The Photo-Zen Online Photography Magazine

< Back to index

Setting up Portraiture

By Chris Thomas


Portraiture is the 'bread and butter' of any professional photographer. Getting it 'right' is essential.

I once heard a professional artist - an oil painter - describe a successful portrait as one which told you something about the subject which you did not already know! I do believe there is something in this.

Capturing people in an unguarded and relaxed moment is possibly the trick.

Outdoor Portraits

Perhaps due to the warm summers that we have had over the past few years, I am finding that outdoor portraiture is becoming more popular.

For families, groups and for individuals this can be a great approach - using locations such as the back garden, a park or green fields - if you live in or near the country.

With this approach there is little point in using a backdrop - it is already there. However, make the backdrop unobtrusive - or an integral part of the study.

When I take an individuals portrait outdoors, and I have done this for several actors and professionals, I look for a green hedge, a nice neutral brick wall or a huge, slightly out of focus, green field to place behind the subject. The background is there - interesting in its texture perhaps - but of little consequence. Clearly the subject has to stand out from the background - so be careful with colour. A lady in a nice green office suit will not profile well against a hedge!

However the backdrop may be an essential feature of the photo. A farming family posed against a hay rick, with a few bales acting as seating props for the more senior members of the family.

I can offer two main tips concerning Lighting Outdoor Portraits. Firstly beware of sunshine! Amateurs always think that bright sunshine is an ideal photo environment. The reverse is true. Bright but even light giving few if any shadows is ideal. Bright overhead sunshine - referred to as 'top light' by professional photographers, leads to shiny foreheads and deep dark eye sockets - very unflattering. In those instances put the subjects in shade - under a tree or some such place.

The above point illustrates the need for example when taking a wedding to have prepared for all contingencies beforehand in finding an appropriate location.

Further, midday clear skies produce blue light, and early morning or late evening sunshine yellow light - be aware of this! Set the colour temperature of the digital camera correctly or use a correcting filter in film work. Or use the colour cast to your advantage.

Secondly use a flash.

I cannot remember using free standing lighting in an outdoor location. But I usually use flash. Why - to give the subjects a 'key light' in their eyes - which ads vibrancy and intimacy to the picture. The flash will also fill in those dark corners where daylight is not penetrating.

Indoor Portraits

I carry lights and backdrop in my working vehicle. So I can create a studio in my client's home within 15 minutes!

Successful indoor portraiture cannot be achieved with on camera flash. This creates deep shadows and look very amateur. Studio lights are essential.

The backdrop is optional. Some customers like to have a neutral photographic background for their study. Others like to feature their home. Both will require lighting.

When lighting beware of mirrors, glass fronted frames and shiny objects which will pick up the flash!

I generally use three lights for indoor portraiture. A soft light from the left, a soft light from the right at reduced intensity, and a low level 'key light' at my rear. The light from the left will illuminate the subject, the light from the right will fill in the shadows and the key light will provide that all important glint in the eye.

Some photographers try to get very sophisticated with other lighting combinations. However, in my experience, when invited into people's homes to take a set of portraits I recon one has an hour to get the job done! A quarter hour to set up, half and hour to take the shots, and a quarter hour to do the paperwork and get the equipment out. I try not to overstay my welcome and get on the clients nerves!

Studio Portraiture

Studio portraiture is easier for me because I do not have to set up - the equipment is already there.

But while I am in my familiar environment, the client group is not! So take care to relax and familiarise them as to where things are and what to do.

In the studio I use the same basic lighting combination as I would use in peoples homes. This keeps things simple. A range of backdrops should be available from the fashionable pure white through plain colours to traditional multi coloured photo canvases.

The sitting will probably last no more than a half hour to an hour and the customer should have been briefed as to what clothes to bring and changes of clothes which might be required.

What comes out of this is that clients need to be briefed before they leave their homes. Clothes, changes, time, location etc. This highlights the advantages of a home based shoot where everything the customer wants is to hand.

Photographing the Professional Actors and Actresses, Models, Politicians and Corporate Giants are a group of customers who want something special.

They want a special shot - something different. And they are prepared to be patient and experiment to get a distinguished result.

Innovative lighting using lights behind the subject to highlight hair, the use of coloured gels on lamps to provide effects, unusual poses or particular props might be required or desired.

These subject will spend half a day in the studio to achieve something which they want and which will be valuable to them.

This is playtime for the photographer. However, I always get a set of standard shots off first in order to have something in the bag in case the imaginative approach backfires!

Photographing Groups

From Dinner Dances to School Proms the attendant photographer is expected to be able to capture the shot - be it a couple or a group of twenty friends.

In these instances I select - or have been allocated! - an appropriate spot and either set up a backdrop or use a feature of the environment.

In these instances where I may be photographing a very diverse grouping I put up three lights as before, left, right and a light behind me. They are all set at similar levels to provide an even coverage of the area in front of me - such that however many subject that I have, they are evenly lit.

Posing the Subjects

A complex subject and could occupy a book. This is one of the areas where the innovation and inspiration of the photographer comes to the fore. Since many decisions are made on the fly and adapting to a situation it is difficult to make rules.

A few basics:

Have the subjects stand at an angle to the camera - not facing it. This presents a more interesting profile. But the subjects should look into the camera lens. Except for the couple who might look into each other's eyes!

Have a range of seats and stools available. When twenty people appear wanting to me photographed together, arrange them tightly using stools for the ladies - even getting some - gents? - to kneel on the floor - football team style.

Setting up The Lights

I use high power studio flash lights - both on location and in the studio itself. They are readily available from several manufacturers.

I very rarely point the lights at the subject! They are too harsh and bright! The only time I do this is in a hall when photographing an orchestra or very large group when I need the light coverage.

Pointing the lamps away from the subject I fit white umbrellas, which reflect a lower and softer light towards the subject.

All of the lights I use are able to slave. That is, when turned on, a light will fire itself if it detects a flash from another unit. This saves a great deal of wiring on location - and in the studio! I need only connect the camera to one light and the rest of the lights will slave.

Getting the Exposure Right

When taking outdoor portraits I use the programmed function of the camera most of the time. The camera is sophisticated enough to take into account the small amount of additional light from the on camera flash.

In the studio, or in the home environment when using lights, I set the camera to manual mode and select one 60th or 100th of a second shutter speed to synchronise with the lights and freeze and motion. Then an aperture of F8 or F16 to give a reasonable depth of field. Following this I set up each light with a flash meter such that I get the overall balance of light I require.

In Conclusion

Portrait photography is a very broad subject and requires much experimentation and experience to get good results every time. Find a patient sitter who can be paid off with a free portfolio!

Christopher Thomas is both keen photographer and company director of Viewlink Ltd based in Amersham, UK. The company focusses on digital photo developing for both amateur and commercial photographers. For more articles by Christopher Thomas please visit the company website at

Article Source:

© All photos Copyright Ian Mackean. All rights reserved.  |  Privacy policy