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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 - and that's the easy part - the hard part is posing the model, avoiding distracting shadows, ensuring aesthetic 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 to achieve.
    • 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
  • and finally, a portrait is ABOUT THE SUBJECT and informs the viewer a bit of who the subject really is and ideally, pushes the viewer to want to know more - it's not about their hair style, makeup, clothes or post-processing technique - if these are the prime factors then it is not a portrait but a fashion image

A suggested framework for studio portraits:

  1. 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.
  2. THEN decide WHAT style/theme/context you need to create to try to get the best outcome for that purpose.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. The model's makeup, hair styling & clothing need to be selected and applied.
    • 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.
  6. Set up the background with the backdrop you feel will most suit the theme
  7. 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.
  8. Adjust the position of the camera to ensure you will get the appropriate viewpoint, ensuring that the backdrop will completely cover the frame.
  9. 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.
  10. Set up the lighting for the backdrop.
  11. 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 contrast.
    • 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.
  12. Set the model's pose so that the following lights can be adjusted precisely for best effect
  13. 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 level
    • if the model is wearing glasses and you can't use glasses without lenses then:
      • shoot more Loop style with large soft light source above and to the side to reduce flare and also shadows from the frames, then fill the other side using a reflector
      • AVOID front lighting unless the light source is high enough not to be in reflected in the glasses
    • 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
      • Hollywood-style loop 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 10 o'clock position if visible
        • the opposite edge of the far side cheek will be in shadow and this may require a fill light such as a reflector
        • often used with harsh lighting to great effect but can be used with soft lighting
        • tends to lengthen faces a little and give the appearance of slightly higher cheekbones
        • good for oval shaped faces
        • can be short-lit to make the face appear thinner
        • this is perhaps the most flattering of all lighting for all subjects
          • 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 2 o'clock position
      • Rembrandt lighting with light at 45deg to face, higher than loop lighting and usually with no fill light
        • the nose shadow angles down towards the end of the lip but not crossing it
        • 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
        • very effective in showing character
        • good also when wearing a hat or cap
      • split lighting
        • key light is 90deg to the face so only half the face is lit by that light
        • great for adding drama, often used in fashion, commercial work and makes a broad face look slimmer
        • it is not great for subjects where the light hits the shadow side cheek more than it does the shadow side eye
        • also not great for subjects with big noses
        • you may need to hide the subject's lit ear and show as little of the white of the eye as possible to avoid a glazed look
      • low angle lighting for an eerie or mysterious effect but has limited application - catchlight will be in 6 o'clock position
  14. 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 hair.
    • 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. Ensure the lights are not directly hitting the camera lens - use cardboard, etc to block them if possible
  18. Final position of subject's face, ensuring lighting is hitting it correctly
  19. Choose the best camera angle to enhance the subject's features:
    • the features closest to the camera are the ones which will appear larger and be emphasised - take care in what you emphasise!
    • broad lighting means having the camera on the same side of the face as the key light
      • this is useful to add volume to a face so is great for those with slim faces or hollow cheekbones
      • it also reduces texture so is great for those with uneven skin
    • short lighting means having the camera on the opposite side of the face as the key light and thus most of the face is in shadow
      • this creates a slimming effect and is great for those with broader faces
    • flat lighting means having both the camera and key light front on to the subject's face and at same height
      • this will make cheekbones, nose and jaw appear wider so is not great for those with broad faces
      • the lack of shadow and texture effects makes it great for those with skin texture issues, wrinkles and under eye bags
      • this lighting can be made more flattering by creating shadows to each side of the face by using black flags on each side
      • a variation of this is butterfly lighting (see above) which minimises the nose, creates more dramatic lighting of the cheek bones and brow bones while creating a more defined jaw line and is thus great for those with a double chin or lumpy nose
    • 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 plane.
      • 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 chest level.
      • for head-and-shoulders close-up shots
        • use a telephoto lens, which is about 105-135mm for full frame 35mm
        • camera usually at eye level
        • slightly higher position (8“ above eye level) enhances a short, turned up nose and minimises a double chin which means it tends to be more flattering on most women
        • slightly lower position enhances the appearance of a long nose and tends to intensify the image
      • NB. in group portraits, aim to keep all faces in the same plane 
  20. pose the face for a defined jaw line
    • see video below
  21. Focus the camera - usually need to focus on the closest eye for best impact.
  22. 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.
    • if you want the model to look elsewhere, move to the position you want them to look at to make it easier for them to understand what you are asking, or hold your fingers up to the point you want them to look at
    • pose the eyes - the eyes usually look best when:
      • they are facing in the same direction as the nose
      • there is some space between them and the hair line or edge of face (check this when shooting with subject turned away from camera)
      • if one eye is bigger than the other, place the bigger eye on the far side of the face to balance them out
      • if subject is to gaze upwards, ensure they relax their forehead to avoid frown lines
    • direct the subject maintaining your eye contact so they don't lose position, but use directions from the subject's perspective (ie. more YOUR right hand) supported by your hand gestures to explain which way you want them to tilt
    • obtain the expression you want from the subject by asking them to think of the emotion or a scenario that will give that expression, try getting them to interact with an imaginary person for example
      • avoid forced smiles - tips for more natural smiles:
  23. 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:

  • if creamy smooth skin tones with lots of lovely tonality is important:
    • choose good lighting:
      • generally need even lighting with nice quality and no colour casts (avoid bright colored shirts, etc)
      • if shooting in shade, try the edge of the shaded area
      • lighting the face from the front will de-emphasise texture while emphasising colour
      • lighting the face from the side will emphasise texture while de-emphasising colour
    • “expose-to-the-right” (ETTR) which will over-expose the skin but not result in blown out highlights on the skin (and preferably not anywhere else in the image where you need detail).
    • a mirrorless camera helps you far better than a dSLR as you can visually see where the highlights will be blown - assuming you have set it to display blown highlights
    • with dSLRs, you need to take the shot then check the histogram, or better still the blinking blown highlights, so you may be better of using manual exposure mode with spot metering and exposing skin to its “correct” value for the skin tone (remember light Caucasian skin should meter at ~+1.3EV), and then over-exposing by 0.3-0.7EV depending upon your camera's dynamic range
    • in order for your metering system to be accurate you should ideally first ensure:
      • white balance is accurate
      • jpeg picture mode is set to neutral
      • set exposure warning cutoff to be RGB value of ~230
    • shoot in RAW mode and edit RAW files not jpegs
    • in post-processing, if you have ETTR:
      • reduce the exposure so that the skin is only marginally over-exposed - perhaps by 0.3EV - as slightly over-exposed skin tricks the eye into perceiving it as smoother
      • bring back the blacks to make up for the slight over-exposure
      • in Lightroom, set Sharpen mask to around 90 so it does not sharpen skin too much
      • consider smoothing skin using clarity = -20 or so


photo/portraiture.txt · Last modified: 2022/05/27 09:04 by gary1

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