Tips + Techniques

Perfect Your Lighting Skills with These Portrait Basics

August 25, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

© Felix Kunze

[Register here: A webinar on-demand about the future of lighting, hosted by Rangefinder and WPPI.]

We’ve compiled some of the best coverage Rangefinder has to offer on portrait lighting, with subjects ranging from newborns to wedding couples, and techniques highlighting ways to maximize sunlight and window light to perfecting strobes, punchy flash and everything in between.

For more insight into photography lighting, check out next-level lighting tips for wedding and engagement photographers, delving into artistic and cinematic lighting setups, expanding your repertoire with more creative techniques, perfecting how to photograph with only natural light (and, when you don’t have it, how to imitate natural light no matter where you are), and mastering your lighting tools.

WATCH: 10 Portrait Lighting Mistakes Easily Fixed

For photographers just starting out, it’s normal to make some common portrait photography lighting mistakes. All that really matters is to make fewer mistakes when you go out there again, continue to work on the things you need to improve and get better over time. Most importantly, “don’t let these mistakes make you feel discouraged,” Chicago-based photographer John Gress advises. To help, he has a video on YouTube outlining the 10 portrait photography lighting mistakes he says every new photographer makes—and outlines easy fixes for each. Watch the video and read our 5 excerpted highlights from it here.

6 Photographers Share How They Have Evolved Their Portrait Lighting

portrait lighting basics of newborns
© 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 (such as newborn photographer Nikki Lenae‘s image above). Read more here.

How to Create Great Light For Your Portrait Shoot

Lighting wedding portraits with natural and artificial light
© Susan Stripling

Photographer Susan Stripling, a Triple Master of WPPI who co-founded The Wedding School, breaks down three lighting scenarios using both natural and artificial light. “Learning how to develop my eye for light has been the most crucial part of developing my own personal style as a wedding photographer,” Stripling says. “I love working with continuous lights, strobes and speed lights, and I also have a great fondness for amazing natural lighting, which also takes skill. When working with natural light that’s bright, you have to be very careful to expose properly for your scene.” Above, Stripling exposed for the highlights on the bride’s face, which resulted in a perfect exposure on her and a deep, dramatic exposure for the rest of the room.” Read more here.

Watch: Portrait Lighting Mistakes to Avoid

Portrait lighting mistakes to avoid
© Alexander Dummer | PEXELS CC

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to executing a well-lit studio portrait. Photographer and digital artist Antti Karppinen has helpfully compiled a list of seven common lighting mistakes photographers often make when shooting in the studio, including positioning your main light too low or pushing it too high. And don’t crank your fill light! Discover more tips and watch the full video here.

Lighting Living Legends

Portrait Lighting Basics with Ian Spanier
© Ian Spanier

When it comes to lighting icons like Olympic Gold Medalist and AIDS activist Greg Louganis, you need outstanding lighting. “We arrived at the pool an hour before Louganis to scout and make sure that we could anticipate where the sun would be,” says Ian Spanier, an award-winning portrait, sports and lifestyle photographer. “As it turned out, the sun would sit fairly low in the sky, but it would hit part of the pool’s white interior, so our angle to shoot would be somewhat determined for us.” Find out why Spanier always carries black velvet in his kit on nearly every shoot, and how he used it for this special portrait, here.

6 Portrait Photographers Share Their Biggest Lighting Challenges

 Lighting Challenges Tackled
© Daryna Barykina

Six photographers share their most challenging lighting scenarios—everything from a model coerced into being photographed in a classic Icelandic wool blanket on a freezing mountaintop to a very dark outdoor reception. Above, beauty and fashion photographer Daryna Barykina uses a long exposure to turn sequins on a gown “into fireflies.” Read more here.

How to Separate Portrait Subjects From the Background

separating your portrait subject from the background.
© Spencer Selover | PEXELS CC

Many photographers shoot portrait subjects against a solid color background or backdrop. While it’s a classic, timeless look, you do need to take care to create some depth and separate your subject from the background. If you don’t, you could get a strange effect where your subject’s head and background blend into one (this is especially true if your subject’s hair and the background are similar colors). For more tips to help you successfully separate your portrait subjects from the background, click here.

Tips & Tricks from Roberto Valenzuela on Controlling Light in Any Scenario

Lighting is the most crucial aspect of wedding photography
© Roberto Valenzuela

Lighting is one of the most crucial aspects of wedding photography to master, but it can also be one of the most difficult and daunting concepts. Roberto Valenzuela shares key elements needed to successfully shoot in any scenario, including ways to identify the source and direction of your light, the impact of flat surfaces (which act as reflectors), shadows on the ground and much more. For the image above, Valenzuela was going for “edgy and flattering” as a vision for this portrait, and the model’s full lips were the feature that told the story. Find out more here.

Flash Fanatic Amy Lombard on Creating with Punchy, Artificial Light

Punchy, Artificial light
© Amy Lombard

Photographer Amy Lombard was never interested in shooting with anything other than natural light…that is, until a photographer friend of hers came over one day with the Sunpak 622 Super flash. “I was just captivated and had to try it,” she says. “As I looked at my film that I shot with it, I knew that was it for me. It was like hearing music for the first time. I felt like my work finally made sense.” Read about how she made it her signature, implementing it for top editorial and commercial clients, here.