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How To Tuesday #35 – Portrait Photography Lighting 101: When to choose…what to use?

How do we know when to use lighting for a portrait, and then what light do we use?

I think when we are learning how to first shoot portraits, lighting is probably the last thing on our minds. I remember when I first started shooting portraits, the most important thing buzzing around my head was “I hope I look like I know what I doing” especially if that person was paying me to be there! I was still fidgeting with my camera, lenses, and all the while I was hoping that the client didn’t get distracted or bored. The absolute last thing on my mind was what kind of lighting is suitable for this portrait and how can I utilize the FREE light first.

Let the Subject Set the Settings…

When we are first setting up for a portrait shoot the easiest way I have found to help with choosing the right exposure (aperture, ISO, shutter speed), lens (focal length), composition and lighting, is to ask – What Does My Subject Want. What’s the story I am trying relay here? How does my subject want to be presented? I am going to use an example from my recent photo shoot with the super creative folks at Dirty Coast Press in New Orleans, to answer that question.

Question 1 – What is the Goal of this Portrait?

Ask yourself, what are you trying to accomplish. In the case of this shoot, I needed to showcase the t-shirts and their design, show how well they fit on the person, and make sure the design was visible and lit well. If that’s my first goal, I also had ulterior motives like: I need great joy and energy from each subject who was wearing the shirt, I needed the background to NOT be distracting, I needed my subject facing the lens at all times but still look “natural”. 

Search for the Available Light first when looking to set the “base” of light for your portrait

Sometimes the natural light is all you need to properly light someone. When looking for an easy and quick shot at One Eyed Jacks for the Booker shirt, i just used the available window light to illuminate my subject and the background. NOTE: we must always take into consideration how our backgrounds are lit as well – they will continue to tell the story of the portrait in a way that completes the photograph.

In the shot above, I had to slow down my shutter speed and use a very wide aperture (1.8) to get as much light as possible. But in the shot below, I am outside in the shade and there is plenty of natural light available to photograph my subjects. NOTE: this wall that’s covered in vegetation is one of my favorite backgrounds in New Orleans. The streets of New Orleans constantly offer up their natural settings for your best portraits…

Natural light portraits make your life so much easier…you can just flow with your subjects’ moods and connect with them so much easier. As the day comes to a close, we can still utilize the ambient light from a window, but we may need to add light to our backgrounds if they are not close enough to expose properly. In the portrait below, we had enough light on Rodney but not enough on the background. In other situations maybe that would ok – but remember that we have a duty to our client to show their products and make them shine. Even though that shirt wall is out of focus and in the background, I wanted to direct your eye there to let you know that visiting their store would reveal even more creative designs. 

As you may be able to tell, I added a warm orange gel to my Alien Bee 800 with a 30º grid attached and had the left side of his face take the window light. That grid on my background light allowed me to “focus” my light to a particular section of the wall, as well as “pop” a little light on the right side of Rodney’s head. You can say I got a 2-fer on that background light – background AND rim light!

Learn these mixed light portrait techniques and more at my workshop August 20th!

I will be talking about and demonstrating these exact techniques at my “Art of the Photographic Portrait Workshop” August 20th at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art. Be one of the lucky ones who SIGNS UP NOW before it’s too late! This class is limited to 8 participants so we can keep the class small and learn BIG


Explore Zack's Jazz Museum Exhibit


New Orleans photographer Zack Smith’s portraits of Louisiana musicians, artists, and fans are currently on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Discover the captivating world of jazz through Zack’s lens. 

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