If you’re at home and looking to improve your photography skills during your downtime, why not work on the portrait lighting and posing techniques you can put to use once life gets back to normal? This is a great way to capitalize on a captive audience you may have at home with you—a spouse and kids, for instance, or a hopefully willing roommate. The benefit is you can also come out of this with some nice family photos in the process. Here are some essential portrait lighting and posing techniques to practice, which conveniently you can do from the comfort of your home without specialized equipment or locations.
I find many portrait customers say, “I don’t want to look posed.” I understand that. We don’t want to look stiff and stilted; we want to look casual and relaxed. But truly relaxed doesn’t often look very attractive. Plunking someone down on a chair doesn’t work. Instead, you need to help your subject get into the right position so that they feel relaxed and look good too. A great place to start is by seating someone slightly elevated—like on the arm of a couch or a tall stool—rather than on a low seat. Then, encourage the subject to slide forward and sit up tall so they’re not slouching back in an unappealing manner. Next, try turning their shoulders slightly away from the camera axis. Square to the camera often looks too much like a mug shot.
The next thing to consider is diagonal lines, which are more photogenic than horizontals and verticals because of the way they allow the viewer’s eye to move throughout the frame. So if you can position arms and legs such that they make a diagonal line on the sensor, they’re likely to look much more pleasing. This often leads to arms and legs leaning on scene elements, reinforcing that relaxed look as well. When in doubt, give your subject something for support—whether that’s a tree to lean a hip against or a chair back to rest an arm on.
For photographers with multiple kids at home, or a spouse and kids, or just multiple housemates, you’ve got the added benefit of being able to practice posing people together in a couple or group shot. This skill is essential because what works well for an individual portrait doesn’t always apply to groups of two or more. Namely, some things to practice with groups include positioning heads at different heights (using steps or seated/standing combinations as needed) as well as ensuring the two subjects are visually engaged with one another. (It looks awkward if the subjects appear to be ignoring one another.)
This can be accomplished by ensuring at least one person’s shoulders are turned slightly toward their scene partner. If both heads are aimed straight at the camera, it looks like a photograph of two people. If one head is turned slightly toward the other person, however, it creates a visual acknowledgment of the other subject in the frame and presents them more as a unified pair than two separate elements. This makes it easier for the viewer to have one singular center of attention.
In times like these when a studio full of lighting equipment isn’t easily accessible, there’s no better portrait light source than big, beautiful, indirect natural light. And that’s in practically everyone’s home by way of a window. The ideal window light (in North America, at least) is north facing because it never receives direct exposure from the sun. This bright, indirect illumination is perfect for portraits. For windows getting direct exposure from the sun (an east-facing window in the morning, for instance) a sheer curtain or white sheet becomes an ideal diffuser to soften the light.
Start by positioning the subject facing the window and as close to it as possible. This may put the photographer’s back against the window or at a quartering angle. Alternatively, try moving to a position where the subject’s face is 90 degrees to the window and the photographer is opposite. This will create more of a split lighting look which increases the drama but also allows the subject to stay close to the light for pronounced falloff on the shadow side. The farther the subject moves away from the window the flatter the light will become. Remember to turn off any interior lights as well in order to ensure a single color balance for the window light.
Another great portrait lighting option—and one that allows you to get outdoors—is the use of open shade. This is the bright, indirect sunlight found under tall trees, for instance, or beneath any structure that creates an overhang or shades the subject from direct sun. The big differentiator between open shade and plain old shade is that open shade is brighter because it is “open” to the sky. It’s not deep, dark shadows, but rather illuminated by sunlight reflecting off the open sky.
I love shooting portraits in open shade and I can find it practically anywhere. An open doorway, for instance, is a great place to create open shade. Just position the subject a step or two inside the door where they’re out of direct sunlight but still illuminated by the sky. A stand of trees is also a great place to find open shade by positioning the subject such that they’re protected from direct sunlight. That’s the nature of open shade—it creates a key light from the sky rather than the sun.
Bounce Light With Reflector Or Flash
If you’ve got an assistant to help with your portrait experiments, put a white reflector in their hands. A sheet of poster board or foamcore will work great if you don’t have a flexible fabric reflector. Try positioning the reflector opposite the sun, on the shadow side of the subject, then move it closer to the subject and farther away until you strike the ideal visual balance. Too far from the subject and the shadows will get darker, too close and the lighting will start to look flat. Be careful, too, of not illuminating too strongly with a bounce from below as this can create a monster lighting effect.
Speaking of bouncing light, being cooped up indoors is the perfect opportunity to practice bouncing a flash off of a white ceiling. Just mount a speedlight to the camera’s hot-shoe and then tilt it until it’s pointing straight up. Under a normal interior white ceiling, the bounced flash will be plenty powerful to create a bright key light. This is my preferred method for candid photography indoors when no natural light is available and flash illumination is needed. The broad light from above creates a similar look to an overcast sky. It’s still light from above, which is how our brains prefer it, and it’s way less harsh than direct flash.
You can use TTL settings and get the exposure close every time or set the flash and camera to manual and dial in the exposure precisely. To do this, start with something along the lines of ISO 400, 1/125th sec. at ƒ/5.6 with the flash set manually to half or quarter power. Just dial the flash power up or down to change the exposure or adjust the ISO and aperture accordingly.