14 Lighting Tips to Improve Your Portraits

1) Never use on-camera flash

Because everytime it gives you the "rabbit in the headlights" - demonising red-eye look. It really is the worst kind of lighting you can imagine. Basically the further away from the camera you can get the flash the better. use flash cords or radio triggers, depending on how far away you need to put your flash.

2) The 45 degree rule

The convention is that the flash should be 45 degrees to the side of the sitters face, and 45 degrees above the sitters eyeline. The height bit may need a bit of tweaking to make sure there is still a catchlight in the eye.

3) Catchlights are crucial.

The catchlight, that twinkle of reflected light from your flash, adds a huge amount of life to an image. An eye without a catchlight looks dead. For hundreds of years we've been trying to make eyes sparkle, and that's been the principal use of deadly nightshade for centuries.

4) Overexposure can be good.

Now normally we are taught to make sure that we don't over expose images, but particularly for female skin tones a little over exposure can be a very good thing, softening the face, removing wrinkles and generally adding a youthful glow. It will also give your image a cleaner look overall.

5) Use flash in the daytime

If you watch a wedding photographer you will see his flash shooting all the time, even out in the bright sunshine. This avoids over-dark shadows and makes sure that there is a catchlight in the eyes.

6) Use flash at sunset

Many sunset photos turn out to be a bit wishy-washy, with colours not as strong as you would like. Using flash lights your subject brighter than the background, bringing your sunset back into lovely warm tones. This is standard technique for glamour photography, you know the pretty girl on the beach in the sunset, use flash lights to overpower the sunset is what adds those strong colours.

7) Warming the flash at sunset.

Sticking a warming filter over your flash will help balance the very white light of your flash with the warmth of the sunset, stopping it look so fake.

8) Don't believe the macho photographers who "only shoot natural light"

Don't kid yourself, great light (and great shadows) is what makes a great photograph. If your light is average, your photo will be average. Now there are some very macho shooters who say they never use artificial light, well I think they've bottled out because using flash light well is difficult. If natural light doesn't do the right thing, then use artificial light instead.

9) Use reflectors

Simple pop-up disks with either white, silver or gold sides help push a nice balanced light into the shadows on your subject. Especially useful when out on location. Use silver to give a very jaunty light, use gold for a warmer look.

10) Use "natural" reflectors.

White walls, white ceilings, sandy beaches, even bright concrete floors can all work as great reflectors. One of my colleagues has no compunctions about getting guys with white shirts to work as reflectors too!

11) Avoid coloured natural reflectors.

If the bounce light comes off a green wall you are going get horrible green tones on your subject - so avoid the zombie look.

12) If you must use on-camera flash, bounce it.

If you really have to use your camera flash, then point it at the ceiling, the wall, anything but direct to the sitter.

13) Use a hair light

Especially if your sitter has dark hair or clothes, and/or is in front of a darker background. The hair light will add a shine and content to an otherwise dark area. It will also separate the subject from the background, helping them to stand out in the image.

14) There are natural "artificial" lights

Candles are an artificial light source, but they are natural in a birthday picture. Similarly you can use the light of a TV or computer screen, or a torch in the dark. All these things are good in context.

flash sunset reflectors catchlight camera Simon Q. Walden, FilmPhotoAcademy.com, sqw, FilmPhoto, photography

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