ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

How to Take Portraits: Lighting Tips and Techniques

Updated on January 17, 2018
cclitgirl profile image

Cynthia is a digital marketer, writer, and artist. She writes about a variety of topics, especially digital marketing, languages & culture.

This is a self-portrait on a cloudy day.  I set the ISO to 400, the aperture to f/4, and the shutter speed to a pretty fast setting: 1/160.
This is a self-portrait on a cloudy day. I set the ISO to 400, the aperture to f/4, and the shutter speed to a pretty fast setting: 1/160. | Source

Lighting: Something All Photos Need

You don't have to be a professional photographer to take great portraits!

Of course, taking a quality picture of someone involves many factors: the composition, proper framing, aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings and more.

There is one element that is critically important to creating a quality portrait: lighting. Proper lighting will determine whether you have a picture that is stunning or one that needs to stay hidden in your camera’s memory banks.

This article assumes that you are familiar with DSLR cameras, and that you have some familiarity with aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings.

Natural Lighting

Many photographers will tell you that natural lighting is the best way to achieve the stunning portraits you want.

But not just any natural lighting will do.

Though this isn't a portrait shot, you can see how a sunrise would cast warm, golden and even magenta light on your subjects.
Though this isn't a portrait shot, you can see how a sunrise would cast warm, golden and even magenta light on your subjects. | Source

The Best Times of Day to Shoot Portraits

Early morning as the sun is rising or in the late afternoon when the sun is setting are both great times to shoot portraits.

  • Because the sun is low in the sky and casts a golden hue over your subject, you can create some beautiful photos with warm tones.
  • Shadows are less pronounced at these times of day and create softer gradations of color and contrast, which can enhance the photo.
  • This is a great time to use the sun as a sidelight, and then use a reflector to highlight the other side of the person’s facial features.

Sometimes it can be difficult to shoot your subjects at these times. Getting up at 4 a.m. isn’t always easy. If it’s awhile before sunset or an hour or two after sunrise, your chances of taking a good portrait are good as long as the sun doesn’t get too high overhead.

Indoor lighting can be a challenge.  This self-portrait was at an ISO 3200, but it's grainy, I'm on the highest aperture setting possible on my camera at 4.5, and a slower shutter speed at 1/20.
Indoor lighting can be a challenge. This self-portrait was at an ISO 3200, but it's grainy, I'm on the highest aperture setting possible on my camera at 4.5, and a slower shutter speed at 1/20. | Source

The Worst Time of Day to Shoot Portraits

Midday in the sun is the most challenging time to try to shoot a portrait.

  • When the sun is high in the sky, it can cast harsh shadows on your subject, emphasizing less desirable features. Harsh shadows typically will show up under the eyes and under the chin.
  • Color can sometimes seem flat and washed out due to the extreme brightness from the sunlight.
  • It’s best to move to a shady spot to help reduce the harsh contrasts that strong sunlight creates if you must photograph at this time of day.

Other Considerations for Natural Lighting

Foggy or cloudy conditions

  • Fog and clouds help to make ambient lighting more diffused and smooth. The drawback is that the lighting can also appear somewhat flat.
  • While this type of light can help create a misty and softer image, it’s important to experiment with different angles when taking pictures to see how the light and shadow falls on someone’s face.
  • It’s a good idea to strive for a little bit of shadow to add a bit of interest and natural contrast.

Indoor Lighting

If you need to photograph your subject indoors, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your portrait shots look their best.

  • Select a room that has the largest amount of natural light possible – think big windows but non-direct sunlight.
  • If you find that even the brightest room still doesn’t offer adequate lighting, consider using lamps and overhead lights to help brighten your subject.
  • Avoid using the flash because it can simulate the same conditions as bright midday sunlight and create harsh shadows; it can also “wash out” the person’s features.
  • If you must use flash, experiment by shooting at different angles to see how light and shadow will work.
  • If you’re not a professional photographer, chances are you don’t have one of those nifty reflectors on hand (this is a great gift idea for budding photographers). Experiment with white poster board, a framed white canvas, or even a mirror draped with a light cloth to reflect light back onto the person you want to photograph.

A great 4-minute portrait tutorial

Do you like to experiement with the manual settings on your DSLR camera?

