Intuitive Portrait Lighting

Light Your Way, But Learn From the Masters

If you’ve studied portrait lighting at all, you’re probably familiar with several classic lighting styles, including: Broad Lighting, Short Lighting, Butterfly/Paramount Lighting, and Rembrandt/Loop Lighting. Each of these portrait lighting styles can be used to create a pleasing or “corrective” effect on the subject. For example, Short Lighting helps create a narrowing effect on an otherwise round face, while Broad Lighting does the opposite.

portrait lighting

When I was starting out, I was confused by the way portrait lighting styles were presented in instructional books. In what world, I wondered, did a subject keep the angle of her head in perfect position relative to the light, to maintain the look of a particular lighting style? Short answer: not in my world. I want my subjects to move, interact, look alive!

The Masters of classic portrait lighting from decades past really had it down to a science. They had to because film and processing costs imposed limits on the number of frames one could justify shooting in a typical sitting. When a photographer worked with a proven set of portrait lighting setups and a reliable posing methodology, he stuck with it because he knew it would serve him well for most clients. Consistency was the key to keeping costs under control and staying in business.

The downside was that most of the pictures coming out of the old portrait studios were rather dull and lifeless. I mean, really, when you look at traditional commercial portraiture from the 60s through the 80s, most of the people look either depressed or like something is psychologically amiss. But, that was the look and people accepted it as the way photos, and people in photos, were supposed to look.

You saw this with everything from wedding images, to family portraiture, to executive headshots. That’s just how it was. Thank goodness those days are over. And while many of the fundamental “rules” of traditional portraiture still hold true, they’re just a point of reference, as far as I’m concerned; a place to start from.

Experience will guide you as you move from deliberate execution in portrait lighting toward more intuitive work.

Once you’re familiar with the patterns, you’ll recognize them (if only on a subconscious level) as they appear during fluid shooting sequences. For studio work, I like to start off with a basic portrait lighting setup consisting of a main light in the 45/45 position and maybe a fill or kicker. Then I just go on feel. I believe the results are just more natural and dynamic this way.

Still, like any craft, it is always a good idea to study the work of the Masters of previous eras. Attempting to recreate the portrait lighting patterns and practicing directing a subject into some of the poses will help you gain a better understanding of portraiture in general.

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Making Money With Your Camera

Get a Competitive Edge

My first high-paying photography job was event photographer for a sorority organization. I was 16-years-old. I made enough money to cover my expenses, purchase some new equipment, and have some extra cash. That’s how I learned that being an event photographer could be financially rewarding.  The keys to making money with your camera?  Keep reading.

Imagine, a young kid, with a basic understanding of photography, beating out older, professional photographers for this job. Why? Because I knew how event photography worked. I’d shot some events for the local paper and for my high school (I was on the yearbook staff). And basically, if you know what you’re doing, and know what to expect, you can handle the job. Experience and knowledge gave me the confidence, and that confidence was evident. So, I got the job.

It was harder to find work, cover expenses, and get training back then.

That was in the days of film. Believe me, things weren’t easy back then. And there was plenty of competition, make no mistake about that. Of course there’s competition today, but there are also advantages available that I could never have imagined 30 years ago. That’s why I’m so surprised to hear people complain about not being able to earn money with their cameras.

Now, the potential is amazing! Digital technology and online fulfillment services (allowing customers to order online, within hours of the event) make it easier and more cost-effective than ever to profit from your photography.

And now there are great ways to learn whatever you need to get started. Like easy, affordable access to an online Event Photography Course, for example. Things like this really put success within your reach.

Can anyone else get access to these same advantages? Of course they can. But do they bother investing in them, or ever really apply them? Most people don’t.

Know your photography, take advantage of a good training course, and get out there.

If you do that, you’ll have a competitive edge.



Anastasia Taylor-Lind in Kiev


When portraiture and social commentary come together like this (see the New York Times photo essay), it’s absolutely fascinating.  A medium format film camera and a light meter, a makeshift outdoor studio, and human beings dealing with a fight for what they believe in, and grief.  Give it up for Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

I set up a makeshift portrait studio by the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street. Placing the subjects against the black curtain enabled me to really focus on how they held themselves, the protective clothing they had designed and the way they looked at me, and at you.


