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How to Take Portraits: Lighting Tips and Techniques

Updated on November 12, 2017
cclitgirl profile image

Cynthia is a writer, artist, and teacher. She loves studying language, arts and culture and sharing that knowledge.

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.

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.

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

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
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

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.

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 Sageleaf

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    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 2 years ago from Western NC

      jcsales - thank you for stopping by! I definitely enjoy photography, too. Have a great day!

    • jcsales profile image

      jcsales 2 years ago

      Great tips. My wife and I love photography. There is so much to learn from this hub. Thank you.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Sallybea - thank you so much! I hope you have a wonderful day! :)

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 4 years ago from Norfolk

      Very useful post. Definitely something to bookmark so that I can come back to it with my camera in my hand. Thank you for sharing.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Collegedad - lol, yeah, it's a fine line between too much and too little.

      Livingsta - thank you for stopping by! I definitely prefer natural light...as often as I can.

      Kasman - Thank you! I appreciate the votes and have a great day!

      Prasetio30 - Thank you and I hope all this helps. Have a wonderful day!

      Bridalletter - the best thing for anyone who likes photography is just a little practice. :) Thank you so much for stopping by.

    • bridalletter profile image

      Brenda Kyle 4 years ago from Blue Springs, Missouri, USA

      This really helps for a non photographer. I need improving in this area. I hope to see more photography hubs from you. Thank you for sharing the tips and guidelines.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I love photography. I learn many things here. I am glad to follow your tips. You have done a great job by sharing this hub with us. The photos you included are the best. Voted up!

      Prasetio

    • Kasman profile image

      Kas 4 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

      I know someone who is working for a photography studio who would appreciate this hub. Very detailed, interesting and packed with portrait goodness......saving this one. Voting this up, sharing! Great job Cindy Lou who.

    • livingsta profile image

      livingsta 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you for this, and also the bonus tips in the end. I do not have a DSLR, but even with my compact, I always prefer shooting in natural light.

      Voting up and sharing!

    • collegedad profile image

      collegedad 4 years ago from The Upper Peninsula

      Lighting is my nemesis! Thanks for the great tips. Voted up, useful, and shared!

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Vicki - thank you! I appreciate the shares. :)

      Natasha - yes, it's interesting. I'm totally self-taught, but I READ all the time about it. :) Thank you so much for your feedback. Have a wonderful day! :)

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      I see so many people come out where I work with photographers they've paid and I feel so sad for them because neither they nor the photographer seems to realize that owing a dslr doesn't make a person a professional photographer! I see a few good photographers, but I see so many folks who have clearly never even read something like this. Great discriptions and examples! People can learn a lot from you (and I hope they find you so they can learn!$

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Great information, CC! Pinning to my photography boards. I keep trying to learn more!

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Sgbrown - yes, hehe, lighting is your best friend. Thank you so much! I hope you have had a great Sunday! :)

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      You have given some great information here. Lighting is very important in any photograph. Early in the mornings are my favorite time to take pictures. My photography is mostly nature and wildlife. I do some portraits for my family. Great hub! Voted up and more! :)

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Angela Kane - thank you for stopping by!

    • Angela Kane profile image

      Angela Kane 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Thanks for the tips. I take pictures often and these tips will come in handy.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Carozy - thank you! I love black and white photos, too!

      Aykianink - will check it out! ;)

    • aykianink profile image

      aykianink 4 years ago

      Hello, Cyndi. Started a new thread and would love your opinion(s). http://hubpages.com/forum/topic/108339

    • carozy profile image

      carozy 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Useful article. Voted up. I will come back to it the next time I'm going to take a portrait photograph. I love natural light photos, especially in black and white.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Alocsin - awesome! I'm sure you're already really good at it! Cheers!

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I'm going to try some of these lighting tips to see if they improve my pictures. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Li smith ion-eco - thank you so much! I hope you enjoyed it. :)

    • li smith ion-eco profile image

      li smith ion-eco 4 years ago from Hermanus, South Africa

      Thank you for a great hub cclitgirl!

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      aykianink - ha! You made me smile. :) Um, well, if it's any consolation, you gotta take a lot of photos in different situations to also get better at those sunset shots. But, I'll bet they're better than what you give yourself credit for, hehe. :)

      Rose - Thank you and I'm so glad you got that DSLR. I KNOW you're going to love it - I think you might even get addicted. ;)

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Great job on this topic! I love how you broke down all of the information and how many specific tips you gave. I am so excited to have a DSLR and to keep experimenting with all of these new techniques.

    • aykianink profile image

      aykianink 4 years ago

      I took my then girl to the beach. Sunset photos at the beach, nothing gets better than that, right? Well...I had no clue what I was doing. Those photos were a mess. 1. I want a better camera. 2. I gotta read more cclitgirl hubs.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Rfmoran - thank you so much! I am really glad I could help out with your new camera. :) I found so many explanations lacking, too, so I thought it would be a good idea to put it all in one place for reference.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I got a new camera for Christmas and this excellent hub is just what I need. Your instructions are far better than those provided by Cannon. Excellent job.

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Kimberly - thank you. :) Yeah, the light is exquisite in the early morning and at sunset - I love the colors you get for sure. :)

    • Kimberly Vaughn profile image

      Kimberly Vaughn 4 years ago from Midwest

      This hub has so much great detail! I will definitely use this info. I had no idea that early morning and late afternoon were the best time to take outdoor pics. Of course, I have been taking mid day pics for years!

    • cclitgirl profile image
      Author

      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      TT - YOU are awesomesauce, m'lady! Thank you so much for the shares - you're just TOO COOL!

      Bill - hey, BB! Thanks fer comin' by! Oh man...I am in love with my camera. It's slightly sad that it's a gadget, but the thing has helped further me along in this writing and photography stuff for sure, lol.

      Janine - I love the photos you can take with an iPhone. You can create some beautiful stuff for sure. ;) Thank you so much!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      I too need to stop using my iPhone for one and probably could use a better eye, too lol!! But seriously great tips and thanks for sharing!!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great tips! I need a new camera...or a better eye...or both! :) Sharing!

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      You are fantabulously awesomesauce! :) Voted up and you know I shared it a little. :)