Photography Cheat Sheet: Simple Portrait Lighting Techniques

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Professional-looking portraits don’t require professional lighting setups. While it certainly helps to have proper lights, what makes the crucial difference between an average portrait and a large one is knowing what to do with the kit you have.

A big part of your success is arranging your light source so that it complements the subject being photographed, and using a few props if necessary, such as a diffuser, brolly, or reflector, to alter the light of the scene. These don’t have to be expensive, and often you can replace something you might have at home. A large piece of white foam or sturdy cardboard, for example, can often work perfectly as a reflector.

Six easy ways to light a portrait

The six setups in the cheat sheet below show the kind of effects you can achieve with just one light and one reflector.

Maybe you can start by asking yourself: what kind of look do I want to achieve? Do you want Rembrandt-style lighting, where part of the face is illuminated and another is in shadow? Or do you want a more even type of light throughout?

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Read more: Photography Cheat Sheet: Professional Portrait Lighting Setups

For a strong light that gives a high contrast look, you can use the light as is, close to the subject. This will create shadows that can highlight certain facial features, and with the right subject it can look great. A bit of distance and an accessory like a diffuser will help diffuse and soften the light, giving a softer effect.

Using a reflector can add balance and help fill in shadows, and using a colored reflector can also add warmth or coolness. A gold reflector, for example, will reflect warmer light towards the subject, while a silver reflector will help keep things cooler.

Read more: Why do small apertures have large f-numbers?

Perhaps you want to emphasize the shape of the subject by lighting it from behind? This will create a rim light that will catch hair, and it can easily add more vibrancy to the final image. It won’t always be appropriate with every model, but it’s easy to do and gives you something less obvious to experiment with.

Check out the cheat sheet below for how to produce six simple lighting effects and tap the top right corner to get it in a higher resolution. Be sure to check out other photography cheat sheets too!

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