Link:  The New York Times

Night Photography Tips

I received a question about night photography the other day, and thought I’d throw it over to Jeff Kauffman to get his take on it.  I asked if he could provide a few examples and explanations of his process. Here’s what he had to say:

The first challenge in night photography is getting a proper exposure. The technique I use is to spot meter (with a reflected light meter, such as a camera’s meter) on a brightly lit portion of the scene.  Exposing for the highlights keeps them from blowing out. I check the preview/histogram and adjust the exposure to be what I like.

I will often open up a half to a full stop to bring the mids and shadows up, while putting the highlights back in the white zone. Really bright lights in a scene are a bugger to keep under control. Sometimes you’ll have to compose to hide the over-powering light.

I shoot in manual mode most of time. A tripod is required for long exposures.

Shutter Speed, White Balance (WB), ISO

Long exposures (greater than 1 sec) are fun, but again you need to keep the contrast range small or you’ll get blowouts and halos, referred to as hot pixels.

Another challenge in night photography is managing white balance. Artificial lights at night are all different color temperatures. When shot on Daylight WB, the scene will likely be warm (orange) on the image. If you shoot on tungsten WB, the scene will be cold (blue) on the image. I usually shoot on Daylight WB and tweak the WB in Lightroom to suit my eye. There are just too many varied color temperatures in a night street scene to try to balance it in camera.

For ISO, I use the lowest I can get away with on the particular camera. High ISO settings can produce digital noise in the shadows and sky, which I don’t care for. On my D300 I rarely go above ISO 1600 because of noise. On the D800… well, what’s noise?

Seeing light at night and how it behaves is also fun to discover. There many more visible reflections at night than during the day. The subtle shading and spill is fun to look for at night.

Bar Scene

A series showing exposure at night. On Figure 1, I believe I spot metered on the XX sign and shot at 1/80 at f/4, ISO 1000. I felt the lights were bleeding too much, so I stopped down, decreasing exposure about a stop to 1/125 at f/5 for Figure 2.  I also liked how the final exposure put the bartenders into silhouette. Figure 3 is the finished image with the colors de-saturated a little bit, along with some sharpening and other finishing touches.

night photography

Figure 1

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Figure 2


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Figure 3


Summary: Meter for a highlight and adjust after a test shot. In this example, the adjustment was less exposure. Had I metered on the yellow window under the XX sign, the exposure might have been more acceptable on the first shot, as the bright yellow sign was brighter and the meter would have read less exposure.


Amusement Pier

Another series showing exposure at night. This time, the adjustment went the other way. My goals were twofold: don’t blow out the highlights too much, and show some motion.

With a variety of light intensities and colors in the scene, where do you start? I used center-weighted metering to get an average reading and then, through a few test shots, settled on .6th sec at f/8 ISO 400 for Figure 4. The lights on the Ferris wheel seemed to be under control. The lights on the A-frame on the left were almost blowing out. The roller coaster loops in the middle didn’t have quite enough light. The motion capture looked ok. Overall, the image lacked “life.” So, I increased exposure to see what it would look like.

Figure 5 was shot at 1 sec at f/8 ISO 400 (.3 stop more exposure). The motion capture was better, the roller coaster was better, the Ferris wheel was now on the edge of blowout, and the A-Frame was definitely blown. I was happy enough looking at the preview on the camera.  And besides, I was getting cold and impatient!

I later added another .5 stop of exposure in Lightroom for the final image (see Figure 6), for a total of .8 stop more than what the “base” exposure suggested.

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Figure 4


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Figure 5


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Figure 6


Summary: This is a rather challenging scene to get everything “right,” as your eyes see it. Artistic compromise is necessary to sacrifice part of the image to gain another part. Had I quit with the initial exposure (Figure 4), the A-frame wouldn’t have been blown out, but the roller coaster was lifeless. As it turned out, I thought the swinging boat on the A-frame looked kind of cool so I stopped worrying about the blowout. With the bit more exposure in Lightroom, I saw the reflections in the water come alive. The shot became acceptable to me overall, without combining multiple images or going HDR. I have a 16×24 metal print of this image hanging in my home. It was also juried-in to the 2014 Art of Seeing art catalog published by Alcove Books.


Austin Skyline

This is an example of high-ISO, long exposure, and white balance. Because of the varied lighting in the scene, I used center-weighted metering to get a starting exposure and settled on 15 seconds at f/20, ISO 3200 for both shots. I chose f/20 to maximize DOF. The high iso and long exposure with the Nikon D300 created a lot of noise, as seen in Figure 7.  Using Lightroom, the noise was removed (Figure 8).

