Photography Cheat Sheet: Simple Portrait Lighting Techniques

Check out this cheat sheet featuring simple portrait lighting techniques that you can try.

Getting the lighting right is key when it comes to shooting professional portraits. While it doesn’t always have to involve complex setups, it can be daunting to figure out where to start if you’re new to portrait lighting techniques. With this quick tutorial and cheat sheet, you’ll learn of a bunch of simple lighting styles to try for your next practice.

In their tutorial, Digital Camera World stresses that what makes a portrait great isn’t always a professional lighting setup: it’s knowing what to do with the kit you have. This means knowing how to place your lights and how to work with some accessories to best illuminate your subject for the look you want to achieve. It’s also not necessary to go for the expensive lighting gear straight away; you can always substitute certain accessories with some stuff you already have. For example, you can use a large piece of white foam or cardboard as a reflector if you don’t have one yet.

The cheat sheet below demonstrates some simple portrait lighting techniques that Digital Camera World suggests beginners practice with. It only involves two light sources — a single flash head and a single flash head with a diffuser — and a reflector or large white card.

As shown above, how you position the light and combine it with the reflector produces different effects, from a dramatic high-contrast result to low contrast look with soft diffused light. Place the light source on one side of your subject and the reflector on the other to bounce some of the light to the unlit side. You can soften the light even further by making the flash head with diffuser your main light source, paired by the reflector on the opposite side of your subject. This creates a gentler, more flattering illumination that works great for most portrait work.

If you want to go for more dramatic results with high contrast, experiment with angles using the single flash head to bring up the shadows. Keep in mind that these lighting styles won’t light up the face in a flattering way, so proceed with caution!

Ready to dive deeper into the topic? Check out more of the portrait lighting tutorials we’ve shared so far.