Shoot Your Best-Ever Portraits (Part 1)

6/27/2012 11:36:45 AM

Great portraits don’t always require a big studio and pro lighting. We show you how to create six stunning styles with limited kit.

Portraiture is an accessible genre, which needn’t cost a fortune to practice. In this hands-on shooting guide we’ll show you six great ways to capture stunning portrait styles, all of which are achievable with little time and money.

People are all around us every day of our lives, so you don’t necessarily need to hire a model to get to grips with the genre. Grab a willing friend or family member and hone your shooting skills before you begin searching the model agencies.

Description: Shoot Your Best-Ever Portraits

You can also forget about expensive, elaborate studio kit; it’s perfectly possible to take creative images without the need to spend thousands. Even some simple net curtains can be put to good use as a portrait accessory; the key is knowing what you want to achieve and looking for ways to create it in-camera.

In order to demonstrate the scope and flexibility of portrait photography, we will demonstrate three very different environments – a small studio, outside in the middle of the day and inside in a living room using just the available light.

Each location presents its own unique challenges and benefits but all are equally ideal for portraits, and the similarities are actually greater than the differences. In each situation you will be working with the light to create your image. We’re on hand to show you how to manipulate the light to create sex distinct portrait styles.

You will also need to know how to work with your subject or model, to help them to relax and pose in a way that works with the type of image you are trying to create. Let’s get shooting…

In the studio

Learn to create a high-key setup and a moody low-key arrangement.

High key

Description: High key

The look

The high-key look typically involves bright and bold images set against a white background. The subject is normally very brightly lit by the key light – hence the term ‘high key’. This style gives the photographer flexibility to break some of the rules of portraiture. The skin tones may be a stop or more lighter than they should be and spill from the background lights may be incorporated into the image.

The setup

To achieve the high-key look you will normally need at least three lights. Two of these lights will be used to light the background, one on each side. A third light is used as the key light that illuminates the subject. Some photographers choose to also add a fourth light to further eliminate shadows. This shot uses a three-light arrangement and we’re using a standard zoom lens on your DSLR as this gives us plenty of flexibility. A fast shutter speed of 1/200sec and an aperture of about f11 work best.

Getting the shot

If you position your subject very near the background and background lights, you may find that a lot of light bounces back onto the subject and creates a soft-looking image or flare spots. Avoid overexposing the background and bring the subject nearer the key light. Try to get your model to adopt bold, striking poses and experiment with interesting compositions that look dramatic and dynamic.

Description: High key generally demands more lights but we also achieved the same effect using just two studio lights.

High key generally demands more lights but we also achieved the same effect using just two studio lights.

Alternatively, try this…

If you only have access to two lights, you can still produce effective high-key images. Light your background to produce pure white and then place a reflector between the camera and the subject to bounce some of the light back in lieu of a key light. Open up your camera’s aperture to ensure correct exposure on the model – we’ve gone for f5.6 here.

Low key

Description: Low key

The look

The low-key look is a much more traditional and classic approach to portraiture. Very often the images will look especially effective when converted to black and white. Portraits taken using low-key lighting tend to make use of moody expressions from the subject and frequently have an air of mystery and intrigue about them.

The setup

You can produce low-key lighting effects with just one light. One studio flash fitted with a softbox (or beauty dish) is all you really need. The only potential problem is that in a small studio space light may bounce back from walls, floors and ceilings and spoil your shadows. Avoid this by using black ‘absorbers’ (you can use any black surface with a matte finish, which will do the job of reducing reflections) and by shooting with a fast shutter speed to reduce the influence ob ambient light as far as possible. We’ve increased the shutter speed to 1/250sec here.

Getting the shot

You will need to position your subject carefully in relation to the light in order to make the shadows as attractive as possible. The modelling lamp in the flash heads will give you some idea, but firing some test shots and watching the camera’s LCD allows you to see exactly what’s going on. Aim for an elegant, sophisticated or moody pose. You also want your model to be wearing black or very dark clothing which will enhance the shot.

Description: One light source is sufficient for a low-key portrait

One light source is sufficient for a low-key portrait

Pros and cons of studio lighting

Control all aspects of the light and background

Images look polished and professional.

Not easy for everyone to access a studio

Equipment may not suit everyone’s budget.

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