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How To: Basics of Portrait Lighting
by Joel Shore -  3/23/2012

We all want great pictures of the kids. So, why is it that the results are so often disappointing? Let's fix it and make a portrait that you'll be proud of sending to the rest of the family.

The problem is that the built-in flash on your DSLR sits on the camera, right over the lens. It's the culprit that causes the Portrait Lighting Sample Imagedreaded red-eye. And because it's aimed straight-on, the results are flat and not very pleasant looking. Because it's a tiny light source, that flash creates unsightly hot spots, usually on the forehead, nose, and cheeks. Finally, that tiny light results in harsh shadows. This is a fairly easy fix for those of you whose cameras have a "hot shoe" on top, that slot where you mount an accessory flash. For you pocket camera users, we'll get to you shortly.

We need to do few things to make a great portrait. First, it's vital to get the flash away from the camera, a technique called off-camera flash. Second, we need to transform that harsh little light source in a much bigger one that spreads the light evenly. For the example that I'm showing today, I used a second off-camera flash to light my background.

Let's start with the background in my sample portrait - it's nothing more than a white sheet thumb-tacked to the wall and stretched tight by placing some weights at the floor. It couldn't be simpler. My little friend is sitting about eight feet in front of the sheet. That distance is important to ensure he doesn't cast a shadow. You can use any color, or even have your subject in front of the fireplace.

Now, on to the lighting. I took the flash unit that's usually sitting atop my camera and moved it several feet to the left by using an off-camera flash extension cord. Canon's OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord 3 and Nikon's SC-29 TTL Off-Camera Shoe Cord each run about $65; you can by a knock-off for less than $20. My flash was about 6 feet away from the camera (see the diagram).

But how to soften that light? Amazingly, you can do it for about $3. Sure, a pro would use a fancy "softbox" to diffuse the light, but today we're taking the budget route.
Simply go to the closest Walmart of other store and buy a frosted, translucent (not solid white) shower curtain liner from Walmart or your local store. I hung it vertically about 2 feet in front of the flash. No need to stretch it tight. To the right of the camera, I placed a piece of white foam board to reflect light back onto my subject. You can get that in any office-supply or craft store for about $2.

Lighting Diagram

Here's where an investment pays big dividends. I used a second flash to light the background, placing it well out of camera range and slightly behind the subject. I set the flash to "slave" mode so could be wirelessly triggered from the light of the main flash. Both of my flashes were the same model, made by my camera's manufacturer, but you can buy a no-name Portrait Lighting Sample Imageslave flash for as little as $30. Be sure the light from this flash doesn't hit your subject. For a perfectly lit background, double your investment and place a second slave flash on the left side, too.

For you point-and-shoot camera owners, the challenge is overcoming a built-in flash so tiny it's like a pinpoint of light.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Try diffusing the light with a piece of tissue paper. You can even try a used fabric softener sheet from the clothes dryer. I've seen people cut a small piece out of a used plastic food-storage container and tape it over the flash. Of course, you can also use wireless slave flashes, but make sure your camera's flash is powerful enough to trigger the slave.

For the actual exposure, I set my camera to manual control, ISO 100, aperture f/5.6, and shutter speed of 1/200 second. As you can see, the beautiful soft light wraps right around the subject. Total set-up time was about 20 minutes.

My last tip is to always keep your subject relaxed and happy. If they're not happy it shows in the pictures. I tell silly jokes, make lighthearted fun of their parents, ask about their pets, what's new at school, and never, ever ask them to say "cheese."

Good luck with your portrait shooting!

All Photos by Joel Shore