See results

Quick Tips and Guidelines for Camera Settings and Lighting

Lighting Conditions
ISO
Shutter Speed
Aperture
Other Notes
Sunrise/Sunset
200
1/250
4.5-5.6 (1.2 and up if you have that capability on your lens)
Higher probability of a warmer-toned photograph
Midday
100
1/250 up to 1/1000
5.6 and up
Try to avoid midday shots because of "washing out" and deep shadows; move into the shade
Cloudy Day
400
1/125
4.5-5.6
Experiment with different angles to avoid "flat" shots; can create mystical images with fog
Indoors - Bright Room
400 - 1600
1/125
4.5
It's best to use the brightest room possible with natural, indirect light
Indoors - Dim Room
1600 - 3200
1/50
4.5
Avoid dimly lit rooms. If that's all you have to work with, increase your aperture (1.2-4.5), raise the ISO, and decrease shutter speed; tripods can help; risk of noisy, speckled shots increase

These are just guidelines and provide a good place to start when adjusting your manual camera settings. Of course, you can change them and play with the settings because sometimes you get great results on a unexpected setting.

You can use a fill flash on your camera; some allow you to reduce the power of the flash, too.
You can use a fill flash on your camera; some allow you to reduce the power of the flash, too. | Source

Backlighting

Depending on the type of shot you’re going for, backlighting can be a nuisance or it can be your friend. If you want to create silhouettes and not use the flash, then shooting into the sun or other light source can win you great results.

What if you have no choice but to shoot into the sun and you want a portrait? What if you’re at the beach and the sun is setting and you want to get a picture of your niece playing in the waves?

You have a couple of options.

· Set your flash settings to fill-flash

You have to be careful here, though. The natural light will be golden, but your camera flash will wash over your subject with a cooler light color.

  • You can help avoid unnatural shadows and lighting by grabbing one of those neat orange, clear gel envelopes you see at office supply stores. “Cover” the flash with it and try shooting the photo that way.

· You can try using a reflector

  • Some people balk at shooting into the sun. However, if you angle yourself just right, you can capture the sun casting a warm glow over the person’s hair.
  • To overcome a darkened face, use a reflector or some type of reflective material – a white beach towel could even work in a pinch – to reflect the sun’s golden rays onto your subject. You’ll have to turn it in such a way as to not make his or her face too bright, but still casts a warm glow and flatters facial features.

Setting your camera to "aperture" priority will help you determine a good starting-point for the shutter speed settings on your camera.
Setting your camera to "aperture" priority will help you determine a good starting-point for the shutter speed settings on your camera. | Source

Tips on Using Your Camera’s Settings to Help Create Well-Lit Portraits

Aperture

· The larger the aperture, the better.

  • If you have a lens that can get as big as 1.2 or 1.8, go for it. Many kit lenses will start at 4.0 or 4.5 and you can still work with that up to about 5.6 for good results.


ISO Settings

  • If you’re outside and it’s sunny, start with an ISO setting at 100. If it’s a dark, overcast day, try higher ISO settings up to 400.

Shutter Speed

  • Use a slower shutter speed if you want to help lighten your photo a bit. 1/250, 1/125 are both good speeds to start with.
  • When in doubt, switch your camera to “aperture priority” and press the shutter button halfway down to let it determine what the ideal shutter speed should be. Then, you can start with that.

Camera Settings for Indoors

  • Once again, you want a large aperture.
  • Change your ISO settings to 400 and start with that.
  • Don’t go too high with your ISO settings, though. If you go above 1600, you risk getting a grainy image. Some photographers will tell you not to go above 800.
  • Work with a low-contrast setting.
  • Turn on surrounding lights and lamps and move them closer to your subject (but don’t get them in the picture).

Have Fun and Experiment!

The really neat thing about photography is that these are only guidelines.

Some people have achieved beautiful photos indoors with ISO settings at 3200 and higher. Other people have used flash settings that totally flattered their subject.

Photography is as much about experimentation as knowing some of the rules so that you can bend and play with them.

© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun

working

This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://corp.maven.io/privacy-policy

Show Details
Necessary
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Features
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Marketing
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Statistics
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)