We had some great portrait tips come in this year. So many, in fact, that we decided to split them into two separate articles. The best tips on lighting are going to be shared with you to make your portraits even better!

Today’s article will focus on different lighting situations and some nifty lighting miscellany, and next week’s will focus entirely on OCF and the use of reflectors.

Before we get too deep into it, let’s first start with….

Basic Tips on Lighting for Portrait Lighting

For the most ideal natural light photos (which some photographers argue is the best kind of light), you’ll want to try and avoid a couple things: shooting at night and using flash (which obviously isn’t natural light right from the start), and shooting in direct sunlight.

Alternatively, you’ll want to try shooting in open shade – which means conditions in which it’s light outside but the sun is not directly shining on the subject. Some of the best locations for this is either in the shadow of a tree or building, or the light created during a cloudy day.

Photo taken on a cloudy day out of direct sunlight.

This sort of lighting situation will give you smoother, more even skin tones, and prevent large lighting contrasts between bright spots and shaded regions on the subject.

When you don’t have Ideal Lighting Conditions

It’s great when you have 100% control of your lighting situation, but as most of us have experienced before – it doesn’t always work that way.

Here’s a few non-ideal lighting scenarios that you may (or already have) encounter, and a couple ways to make the best of it.

Shooting in Direct Sun.

When no open shade is available make sure to keep the sun to the backs of your subjects, but make sure to also maintain enough ambient light on their face.

Audrey Woulard often shoots in open sun, and demonstrates that it can be done very well and yield beautiful results.

Another good tip for working in direct sunlight is that if you must do it, try and do it later in the day during the golden hour so you can leverage the beautiful lighting that shooting during that time of day will give you.

Make sure, however, to not have your subjects look directly at you, because then they tend to squint. Instead, go for a more candid or lifestyle approach and capture your subject as-is, or interacting with other subjects.

Image of subjects interacting with one another and not looking directly into the sun, giving the image a more candid feel.

Lighting in an Urban Setting.

Finding flattering light in an urban setting is difficult with tall buildings casting really dark shadows with no available ambient light (or with colored buildings giving strange color casts).

Areas that work well for letting natural light in in an urban setting are areas like parking lots or wider alleyways that open up enough to let natural light in.


However, you can still get some good lighting to filter in to more narrow areas depending on the time of day and position of the sun.

This image was taken in a wider alleyway that allowed in enough natural light.

But always remember when shooting in an urban setting – safety first. Never shoot in the middle of a roadway or in areas with busy traffic. And never trespass onto private property.

And a lot of times, government and federal buildings (even though they look awesome) are off-limits for shooting, or may require a permit so make sure you look into that if you have a building like that in mind for your next urban shoot.

Lighting in a Client’s Home.

If you’re doing your session in the client’s home, remember what what they consider to be ‘good natural light’ is probably something completely different than what a photographer considers to be good natural light.

When you arrive at the home do a quick walkthrough of the house and take note of not only the available light in each room, but also the position of the sun and time of day since the amount of available light in each room will change as the day goes on (and can help you plan the session accordingly).

Wonderful natural lighting from large window in client’s home.

Also be mindful of the paint on the walls, since strong, bold colors will give off strong color casts.

Studio Lighting

If you have a studio with a large window that lets in lots of natural light, set up a couple reflectors in a V-shape and place your client in the corner between them.

Reflectors set up to reflect natural light back onto subject.

This will bounce the light from the window back on to your subject. Use reflectors with a neutral, skin-toned color as well (or white ones) to make sure the client’s skin tones photograph well.

Image taken with above reflector setup.

If you’re doing newborn portraits in your studio, a great method for lighting them is what’s called “feathering the light.”

This type of lighting technique creates soft, even skin tones on the newborn, and overall is pretty easy to set up. The only equipment you really need is a softbox (affiliate link) and light, and more than likely a backdrop and/or prop for the baby.


The results this type of lighting produce are gorgeous, and very popular for lighting newborns:


You can read a tutorial on exactly how to do it here.

Using OCF to Light Up The Rain

When you’re not shooting in a studio you’re pretty dependent on the weather’s cooperation because rainy days can sometimes ruin your portrait session – but it can also make it pretty spectacular.

This is exactly what happened to Two Mann Studios when they were doing an engagement session.

It started just pouring rain during their session, but they were still able to make the best of it by setting up speedlights to backlight the rain.


They managed to turn what could have been a gloomy day into an amazing work of art.

If this is something you want to try and pull off but the weather isn’t raining for you, you can create a similar affect with just sprinklers.


Have your subject stand with their back to the source of light (whether it’s the sun or a speed light) and aim the sprinkler towards them coming in from either camera left or right.

Lighting On-The-Go

Love the look of a softbox but hate that you can’t use it when you’re shooting on location?

Scott from Photocrati (affiliate link) has come up with a solution for that by creating his own to be used with a camera flash.

All you need is a backlight, a flash, a pocketwizard, reflector, and a spring clamp to make your own too (click here to see more details on how to do it)!


Always remember…

Trying new lighting techniques can be kind of nerve-wracking – you’ve never tried it before, you don’t know how it will work or if it will turn out, and what if it doesn’t?

But that’s ok – you’re never going to advance as a photographer unless you really push yourself and try new things.

And if you’re really worried you won’t get any good shots, try some with a lighting technique you already know and are good at.

That way if the new technique doesn’t work out you’ve still got plenty of images to give to your client.

What are your best tips for portrait lighting?

Leave them in the comments below!




Published by Beth Teutschmann

A big fan of food, chaos, and all things fun, Beth is the owner of Starboard Editing, LLC - a photography post-production company focusing on anything from editing to blogging and SEO. When she's required to leave the confines of her dark room, she enjoys martial arts, eating, tattoos, cooking, ice cream, sillyness, eating, and traveling. You should probably say hi.

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