6 Photographers Share How They Have Evolved Their Portrait Lighting

April 8, 2019

By Brienne Walsh

Photos © Nikki Lenae

Not every photographer has the luxury of attending a school to learn the craft of perfect lighting—and even those that have often find they need to throw everything they were taught out the window. Landing on a lighting setup that really suits can take some trial and error. To that end, we asked six wedding and portrait photographers to look at an early photograph they made, distinguish the lighting mistakes they didn’t know they were making, and identify what techniques they have learned over time to reach a look that represents their style today.


Nikki Lenae

When Nikki Lenae started her newborn photography business five years ago, she had almost no experience lighting studio portraits. She learned what she could from watching well-known newborn photographer Ana Brandt’s YouTube videos, where Brandt recommended using a key light and a fill. Lenae lit her early portraits, such as the one of little baby Ruby (below), exactly in that way.

Photo © Nikki Lenae

She quickly discovered, however, that she didn’t like the flattening effect such a lighting setup had on her images. Lenae preferred a moodier look. “I love shadows,” she says.

In a workshop hosted by Amy McDaniel of Dewdrops Photography, she was introduced to the concept of using just one light. It “changed my life,” Lenae says, but it took a lot of experimentation. She eventually discovered that she got the effect she wanted by placing a light two or three feet away from her newborn subjects. Further than that and the images started to look muddy. If she added a fill light behind that single key light, it removed all of the shadows and many of the details on the newborn baby’s face.

Photo © Nikki Lenae

In a recent image she shot of her assistant’s newborn baby, for example, she used a single light with an 86-inch Paul C. Buff PLM umbrella placed three feet away from the newborn. Once posed, she turned the little one slightly facing the light until the shadows started to fall off the sides of her body. “I’m looking for the highlight under the baby’s eye,” she says. “If I can’t see that highlight, I know I’ll get a super moody image, so I’ll turn the baby toward the light.”

Textured images with lots of detail are what emerge from such a lighting setup. “I’m finally at the point where I love my light, and it’s easy for me to manipulate.”


Kristina Varaksina


Kristina Varaksina learned in art school that the best way to light a beauty photograph was with a beauty dish. In her opinion, subjects in that kind of light look very pretty. “It is a soft modifier, but it gives you a lot of contrast,” Varaksina notes. “You put the beauty dish above the person’s face and it highlights the cheekbones, the shadows under the face, making for a really sculpted look.”

Photo © Kristina Varaksina

This was exactly what she did with “Berry Merry” (above), an image she shot in 2014 for a personal project she collaborated on with a makeup artist. The result, Varaksina notes, is very conventional; “Berry Merry” is the sort of image that could be used in any magazine or beauty ad.

But with time, Varaksina’s personal style, she realized, was more painterly. “I have always been attracted to less realistic-looking imagery,” she says. To achieve an effect before she figured out how to do so with lighting, she would play around in post. “I would tone down the highlights and open up the shadows,” Varaksina explains. “A lot of photographers like more contrast, but I like less.”

Photo © Kristina Varaksina

Eventually, she learned how to light the images she wanted with large modifiers and diffusers. In an image of a model she shot for Vogue Poland last October, she added a MagMod reflector on her light (Varaksina notes she’s a “one-light kind of person”), which she says added a nice “sunlight effect.” To defract the light further, she wrapped the lens with a fluid plastic wrap, which caused the highlights to get “more muted and scattered,” as she puts it.

This gave the image the quality Varaksina prefers, one she has felt more comfortable embracing with more experience. “She’s so soft, she almost doesn’t look real,” Varaksina says of the model.


Seth and Beth


When Seth and Beth first started shooting weddings almost a decade ago, they hid the fact that they didn’t know much about lighting by shooting in spaces with lots of ambient light. They would adjust the tint of their images in post-production so that any errors were masked in sepia tones—a “parlor trick,” Seth says.

Photo © Seth and Beth

When they shot a wedding in 2012 at the Old Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, they captured the bridal party in the atrium of the building, which had a reflective floor.

“I didn’t understand light enough to light them well, so I put them in front of a great background, on a floor that was reflective to hide the fact that the image was otherwise pretty poorly lit,” Seth recalls. Then in post, he converted the file from black and white to sepia. “We were lucky that couples trusted us,” he says with a laugh.

Off-camera lighting at the time was pretty bulky and heavy, and it required lots of outlets to keep the equipment running. This, along with a lack of training, dissuaded Seth and Beth from using it at weddings.

But in the years since, lighting gear has become leaner and easier to move around, and the duo became more comfortable trying different lighting setups over the course of a client’s wedding. Now, instead of letting the background and the ambient light control the image, they focus on the subjects themselves.

Photo © Seth and Beth

“We love backlighting people,” Seth says. “You can get beautiful light on the hair and shoulders and then darken down the scene in post-production.” Generally, they find that what works best for them is a standard flash on a monopod with a MagMod grid on it.

Lately, the couple has made a name for themselves by making composites of wedding parties out of individual portraits, such as the one shown above, which was taken at a wedding in Akron, Ohio, last December. Each person in the image was lit individually or as a couple, working from the outside of the group towards the center. The final image, composed of seven separate portraits, was stitched together in post. The image took roughly ten minutes to shoot. “What we learned was that in order to get the images we wanted, we had to have off-camera lighting,” Seth says.


