How I Light my Portraits

At the end of the day, photography is all about capturing light and shadow. Light and shadow creates depth, direct the eye, and create vibrant colors and contrast in an image. But with this being the case, the available light can really dictate the type and quality of image you can capture at any point in time. A lot of photographers describe themselves as “natural light” photographers. In reality, most of these photographers are “practical light” photographers - they work with whatever light is present in the scene, natural or otherwise. They look for large windows (“window light”), or shaded overhangs (“garage light”), or even brightly lit signs (“practical lighting”).

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There’s nothing wrong with working with natural light. In fact, often times I use this approach when there is enough light to preclude the need for an off-camera strobe. But, when you work with natural light only, you give up a lot of control. Images shot with natural light will often take on a color cast based upon the surrounding environment. A wooded image will shift the light to a slight green. A window in a beige room will often throw a color cast. Practical lighting is almost always brightly colored and gives a very Instagram-esque feel. On top of this color cast, natural light gives you the option of capturing your subject OR your background in many cases. If your subject is going to be comfortable (not squinting into the sun), they’re often going to be situated with the sun at their back or in the shade. If you incorporate any sunny areas into your image, they’ll be overexposed compared to your subject. If you only include shaded areas in your image, you won’t have any contrast and your image will feel flat. This is where off-camera lighting really comes in handy.

I use off-camera strobes on just about every one of my sessions. This allows me to expose my image for my background, then put in just enough light to properly expose my subject in order to get both my subject and background in the same image. This also gives me greater creative control over the appearance of my images. No matter what the weather, I can always expose an image that will flatter my background, then pose my client and add enough light in the correct location to flatter my client as well.

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When I first started using off-camera flash for outdoor portraits, I mostly used a shoot-through umbrella. This was by far the easiest solution as I could just collapse the umbrella and pack everything away. In general, I always liked the quality of light I got with my shoot-through umbrellas, but they weren’t always the best choice for a one-person photo crew. Before I had an assistant, I spent half of my session running back to my light stand in order to ensure a gust of while didn’t blow it over! Even once I had an assistant, I nearly lost a light and umbrella once when a gust of wind nearly yanked the light stand from her hands!

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Today I use 3 primary modifiers for outdoor portrait lighting. The first is a Godox AD-S3 beauty dish (12” diameter), the Godox AD-S7 collapsible beauty dish (18” diameter), and the Cheetahstand QSB 26 beauty dish (26” diameter). “Beauty dish” softboxes use an internal “deflector plate” to reflect the light coming from the strobe back into the softbox. This ensures you don’t get a hot spot in the middle of your subject’s forehead and generally provides a more even quality of light. The smaller my beauty dish, the more contrast it will add to my image. The AD-S3 and AD-S7 both provide a nice fashion / beauty look for clients who want that magazine model look while the QSB-26 provides a nice soft, flattering light and provides enough coverage for full-body portraits.

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I have invested heavily in the Godox lineup as it allows me to have one set of speedlights, studio strobes, transmitters / triggers, and receivers which are all able to work together. This means that I can grab any light in my studio for an outdoor portrait, then can come back into the studio and build a complex multi-light set with as little work as possible.

There’s a lot you can do without strobes, and if you don’t have them already you certainly don’t need to run out and buy some TODAY. But adding some good off-camera lights will give you significantly more flexibility in your portrait lighting.

Brent Mills