Consulting With The Subject

Today's post comes from the book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers by John Siskin. It is available from and other fine retailers.

A great portrait depends on more than just light—certainly, the pose and the mood created in the image are also important. If you define the subject’s face well and create lighting that is appropriate for your subject, you will make more successful portraits.

This is one of my favorite portraits. I call the shot What?

Before I take a single shot, I talk to the subject about how they want to appear. Listening to the client voice their expectations gives me time to study their face and decide whether I want to work with hard or soft light. I also try to identify features I want to highlight or hide and consider what background might complement the clothes. I make it a point to ask the client how the image will be used. A shot that will be in an annual report should be carried out differently than a portrait made for a loved one.

Light creates definition, shape, and color to any shot. Each portrait should be lit to suit the subject.

Since all people do not look alike or want to be shown in the same way, lighting should be customized for each subject. While department store studios don’t do this, it is one of the ways an independent photographer can add value to their services.

All people have different facial features and skin tones, which depend on their ancestors’ origins. I use a longer tonal scale with pictures of people of African origin than persons of European origin. For persons with Asian ancestry, I build more contrast into the face to make the image more three-dimensional.

Sometimes character is what makes a shot compelling.

Finally, when you are making decisions about how to light your subject, you should consider his age. We might create character lighting for a man using a small light source, say just an umbrella. For someone who wants to appear more youthful, I would use a large light source and a reflector, just as a start.

Not all portraits are about the face.

There are a few things that I do for most portraits. I start with a large light source (usually the umbrella/light panel combination) placed to one side of the face to accentuate the shape of the face. Sometimes this is the only light, but I typically add a smaller, harder light near the camera. This gives me catchlights in the eyes and changes the contrast in the face. I might use a warm filter on this light. I may even mount this on a camera bracket rather than a light stand, so the light travels with me. The third tool I have is a reflector, usually a light panel. I have a silver cover on one side and gold on the other. I don’t use this setup constantly. Nothing works for everyone. I would set this up if I didn’t know anything about whom I would be shooting. Since I do commercial shooting, this happens pretty frequently.

For this shot, the only light was a snoot. I used a large reflector for fill.

A simple setup was used to create this soft and delicate image. There are three lights: an umbrella/light panel (large light), a beauty dish (this smaller light was used for the catchlight), and a reflector (background light).

In this shot, the hair light was important. It added definition and sparkle to the hair.

There are many special-purpose tools for portraiture, and there are other ways to use the more typical tools. The basic tools I use are the large light source, a hard light for contrast, and a reflector. I may use a hair light on a boom or a rim light positioned behind the subject. However, I start with a simple setup.