Kate Whyte


Although Kate Whyte doesn’t necessarily specialize in maternity photography, she jumps on the chance to shoot portraits of people she admires. Sometimes, they happen to be pregnant.

Photo © Kate Whyte

When Sandra, a food blogger that Whyte follows on Instagram, began posting images of herself pregnant in a hijab, Whyte reached out and asked if they could do a portrait session together.

They met on a beach in Vancouver on an extremely cold, snowy day in 2017 at around 4 p.m. Although Sandra was wearing layers under her hijab, Whyte still worked to get the image as quickly as she could so that she could get her very pregnant subject back indoors. She used only the ambient light available, which produced a harsh sunlit effect. It required a lot of work in post to soften up the light, Whyte recalls.

Photo © Kate Whyte

Fast forward one year to 2018. Whyte reached out to Anyiech Chut, a model she had worked with previously, who was pregnant. On the day of the shoot, Chut wore an orange dress that was a throwback to the outfit she wore during her first session with Whyte.

The thing is, Whyte doesn’t love soft maternity photos. “Anyiech is a really strong woman, she’s really brave, and I mean no shade to people who do beautiful whimsical shoots in the forest, but she’s quite modern and sort of minimal,” she explains, “so a studio portrait with full light was more in tune with her personality.”

From her session with Sandra, Whyte had learned that really strong light could make her life difficult in post, so she lit Chut with a softbox directed at her shoulders and hair, and then a beauty dish angled down to accentuate her face. To fill the image and give it a fashion edge, she added two strobes. “Having that punch of light coming from the front accentuated her belly,” Whyte says.

Wedding Couples

Marlies Hartmann


The first couple Marlies Hartmann ever photographed was lit with a hope and a prayer. “I found open shade, shot wide open and hoped for the best,” she recalls. It was also the first wedding Hartmann had ever captured. After starting a food blog in 2015, she had transitioned to weddings and still had a lot to learn.

Photo © Marlies Hartmann

Over the next few years, she began assisting other photographers at weddings, and she took photo workshops from Erika and Lanny Mann of Two Mann Studio, where she learned she needed to angle light in order to capture the images she wanted. The best experience, however, was shooting headshots for actors in Los Angeles, where she is based. “I started practicing in that environment because it was low stress and allowed me to play,” she says. “Video lighting became the gateway drug to off-camera flash, to see how light would work on camera.”

In 2017, she discovered MagMod modifiers, and that, Hartmann notes, is when lighting really clicked for her. Now, off-camera lighting is a regular tool she uses at weddings. Often, she’ll do a variety of setups with lighting in the last hour of the night, after she’s gotten all of the other shots she needs and has time to experiment.

Photo © Marlies Hartmann

For a recent wedding, she was able to create a setup with three lights in five minutes. She placed one bare light behind the subjects, and one light on either side of them, both outfitted with MagMod grips and spheres. Before she grabbed the couple, she had another couple stand in for test shots.

When the couple finally posed for the photo, the light on the groom’s side didn’t trigger. Hartmann decided she loved the effect anyway (the couple was smoking Cuban cigars as a tribute to the bride’s father, who is Cuban). “The image showcased her side of the family,” Hartmann notes. She killed the third light on the groom’s side and had the couple puff a few times on their cigars to create swirling smoke in the background of the image.

These days, Hartmann loves getting technical with her lighting—she almost always uses a flash, even when there is plenty of ambient lighting. “Many women photographers don’t realize that you can really use flash, and you can use lighting to keep your photos looking soft and romantic too,” she says. “I want women to feel empowered to get technical.”

In Motion

Nick Fancher


Nick Fancher first became interested in shooting dancers when he watched the competitive reality TV show So You Think You Can Dance with his wife. “The power and grace of the dancers really moved me,” he says. Fancher began reaching out to dancers at local companies in Columbus, Ohio, where he is based, for potential collaborations. “I told them, ‘You do you, I’ll do me,’” he recalls.

Photo © Nick Fancher

The first dancer he photographed was in 2008, back when he still was figuring out how to light his subjects. Fancher’s intention was to capture the dynamics of dance. “This image fell short of my goal,” he says, chuckling.

Fancher photographed the dancer outside with a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight attached to his camera. “I didn’t really know the limits of what a small flash could do outside,” he admits. In order to prevent the flash from being knocked out by sunlight, he had to place the dancer in a shaded area. “It was a learning kind of moment.”

Photo © Nick Fancher

Ten years later, Fancher’s technique has really evolved. Now he asks his subjects to hold a pose while he moves around them. “I’m dragging the camera and I’m painting with light,” he says, allowing the dancers to stay still to lessen the impact of the session on their bodies. “When you’re working with a dancer, I try to be aware of what I’m making them do.”

His lighting setup has become more complex, too. For this image (above), Fancher used a NEEWER LED lamp, gelled red, that he bought on Amazon as a continuous light source. A Cactus speedlight outfitted with cyan gel froze the dancer in space. At a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second, Fancher whipped around his subject, creating red streaks in the final image. “It’s a constant experiment, but the image is closer to representing what I want of the dancer,” he says. “It has movement, power, mystery.”

Related: Building on Lighting Setups, From One to Four Off-Camera Flashes

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