Essential Gear For Portraiture


The number-one light modifier you’ll want on hand is a softbox. Available for shoe-mount flash and studio lights in a range of sizes and shapes, the softbox diffuses light output for even, flattering light, minimizing hot spots. Use a softbox on your key light to soften its output and reduce contrast—an effect that helps lessen the appearance of wrinkles and skin imperfections.

Adorama’s 60-inch Gold Interior Umbrella is ideal for creating flattering, wraparound light with a warm tone to enhance skin.

One consideration when choosing a softbox is its shape and the effect that has on the catchlight in your subject’s eye. A rectangular softbox will create a catchlight that looks like a window light, while an octagonal shape will produce a catchlight that’s rounder, like lens flare.

Another light modifier to consider for monolights is an umbrella. Unlike a softbox, which you shoot through, an umbrella bounces the light onto your subject. Umbrellas produce a broader lighting effect than a softbox, making them easy to use for good results, but they offer less directional control if you’re trying to achieve a more dramatic look.

Similar to an umbrella in concept, flash bounces let you point your flash away from your subject and bounce back onto them with a softer effect. Some flash units have a bounce built in, or you can attach an accessory bounce. If you’re in a small enough space, you may be able to bounce your flash off a ceiling or wall. This technique is great for fill light, but probably not strong enough as a main light.

Snoots and grids are other flash modifiers you may want to have on hand, particularly for use with your background light. This light creates separation and depth between your background and subject, and when used with a snoot or grid, which tunnel the light, can create a dramatic spotlight effect behind your subject. It’s not the right look for every portrait sitting, but it’s a nice option to have, especially for glamour portraits.

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F.J. Westcott’s 18×42-inch Bruce Dorn Pro Asymmetrical Stripbank features a unique design with the light source off-center, allowing it to be used, when oriented horizontally, as both a key light and fill light simultaneously.

Reflectors are one of the most practical accessories you can own. They’re inexpensive and require no power. Collapsed, they’re highly portable. Expanded, they’re easy to position for redirecting light to subtly fill shadows on your subject’s face, below the neckline or other areas where you need just a little extra light. A gold reflector is especially nice for portraiture when you want to warm up skin tones.


Another investment that will pay off is a selection of backdrops. At the portrait studio where I worked, we had six backdrops for variety. Depending on the package the customer selected, we’d do three to five poses, each against a different backdrop. We had a black backdrop, a neutral gray pattern, a warmer orange pattern that resembled defocused fall foliage, pastel pink and blue vignettes for baby photos and a plain white backdrop that we’d typically light with gelled spotlights for effect. Another option is a translucent, sheer material that you can light from behind for a soft, window-lit curtain effect.

At a minimum, we recommend three backdrops: white, black and a neutral gray pattern or muslin with some texture. This gives you enough variety to handle a typical portrait sitting. Additional backdrop options are a great investment, though. Not only do they let your clients choose patterns that express their personalities, but they add variety to your portfolio when a potential client looks through your website.

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