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5 Tips for Portrait Studio Shooting


It’s time to post something new on our blog. Katka (IG: kacaduch) and I locked ourselves in the studio for a while and then I wrote down a few tips for studio shooting based on my experience. I did almost no retouching to the photos, except for a few cosmetic defects, which I believe you will forgive me. I will be happy if this article serves as inspiration or broadens our readers’ minds. I will appreciate your feedback in the comments.

What to start with?

This is a frequent question and my first tip. Start with one light. It’s also a good idea to have a reflex panel because it almost always comes in handy. Once you know how to use the light, you start thinking: “Something’s missing here.” At that point you already know what you want to add to your photos and you also know what equipment you need to achieve it. But now back to the one light. You can try working with a reflector, an umbrella, or a softbox, figure out how light behaves and what light you actually find best for your work. This is my first and most fundamental message and I would like you to keep it in mind throughout reading the whole article. If you’re thinking: “This is a pretty good idea! I’d definitely shoot it in a different way, though,” then the article has served its purpose. Every photographer has a different taste and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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To take the first photo, I used a 30x180 softbox, which I find perfectly universal for portrait, glamour, and nude photography, and also as backlight. It is incredibly useful, but not many people realize that. If we place it horizontally, then the light that shines upwards and downwards – e.g. under the model’s chin and nose – is harder than the light that goes sideways from the wide side of the softbox and lights the cheeks and temples. That is a great advantage for handling the light. Another great advantage is that the light flows around the silhouette of the model, thus eliminating shadows in the background. Furthermore, this softbox can be used for even illumination of the background. However, I’m not really a fan of that, as it does not correspond with my style of portrait shooting. For this photoshoot, I chose white background, so that the spread of light and shadows was well visible.

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This is an example of a photo shot with one 30x180 softbox. The photo is lit by a studio flash, but you can reach the same result using LED lights with a different camera settings. The light intensity and maybe even the colour temperature will be different, but the characteristics will remain the same. By the way, it's interesting to play with glare in people’s eyes or glasses. I tilted the softbox a bit. If it was positioned straight up, it wouldn’t create the glare in the glasses which is what I wanted.  

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For this photo I used a 90x120 softbox to create soft light. Thanks to its large surface, the light it creates is very soft. Again, it nicely lights the model as well as the background. This time I used the light from the side. The principle of putting the light at a 45-degree angle between the camera and the model is not a rule I follow. My setup is based on the light pattern on the model. Here I wanted to accentuate the shape of the abdomen and ribs, and the shadow on the breast. I wanted the face to be turned in a way that allowed some light to get on other half of the face as well, thus creating a better light pattern on the face. Shape is defined by light and shadow. If I used a larger softbox, the shadows would be softer. If I used a smaller softbox, the shadows would be darker, the transition between light and dark areas would narrow, and I would get a more contrasting photo. These are exactly the qualities I consider when choosing a softbox.

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Lighting background

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I’ve never really liked uniformly lit background in portraits. When I find the background too much uninteresting, I try to give it a shape, some meaning in the space, or to darken it on the sides, so that it wasn’t too boring. I often work with two variants. The first one is light behind the model's back. I use this method even when working with small LED lights, but in that case I use a studio flash, which would not hide behind the model. And even if it did, it would peek out from behind her when she moved. That’s why I’m grateful for the invention of a background reflector, thanks to which I can place the light next to the model and light the wall behind her back. I want to introduce this type of lighting now because I will be using it in the rest of the article.

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The whole shooting scene will then look like this. However, we will now focus on the light on the background, which pulls the model out of the darkness and creates the effect of a space. There are many ways of lighting or enhancing the background in your photo. For inspiration, I present you with my favourite one.

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Using reflector panels  

This is probably the most important part of photographic equipment, whether you shoot in a studio or outdoors. We have been introduced to using reflector panels outdoors in David Šanda’s article. Why are they so important? They are definitely more compact and lighter than studio flashes and they are faster to manipulate. They can reflect light or provide shade. In various forms, they are my invaluable companions in shooting any photo. Sometimes I use a white wall to reflect light, sometimes I choose circular and oval reflector panels and most often I work with Lite panel WB 100x220cm WHITE/BLACK, FOMEI.

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This is what a photo lit by a 90x120cm softbox looks like without the use of a reflector panel. Behind the model there is a black wall and the light cannot be reflected back to illuminate the dark side of the face. 

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However, if I use a reflector panel, I can reflect the light that flows around the model back to her face.  

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That way, I get back so much light that I actually don’t like it because the shadow that characterised the face shape disappears. 

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Therefore, I moved the reflector panel further away. When there is less light falling on the panel, it also sends less light back, but I don’t think I have to explain that.

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In the last photo I got a shadow that was very similar to the one in the first photo taken without a reflector panel. However, this one brings out details and it is less intrusive.

Light modulation by reflection  

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This is a problem our clients mention very often. They have for example a DSLR flash, the one you mount into the hot shoe. It has a very small light area, and therefore it creates very hard direct light. The clients want to know how to soften the light from this small flash. One of the simplest solutions is to aim the flash at a white area and to reflect it towards the model. The larger the area illuminated by the flash, the larger the area of light will be reflected on the model and the softer the light will be.  

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As the reflective surface I use the above-mentioned Lite Panel WB as its surface is large enough for such shooting. In order to emphasise the softening effect, I use a chimney reflector to light the white area. It enables me to create some of the sharpest shadows that can be achieved in an atelier. So if you have a white wall, the ideal solution is to reflect the light from it and to put a reflector plate on the opposite side of the model. This way, you can prevent the shade from being too dark, which is what happened in my photo. Now it’s up to you to practise.  

Colour gels 

If you have read the article up to this point, there is a reward awaiting you. Katka and I thought that you would deserve it for your endurance.   

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Colour filters are a topic for a separate article and I plan to write it for you, but we can touch upon them just a little bit here as well. In our e-shop, you will find them in many types. They are cheap, heat-resistant, and, most importantly, they are a lot of fun. They can be bought in rolls or in 30x30cm packages. I had been resisting to colour filters for a long time but in the end, I just had to give them a go. They can be secured to the light by clips or tape. I use tape very often. Make sure that you peel it off the filter right after the shooting because with time it gets more difficult.

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To light the photo I used two basic 16.5cm reflectors to create hard light on the model. I attached a blue filter to one of them and a red filter to the other one. I quite like the colour combination.  

There are several things we need to know about lights.

The first one is performance. If the light output is too high, the colour on the model loses its saturation and the range of shades. It requires a very precise work to let the details stand out in the colours.

My second advice is to lubricate the skin. The skin as it is, is very matte. If we oil it, we achieve better colour reflections. For a greater effect, we used oil with glitters for the photoshoot with Katka.

The third advice is to be careful about unwanted reflections. If there is a tiny blue reflection just on the tip of the nose or a red spot on the top of the wrist, you need to get rid of it or to keep it in mind and simply retouch it. 

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And now we’ve finally got to the reward. As I’ve said, the photos are raw and almost unretouched (apart from a few pimples I had to remove) to demonstrate the way of lighting as much as possible. I hope you’ve enjoyed the article. If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be happy to answer them. Share the article if you think it could be useful for photographers around you. I’ll be back soon with a new one. 


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