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An Introduction to Basic Portrait Lighting

Making the jump to studio portrait photography can be intimidating. In fact, many beginning photographers with natural light simply because the transition seems too challenging. But making the leap is well worth it, allowing you to have complete command of exactly what parts of your subjects remain lit, and more importantly, where the shadows fall. This post will run through the basics of studio portrait lighting and hopefully set you well on your way to creating stellar studio portraits.

The Studio

The first step to gaining complete control your lighting is to start off in a blank space: a studio. The most basic studio is a simple room with no windows, white walls, and a roll of white paper as the background. This ensures that no outside light comes in and that no extraneous color leaks into the space. It doesn’t have to be a large room—you’ll need just enough space for some equipment, a model, and to be able to move around. A room of about 20’x15’ with ample ceiling space will do.

The Lighting 

The lighting equipment you invest in doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, and if you’re just starting out you can get by with just a single softbox and a 5-in-1 reflector. From there you can simply add on modifiers as you have the money or need. Still it’s best to understand what each lighting element does before investing in it. 

Here’s the simple breakdown:

The Key Light

The key light is your main light—the source of the greatest illumination. In classic studio portraiture it functions as the “sun” and is generally placed over the head and at an angle to the subject (a 45-degree angle in classic glamour lighting). 

In modern-day studio portraits, the key light is usually filtered through diffusion or bounced off an umbrella to create a softer light. A softbox or beauty dish will work fine here.

The Fill Light

The fill light exists to fill in the shadows created by the key light. It’s positioned on the opposite side of the subject from the key light. This can be done with a reflector or white card, or by a lighting instrument set to about ½ to 1/3 the illumination level of the Key Light.

It’s perfectly possible to get great studio portraits with just a key light and fill—in other words, a softbox and a reflector. (Click here for the Slanted Len’s quick tutorial on how how to set up for a one-light portrait.)

This portrait uses only a key light and reflected fill

Photo credit: Ryan Holloway

The next two lights are used for setting the subject apart from the background. While not strictly necessary, they do add a level of three-dimensionality that many photographers prefer.

The Hair Light

As the name implies, this little instrument lights up the hair, creating a sort of backlight or side light that helps to define the subject. It’s useful to use a smaller instrument at low levels here and/or have a snoot or barn doors to sculpt the light exactly where you want it. It’s only intended as a highlight.

The Background Light

While not always necessary, the background light can make a huge difference if you want the background as part of the shot. It’s placed low and behind the subject so that it throws a semi-circular light on the background. Just keep in mind that if you’re going to light your background, you’ll want it to be relatively seamless and uniform in color so that it doesn’t distract from the subject.

The next decision to make is whether you want your lighting instruments to be continuous (i.e. floodlights or spotlights) or instantaneous (i.e. strobes or speedlights). Many beginners choose to start out with continuous light because what you see is what you get. With strobes, you’ll need to use the modeling light to see what it will look like before pressing the shutter.

This inexpensive softbox is designed specifically for speedlights

Once you’ve found a space that will work as your studio and decided on what type of lights you want to use, you’re good to go. Now just find a model and click away.

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