Top 5 Portrait Photography Lighting Tips

My top five portrait photography lighting tips are detailed in the following video. Whether it’s Speedlites (Speedlights), strobe, or natural light, creating successful portraits and headshots starts with solid lighting techniques.

Start with one light

The most important light is your main light. The main light (or key light) sets up the whole foundation of how your subject is presented in a portrait. It makes sense when you think about it; we’re all hardwired to make sense of our world under one giant light (the Sun). The way sunlight bounces around and reflects off other objects in a scene create ambient fill lighting and hair, rim light. Portrait photography lighting is about modeling your subject in a descriptive and pleasing way.

Get your flash off your camera

Getting your flash away from your camera is going to make a world of difference in your flash portrait photography. Sure, the on-camera flash look has its place. Not only is it the most practical way to bring in some extra light when needed, it can also give our photos that sense of urgency; the “quick snapshot” look that is sometimes what we’re after. But move that flash off the camera-to-subject axis and you’ll get more natural portrait photography lighting.

Use constant light when you can

Constant light sources like natural light or interior ambient lighting often give us the most natural, real-world looking light for our portraits. Unless you’re a master of lighting (and have a lot of gear and time to craft a natural lighting look out of artificial sources), constant light might be your best choice. Constant light also gives you that real-time preview of where your light and shadows will fall.

Use manual camera and flash settings

For most indoor flash portraiture, manual is the way to go. It’s about consistency. Manual settings stay where they are so little changes in the scene or background wont affect the critical parts of the exposure that should stay the same. You might want to avoid introducing exposure inconsistencies by using manual settings and locking them in, rather than using TTL or changing camera settings frequently.

Here’s more info on how to produce one-light flash portrait photography lighting.

Keep the light above the subject’s head

I try to avoid strong underlighting. Again, as with most of these tips, a lot of it has to do with how we’re hard-wired to perceive faces.

Keep these strategies in mind when setting up your portrait lighting. And remember, a simple and common sense approach to your portraiture is often the best.