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Portrait lighting can be tricky to learn.
After reading articles and watching tutorials about light, you’ll excitedly look for a person to practice on. Although, once you finally have a person in front of your camera your mind goes blank and nothing is as easy as those tutorials made it seem. You forget all that information you’ve been overloaded with and feel foolish in front of your ‘model.’ Worst case scenario, you’ll become discouraged and give up.
But there is a way to practice basic portrait lighting techniques and build your confidence before photographing people. You can practice portrait lighting with toys until you feel comfortable enough to experiment with people.
You’ll learn how to position your subject and light source without the stress of working with a real person.
Once you understand the basic principles of portrait lighting your confidence will grow and you can keep learning new techniques and refining your skills.
Also, who doesn’t want an excuse to play with toys again?
Choose a toy with a human figure so that what you learn can transfer easily when you photograph real people. Try to find one with pronounced facial features so that there will be realistic shadows created.
Your toy should have some texture too. This is important because it helps you to see how the light affects your subject. As light skims across a textured surface, it will create highlights and shadows, which will help your portrait to pop. Everybody who sits in front of your camera will be textured (hair, skin, and clothes).
Quality of light refers to the hardness or softness of the light.
A general rule is that the smaller the light source, the harder the light will be. This means that there will be deep, crisp shadows. The larger the light source, the softer the light will be. The difference between the shadows and highlights will be much less intense.
I’ll begin by using a flashlight as a hard light source. The basic lighting patterns will be easier to see with hard light.
In each of these sample photos, we’ll focus on the direction of light and what happens as we move the light around.
I kept my Superman figure in one place and simply moved the light around it.
The first image is the lighting set up and the second image is the portrait.
Now that we’ve seen how light can be used with a harsh source, let’s look at the same techniques with more subtle soft lighting.
In this case, we can’t move our light source, so we’ll have to move the subject in relation to the window.
Because I wasn’t working with a real person, I felt comfortable experimenting with some creative lighting. The more I relaxed and the longer I practiced, the more I began to notice interesting lighting situations.
Let’s look at a three-step progression from one light to two.
The leap from practicing with toys to photographing real people may still be a little uncomfortable, but at least you’ll have some success behind you. Just focus on one thing at a time. Use a window to make a soft Rembrandt light portrait of a friend. Or try a dramatic split light photo using off-camera flash.
Once you feel comfortable with the basic lighting techniques we’ve covered you can practice these more advanced techniques using real people:
And when you’re seriously ready to go pro with your lighting you’ll need to read, How to Create Awesome Portrait Lighting with a Paper Bag an Elastic Band and a Chocolate Donut.