All of these images were shot on Daylight WB. I kept the daylight balance for the version shown in Figure 8, and changed the WB in Lightroom to be approximately tungsten WB for the version shown in Figure 9. After noise reduction, sharpening, and cropping these last two are the finished images. In this case, I prefer the daylight balance.

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Figure 7


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Figure 8


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Figure 9


Summary: As with the amusement pier shots, we have mixed lighting and high contrast. Without using HDR techniques, compromise is necessary to accept the parts you like and not worry too much about the others. My goal here was to experiment with high ISO and long exposures on the D300. Turns out, that camera is not so great in low-light, long exposure situations, unless you like the grainy antique look.


Sarah Small and the Power of Connections

I talk a lot about how photography gives us the opportunity to connect with the world around us in ways we might not otherwise be able to, or be comfortable with.  NYC-based artist/photographer, Sarah Small found such a connection in her friend and model, Sandy.  Sarah sent out a note today, informing her mailing list that Sandy had passed away.  I think this is a beautiful story, so I thought I’d share it with you.  In part, Sarah writes of her friend,

I started photographing Sandy when I was 26 and she was (I think 74) at the time. We crossed boundaries with each other that I imagine people who are generations away from each other rarely do. When we would shoot together, Sandy would share memories of her youth, her lost loves, her fears, her successes, her mother, her garden, and I’d share about my own fear of aging, of loneliness, of love, of pain, of light, of laughter. We’d exchange ideas, in real time, about these unusual circumstances that we’d create to inhabit together, time and time again.

Here’s a clip showing Sarah at work.  I like what Sandy says at the end.


If you’d like to know more about Sarah’s work, you can listen to this audio interview I recorded with her a few years ago.


Download All Eight Issues of this Photography Magazine, 75% OFF!


Michael Zelbel and his editorial team have decided to celebrate the two year anniversary of Good Light! Magazine with this special offer. As the name suggests, it deals with lighting techniques (most of them using standard flash units). 

You get eight big issues loaded with valuable photography tips for only $9.95 (that’s less than $1.25 ea!). You can download all eight in one big bundle right now.  If you’d like to take advantage of his offer, do it now because it’s going to be gone in a few days.

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New Studio Lighting Guide

ESLcoverIf you’re interested in lighting for professional-quality glamour or nude photos, Essentials: Studio Lighting for Nude Photography (NSFW) by Dan Hostettler is definitely going to put you on the fast-track. It’s about 280 pages jam-packed with great lighting techniques and hundreds of illustrations (photos, 3D-style diagrams, etc.). It’s impressive.

Looking for a good way to learn this stuff can be frustrating. You’re not going to find this type of detailed and methodical instruction on Youtube, especially when it involves this type of subject matter. And I’ve seen other books on this topic, and they don’t go into enough detail to make the price worth it. That’s the beauty of something like this; a great price and everything you need is covered in one easy-to-read eBook.

Before you do your first (or next shoot), read Essentials: Studio Lighting for Nude Photography (NSFW) to make sure you’ve got everything covered. No matter what your skill level is, this eBook can make the difference between a lackluster shoot and a set of images that show true professionalism.

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Simple, Effective Mounting Accessory for Lights, Mics, and Cameras



Ian Pack, creator of the Gel Clip, has come out with a new gear accessory that might make your next photo shoot a little easier; the 1420 VAL Spigot.  This is a threaded stud connector (like you’d find on the end of a light stand) that is capable of attaching to the end of a common painter’s extension pole.  If you’ve ever needed someone to manage the position of your off-camera flash while you were busy shooting, you’ll know why something like this can come in handy.

Pack has been developing this product for awhile.  Early in 2014 he added a ¼” 20 turn UNC thread to the ⅝” 16mm spigot making it even more versatile, opening up a whole range of additional products and accessories that can be used with it.

Key Features

  • Standard 16mm 5/8″ Spigot
  • Standard 1/4″ 20 UNC thread
  • Inline and transverse 3/4″ holes for attaching to painters extension poles etc
  • M6 x 20 thumb screw for secure fixing to extension pole etc
  • Lightweight aluminium weighing less than 80g/3.5oz
  • 80mm long x 30mm diameter approximately!

Check it out here >>