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3 Guaranteed Great Portrait Lighting Setups

These surefire portrait lighting setups work with little specialized equipment, and can be done indoors and out
Window Light Portrait Technique

When I was just a newbie I suffered from the distinct impression that “serious” photographers—the working professionals whose work I admired in the inspirational photo magazines of old—always used complex lighting to achieve their amazing pictures. And yes, certainly, sometimes it takes a lot of lights to achieve a particular impact. But what I was sorely mistaken about was the idea that great photos require complex lighting. And now that I’ve been making my living as a photographer for 20 years I’ve learned something: simple lighting is often the ideal recipe for success. 

You may want to own a dozen different strobes and fancy light modifiers, but given how expensive equipment is these days it’s more practical than ever to do more with less. And you might even find that your images benefit from it. To that end, here are three super-simple portrait lighting setups that work wonders every time.

Big window, indirect light

In the history of photography perhaps no lighting setup has produced more beautiful portraits than a large window providing indirect illumination. Here in the northern hemisphere, north-facing windows are the ultimate prize for a studio because they never receive direct sunlight—making them bright throughout the day, but never harsh. And that is why such windows (or windows facing other directions that are not currently experiencing direct sunlight) are the ultimate portrait lighting solution. The bigger the window, the softer the light. Position the subject far from the window and it will be more event, while putting the subject closer to the window will create more dramatic falloff to shadow. With a subject at a 45-degree angle to a big bright window, the shadows can create classic lighting patterns such as the loop and Rembrandt, and moving the subject around can achieve even more looks. Aim the subject directly at the window—such that the photographer is standing right in front of it—and you’ll be more likely to achieve flatter, more frontal lighting. A window to the side can approximate split lighting, as in the example shown above. And moving the subject close to the window and positioned such that the photographer is shooting back toward the light will create edge lighting or short lighting that can produce dramatic shadows for a much different look, all with no special equipment necessary. 

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One strobe in a large umbrella

If your goal is portraits and you do have a little bit of equipment at your disposal, let’s hope you’ve got one strobe, one light stand, and one large diffuser. This could be an umbrella (which is the most affordable and easiest to use) or a softbox or pop-up diffusion silk. My go-to location portrait setup includes a battery powered strobe, an 8-foot light stand, and a 42-inch umbrella. My umbrella is softened a bit more thanks to diffusion across its face, turning it into what some call a “brolly box.” This setup is incredibly efficient and economical, and I can work wonders with it by positioning it similarly to the window in the previous suggestion, and by getting it as close as possible to my subject for maximum softness and drama. (The softness comes from the increase in relative size of the source as it gets closer to the subject, and the drama comes with the faster falloff from highlight to shadow that shrinks inverse to the distance from light to subject. This last bit, which is the same thing described in the window lighting technique above, is called the “inverse square law. It’s an incredibly powerful lighting tool once you understand how to wield it.) Whether I’m shooting high fashion, serious corporate or gritty editorial, a single strobe in a big umbrella is hard to beat. 

Over the shoulder sunlight

Has there ever been a more beautiful light source than the sun? Think of all the gorgeous outdoor photos you’ve ever seen. Chances are good that 99% of them were illuminated by that same singular source. And while warm low light at dusk or softened open shade make for inherently interesting pictures, sometimes situations dictate when and where we can make our portraits. And if that situation is in bright sun, there’s one solution that rises above all others: positioning the subject with the sun at their back, then bouncing fill light from a white card to illuminate the shadowed face. You can use something like a collapsible reflector from Westcott or Impact or any number of other manufacturers, or just bounce light from a white card or even just a light-colored object. (Standing near a white wall or wearing a white shirt? Even these can effectively bounce fill into a backlit subject.) When you were first learning about photography, you were probably taught to put the sun at your back so that it is shining directly on the subject in front of you. This is often true for basic illumination, but it lacks interest and becomes incredibly problematic if your subject is a human. People are going to squint at such direct, harsh sunlight, and the only solution (short of diffusing that light) is to turn 180 degrees so the sun is behind them. You’ll want to flag the sun from getting into your own lens (using a hand or a flag if necessary) but otherwise there’s nothing to it. Putting the sun behind your subject creates dramatic edge lighting that highlights hair and shoulders, and means that they aren’t looking into the bright light of the sun. When filling the shadowed face with a reflector, take care to keep it from being so bright that it causes the subject to squint. In a pinch, simply eliminate the reflector and open up so that the correct exposure for their shadowed face blows out the background and helps prevent them from squinting.

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