A dummies guide to studio portraiture
- for the advanced photographer getting into portraiture it all seems so
easy, just buy some equipment such as studio flashes and background stands,
backdrops, etc and you can take great photos.
- if only life was so easy
- one of the problems is the sheer number of possibilities available to you
- which background to use, how should I light it, which lights will I use
and where will I place them, what lighting contrast is best, should I
underexpose to allow some PS glow effects to be used - and that's the easy
part - the hard part is posing the model, ensuring catch-lights are in the
eyes and most important of all perhaps is making sure the model's expression
reflects what you want.
- this can be over-whelming, particularly if you go into the shot with no
clear idea of what you want to achieve, and perhaps a good way is to develop
a framework through which you can logically approach the many problems while
still allowing for creativity to shine through.
- the technical aspects are only half the shot, and you must show the
subject you are proficient with this aspect so they have confidence in your
abilities and they don't get frustrated or bored with you fiddling around
with equipment. Use tried and tested methods and preferably equipment that
you know well.
- the really HARD part is directing the model and capturing a great pose and
expression when all the other elements have been put in place such as
lighting, composition, etc.
- there are many ways to become proficient at this but all require much
practice until you are confident
- research successful images and examine why they work and how they
work, then try to emulate or better them - consider creating a personal
library of styles to use as prompts or to show the model what you want
- the basic methods of lighting a face were developed hundreds of years
ago by painters and their technique still hold true today for digital
photographers, albeit often with different lighting tools rather than
modifying ambient light.
- understand the principles of composition, lighting, etc and experiment
with breaking them
A suggested framework for studio portraits:
- First of all, you need to understand WHY you are taking the photo.
- if it is a romantic style personal portrait then the requirements will
be totally different to a commercial portrait to sell makeup, or an
artsy portrait designed to be highly emotional and confronting.
- THEN decide WHAT style/theme/context you need to create to try to get the
best outcome for that purpose.
- Evaluate the subject's features to determine what will be the best poses,
lighting, etc to achieve your outcome. What happens to their features when
they change expressions such as smile - assess this from both front on and
from classical 2/3rd face viewpoints. Are there any negative or distracting
features at certain expressions or angles?
- You then need to use your creativity to imagine a fabricated scene that
will suit the style including approximate positioning of the model, what
props will be used if any, the approximate camera position required and what
sort of background you need.
- The model's makeup, hair styling & clothing need to be selected and
- In general, the best clothing colors are medium shades of blue, green,
burgundy, and rust, while most will do best with legs and arms clothed
to avoid taking attention away from the face.
- Set up the background with the backdrop you feel will most suit the theme
- Set up the approximate positioning of model & props
- generally, avoid bare arm pits - use props such as hair, clothing,
material, flowers, etc to hide them.
- Adjust the position of the camera to ensure you will get the appropriate
viewpoint, ensuring that the backdrop will completely cover the frame.
- Decide on a exposure setting to be used and remember to
use a good lens hood as lens flare will adversely impact most photos,
especially low key styles.
- Set up the lighting for the backdrop.
- Set up a fill light for the subject
- this boosts detail in shadow areas & reduces excessive contrast -
once positioned, can just adjust its power or distance to adjust
- usually near the camera position - and usually a large light source
such as umbrella or soft box, but may be a reflector or if desperate,
the on-camera flash. Usually this will create a catch-light in the eyes
so be aware of its position. If it is too far from the subject, the
output needed may effect the lighting of the backdrop so you may need to
bring it closer to the subject and lower its output accordingly. The
fill light will usually be adjusted to - 1 stop to -2 stops exposure
compared to main light.
- Set the model's pose so that the following lights can be adjusted
precisely for best effect
- Set up the main light:
- this sets the light level & mood for the shot - although to
simplify things I suggest adjusting it to the pre-determined exposure
- if the model has appropriate makeup then a small light source such as
a snooted monobloc can be used to provide good contrast and special
effects, otherwise you may have to resort to a broad light source such
as a soft box to minimise skin blemishes, oily skin, etc.
- decide on the position depending on effect needed and facial features
of the model:
- butterfly "glamour" lighting with light direct on
to face - good for skin blemishes, minimising a big nose BUT catchlight will be in 12 o'clock position,
and ear is lit up
- modified butterfly lighting:
- as for butterfly but light is moved a little away from the
- nose shadow moves towards camera & longer, forming a small
- side of nose & face becomes more 3D
- catchlight moved to a more attractive 11 o'clock position
- this is almost the short-lit lighting discussed next.
- this is great for children and brides.
- Hollywood-style lighting set 45deg up and to the side of
the nose to create a nasal shadow going towards the lip &
highlighting the cheek.
- often used in short-lit portraits with shadow side of
face towards the camera
- catchlight will be in 11 o'clock
position if visible
- in classic lighting of this style, the aim is to give a
small triangle of light on the near cheek below the eye, but
to do this means the catchlight is lost as the main light
must be placed too high. To address this, a second main
light is needed in the modified butterfly position at less
than half intensity of the main light so it gives the
desired catchlight. (see http://jzportraits.home.att.net/chapter-13.html)
- this is great for both men & women in head &
shoulders and 3/4 length poses.
