. So, let’s just say for example, you’re taking outdoor portrait pics and you need some good results. It’s sometimes a good idea to turn on the flash to light up the subject, especially when he or she are positioned in a shady location.

portrait photography lighting tutorial 300x200 Portrait Photography Lighting Tips & Techniques For Amateur PhotographersOn the other hand you’re indoors and you really need to prove your digital skills, then you could just try turning off the flash, as 9 times out of 10, using the flash indoors can result in unnatural skin color and harsh glare in your photos. The solution though to get the lighting correct when shooting portraits indoors, is by using light modifiers, and there are two types… diffusers and reflectors.

The term “flash diffuser” means how the light spreads from the flash of a camera. In effect, the light will not come from one concentrated source (like a spotlight), but rather will spread out, bounce from reflective ceilings and walls, thus getting rid of harsh light, and hard shadows. This is particularly useful for portrait photographers, since harsh light and hard shadows are usually not considered flattering in a portrait. A diffusion filter is used in front of a camera lens to soften the image of the scene being shot.

Reflectors are used for bouncing light onto your portrait, and most photographers tend to make use of walls, ceilings and even entire rooms. So look around you when facing problems with appropriate lighting while shooting indoors, and if shooting portraits outdoors a great technique is to use walls to reflect sunlight back onto your subject, and so reducing shadows.

As we’ve now ventured outdoors, we need to begin to understand how light works on portraits, and a simple Triangle formula holds the key. But before that, the first step is to take some quick practice portrait shots, just so you can see how the light reacts before you add some of your own. So, if you know what the strobe output is at specific distances, then it soon becomes apparent. Then it’s just a matter of “angle to subject”, “the angle to the camera” and finally “camera angle to the subject” this being the triangle which reveals the basis of lighting.

portrait lighting tips 225x300 Portrait Photography Lighting Tips & Techniques For Amateur PhotographersThere is also the angle of the strobe to the subject which needs to be worked on. Try keeping the strobe at the angle of the portrait’s face… Still renders well from camera, but prevents shadows from appearing on the face. This is actually easier to do with an artificial feasible light source, but if you’re working with a professional model, he or she will know how to “work towards the light”, and that way you’ll get great results, and without the extra expense of a light stand:)

Anyway, before we get out of our depth, let’s see how to control our flash unit, so first off, we need to have some relative readings, which in most cases tend to remain pretty fixed, meaning that the strobe will react the same each and every time. We can use this consistency to our advantage, and you’ll soon see just how the flash does with those fixed settings. The main benefit of this of course is that you can relax, and move around a lot quicker, which really helps to get your portrait subject a lot more concentrated and receptive.

So, just to conclude this portrait photography tutorial, you know, one of the great hidden features found on digital cameras is the fill flash or flash on mode. You just need to be able to have control of the flash to make sure it goes on just when you want it to, and not when the camera deems it appropriate. Just by doing this, you’ll have taken an important step towards capturing great outdoor portrait pictures.

So in a nutshell, when the camera’s in flash-on mode, it will expose first for the background and then just adds enough flash to illuminate your portrait subject, and producing professional-looking pictures with perfect composition. Most wedding photographers tend to do this, and when you get the hang of it and try it outdoors, have a go at positioning your portrait subjects so the sun illuminates their hair from the side or from behind, and this technique is known as rim lighting.

Another great technique is to place your portrait model in the shade, for example under a tree. Then use the flash to illuminate your subject, keeping your model comfortable and composed, and will also help them to avoid squinting their eyes from the harsh sunlight.

21a 193x300 Portrait Photography Lighting Tips & Techniques For Amateur Photographers

Anyway, that’s the end of this portrait photography article, which I hope you have enjoyed reading, but if you did find this a bit too advanced in any way, you can find all of the best beginner or amateur pointers you need in our free photography report…

“Shoot Digital Pics Like The Pros”

About Mike Chase


  1. Mike

    January 31, 2013 at 9:41 am

    I’d like to thank Dan publicly for allowing me to post my photography tips on his great blog:)And also take this opportunity to offer my writing services to any other photography site in need of regular quality content regarding all aspects of photography (from beginner to advanced levels)- Hope you all enjoyed the portrait photography tips shared in this article!

  2. Moiz Noorani

    February 9, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Really helpful post! Most people are repelled from doing amateur photography because they can’t purchase expensive equipment but this post shows you can do it even without spending big. I found another really useful resource that you might like to read:

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