Advanced Portrait Techniques

by William Lulow

Once you have mastered the art of producing really top-notch portraits and you can rely on your lighting schemes every time, you can then begin to try different lightings during your shoots to see if breaking any rules or using alternative lighting setups can enhance your normal portrait images. I think it should be said, that most portrait studios develop a style and technique that they apply across the board for anyone who comes to the studio. But, the notion of real creativity comes with the ability to change lighting styles whenever you want slightly different effects.

Here’s what I mean:

This was a recent portrait sitting for a high school senior. It uses my typical beauty lighting which consists of my large umbrella main light, a small softbox fill-in light, two edge lights that provided highlights on the hair and one light to illuminate the background.

Once I had a number of these images with different poses and expressions shot, I decided to see if a more dramatic lighting would work on my subject. Here is one result:

This is a typical “Hollywood Light,” similar to ones used by photographers to photograph Hollywood actresses in the 1930s and 1940s. Note the shadows, but also note how the face is completely illuminated! Now compare this to the one above which is lit with much softer light. You can readily see how the shadows add some drama to the picture, but do not always provide a flattering image. This image was lit with one mainlight directed at the subject and one highlight aimed at the subject’s hair from the camera’s right side.

Here is yet another version with the subject leaning against a studio wall:

This was lit with my large, soft umbrella main light plus an additional highlight (accent) off to camera right.

My point to all this is that once you think you have a salable image or series of images, you are then free to experiment with other lightings to see if anything else strikes you. Don’t be afraid to try different poses, positions, lights, etc., once you have images you know the client will like. There was a successful headshot photographer I knew years ago, who had a small studio but really didn’t try to obtain different results whenever he had a new client. In effect, all his subjects were shot under the same lighting setup. So, they were technically good, but not really creative. It’s best to start with something you know, but then to experiment with different techniques and go for more interesting results.

Soft lighting, in general, always works best when you are trying to please a client. There are also considerations about camera angles that either flatter the subject or distort her. More about these in a subsequent article.