Creative Portrait Lighting

Anyone can “take” a portrait. “Making” a portrait—which involves working closely with the subject, seeing the light and controlling the light—is a different story. In this article, I’ll share with you some of my favorite portraits along with 12 time-proven portrait techniques. Let’s go!

1. Balance The Light

I took the photograph that opens this article in a palace in Venice, Italy, during Carnival 2018. As you can see, the models are backlit by the strong light coming through large windows—yet we can see the detail of the masks and even the eyes of the models. What’s more, the room is evenly illuminated. This exposure is what’s called a fill-in flash shot; that is, I balanced the light from the flash to the room light so the image does not look like a flash shot. Here’s the technique:

First: Compose your photograph.

Second: Set your camera on manual and, using a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. or slower, choose an aperture for the correct manual exposure. If you set a faster shutter speed, your flash may not sync with your camera.

Third: Turn on your flash (speedlight) and set it to ETTL or ITTL (fully automatic).

Fourth: Take a shot. If the subject is too dark, increase the flash exposure. If the subject is too bright, decrease the flash exposure.

It’s actually that easy.

Here’s a pair of before-and-after Carnival photographs that illustrate natural light (left) and fill-in flash (right). You see a big difference with a little effort.

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