- use in broad-lit portraits with lit side of face
towards camera to subdue skin blemishes & help widen narrow
faces - catchlight will be in 1 o'clock position
- Rembrandt lighting with light at 90deg to face and no fill
- also called split lighting
- catchlight will be in 9 o'clock or 3 o'clock position
- very effective in showing character
- good also when wearing a hat or cap
- low angle lighting for an eerie or mysterious effect but
has limited application - catchlight will be in 6 o'clock position
- Set up hair light or kicker lights:
- brings out detail in the hair & adds a glamour effect, while any
side lights give definition or contour to the subject, creating
separation from the background and adding contrast.
- these tend to be aimed at or behind the hair (for a more subtle
grazing effect where you need more control over lighting intensity) from
either above and behind the subject or below and behind the subject.
- usually need to ensure that the light will not pass through gaps in
- the intensity of the hair light is usually set to approx. 1/10th -
1/3rd stop more than the main light but this depends of colour of the
hair with brunettes needing more than blondes. In general, subtle hair
light is better than blasting it.
- Consider a reflector below the chin to add light to the eyes, but beware:
- that you don't light the neck too much and lose the chin outline
- the resulting light hitting the nose from below may cause unwanted
shadowing in the inner corners of the eyes
- that using a gold reflector may create a yellow catchlight and make
the model look sickly.
- Re-check that there is at least one catchlight in each eye - but if there
is more than one and it is complicating the image, re-adjust the lights to
simplify it if possible.
- Ensure the lights are not directly hitting the camera lens - use
cardboard, etc to block them if possible
- Final position of subject's face, ensuring lighting is hitting it
- Choose the best camera angle to enhance the subject's features:
- in general, its best to use a normal camera position with an
appropriate focal length lens
- film plane should generally be parallel to the facial plane for
head/shoulders and to the overall body plane in 3/4 length poses
which then requires a further tilt of the face to match the camera's
- for full length standing subject's:
- the film plane must still be
kept parallel to the subject which usually means the camera is
between chest and waist level, again the head may need to be tilted to match the
camera's plane, although as the face is now much smaller component
of the image, this is not so critical.
- for 3/4 length shots:
- use a moderate telephoto or telephoto lens
- the best height for the camera is usually between chin and
- for head-and-shoulders close-up shots
- use a telephoto lens, which is about 105-135mm for full frame
- camera usually at eye level
- slightly higher position enhances a short, turned up nose
- slightly lower position enhances the appearance of a long nose
- NB. in group portraits, aim to keep all faces in the same
- Focus the camera - usually need to focus on the eyes for best impact.
- Now that all is ready you need to take your head away from the camera a
little and get the model to give you the facial expression you need. If the
model is to be looking "at the camera", get her to look into YOUR
eyes with your eyes just to the side of the camera - eyes look best when
they are looking at another person rather than a camera.
- Don't feel stressed out when you can't get the shot that you had
envisioned in your head all day, go with the flow. If you are stressed out,
your subject might start to think it is their fault. Some of the best
portraits are complete accidents. Consider having the model pose in a very
relaxed manner even if the position of arms, legs, etc are not aesthetic, if
the model is relaxed you can go for a tight head shot which may just give
you a great shot that forced poses don't give you, and then you can move on
with more confidence. One of the keys to successful portraits is the
photographer conveying confidence - after all, the model tends to mirror the
photographer. If you are getting stiff expressions, try the technique of
getting the model to look away then when you are ready, to turn head and
look back towards the camera with the attempted expression.
Exposing for skin tones:
- from http://www.shootsmarter.com/infocenter/wc024.html
- skin tone digital capture images are easy destroyed by improper
- to get a full tonality print of a portrait, the skin tone exposure
latitude is from minus 0.5EV to plus 0.3EV. Outside of that range you
will find your image will suffer significant quality loss and will not
yield proper print tonality. That's a pretty tight tolerance for some
photographers to live with. And no, getting your exposure close then
"fixing it in Photoshop" is not an acceptable professional
- The best way to check your portraits for proper exposure is not by
"eyeballing" it on the tiny LCD preview screen found on the
back of your camera, nor is it found by viewing the file on your
monitor. The best and most accurate way is by viewing it's histogram in
Photoshop 6 or higher.
- using a face
mask histogram in Photoshop:
- "Being as the most important portion of a portrait image is the
facial area, we like to judge exposure levels on the face. We can do
that by selecting and area of data over the face that we refer to as
- Choose the Elliptical Marquee Tool from the upper left corner of
the TOOLS palette.
- Click and drag (tip: holding down the space bar before you release
your "click and drag" will allow you to move your
selection area) to select a facemask of the subject just like in the
example below. Be sure to get just under the chin line and into the
hairline but avoid as much clothing and background as possible.
- Now bring up the histogram by clicking
IMAGE>ADJUSTMENTS>LEVELS in Photoshop (or CONTROL L on a PC /
COMMAND L on a Mac). This will present all the tones from black to
white inside the elliptical facemask area only.
- look for three characteristics that indicate a proper exposure:
- An even distribution of tones. We want to make sure that there
are smooth transitions between the tones - no gaps in the data,
no sharp (vertical) rises or drops in the data, and no
significant "clipping" or data that looks like it's
cut off at by the top border of the histogram that would
indicate any trouble in reproduction quality.
- Gap Left. I like to see the data drop off at the lower (left)
section of the histogram. This tells me that I have no
significant amounts of black or very dark gray tones in the
facemask. If I do, this is usually a sign that there is an
insufficient amount of fill light on the face.
- Gap Right. We find that it is crucial to have our facemask
data drop off to a low level (or a zero level) at the far right
end in the highlight section. This assures us that the
highlights on the face will be reproduced on paper."