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Portrait Lighting with Nikon Speedlights

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In this chapter from Mastering Nikon Speedlights: A Complete Guide to Small Flash Photography and the Creative Lighting System, Alan Hess discusses lighting for photographing portraits of people, including classic lighting strategies, hard versus soft light comparisons, advice for using one and multiple lights, and, finally, approaches for taking environmental portraits where the location needs to be lit as well as the person.
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A portrait can be a painting, photograph, or drawing of a person, usually showing the face or the head and shoulders. This chapter deals with lighting for photographing portraits of people. Some of the lighting approaches predate photography and are taken from portraits painted by the Old Masters. Rembrandt lighting is still popular today, for example, because it creates a portrait where the subject looks naturally lit. No matter what your needs, you’ll find something in this chapter to help: classic lighting strategies, hard versus soft light comparisons, advice for using one and multiple lights, and, finally, approaches for taking environmental portraits where the location needs to be lit as well as the person.

Shadows and Light

I’ll bet you don’t like your driver’s license photo; no one I’ve met ever does. There is good reason for this universal dislike: The light blasts out from the flash right at the camera level and hits the subject straight on, creating a flat-looking photo with no shadows—totally unflattering. Shadows create the depth in your images, and you need depth to give your subject a natural look.

You can control the shadows by controlling the light. The position of the light determines where the shadows will fall, what will be brightly lit, and what will be obscured. As you can see in Figure 12.1, the shadows give the person shape and depth.

Figure 12.1

Figure 12.1 Using one off-camera flash placed to the camera’s left created the shadows across the subject.

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We are used to seeing shadows fall at a downward angle because the main light in our lives, the sun, is above us. When you set up light for a portrait, positioning the light above the subject and angling it slightly down makes the portrait look more natural. In Figure 12.2, the light creates a downward-pointing shadow on the face, giving our brains enough information to determine that the light illuminating the subject was up high above and streaming downward. Even without us consciously being aware of the light’s direction, the image looks natural.

Figure 12.2

Figure 12.2 The hat created lines of shadows across the face showing us where the light was coming from. The flash was placed up high and pointed down to mimic the angle of the sun.

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As portrait photographers we get to decide where the light is placed and where the shadows fall. The idea is that we can use this to render the subjects in a flattering way and control where the eye travels in the image.

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