Portrait Photography Tips

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This guest post on portrait photography tips was compiled with permission from internationally acclaimed  portrait photographer Rory Lewis.

Whether you’re just getting started in portrait photography or are already making a name for yourself in the industry, these tips will educate and inspire.

Rory is not only a hugely experienced actors headshot photographer, but also a well-known educator in the field of portrait photography. If you live in the UK, I recommend that you take a look at the workshops Rory teaches here.

Portrait Photography Tips from a Headshot Photographer

1. Directing Portraits

Sir Ian McKellen headshot
Sir Ian McKellen | Copyright Rory Lewis

It can be a mysterious world being behind the lens, both in film and photography, but whereas the film has its own dedicated director, for a Portrait Photographer you are both Director and Cameraman rolled in to one.

First and foremost, before anything else, the Portrait Photographer needs to be a Director of People. If you don’t direct the shoot, it will show: you can’t fulfill the brief or relay your inspiration.

The Portrait is the mirror image of my thoughts and feelings, reflected back for the viewer’s interpretation.

It takes a good actor to get the best out of Portrait Photography, to be able to understand direction, feel what I am feeling or trying to say with the Portraiture.

The Photography Studio is a Theatre, A Stage in which the Photographer AKA The Director. DIRECTS!

The Subject or Subjects are your cast, you must relay to your cast how you want them to express themselves, look, feel, act.

2. Portrait Photography Essential Equipment

portrait photography
Behind the scenes at one of Rory’s portrait photography workshops

Choosing the right equipment for your portrait photoshoots can make your life much easier. For myself portability is key, with more than half of my Portrait Sittings taking place on location, at clients offices or in their homes.

[You can see the camera gear Rory currently uses in his Shotkit feature here.]

Collapsible and easy to carry equipment is essential for my work. Lastolite supply a wonderful selection of Collapsible/Reversible Backdrops. For the portrait photographer on the move they are an ideal solution, folding down to a manageable size.

A good light meter is essential, you will be surprised, I have taught a great deal of budding photographers in my workshops, and many have never used a light meter.

Your digital camera can do significantly more than film cameras, but it is not a light meter. It has no lumisphere, it cannot measure the light output of flash prior to capture, it cannot measure the light output of multiple flashes in relation to one another and as a percentage of ambient light.

Rory Lewis Session with Sir Patrick Stewart
Rory Lewis Session with Sir Patrick Stewart

Precise calibration for accurate digital exposures is essential in portraiture to create the right look and mood. You can’t meter flash/strobes by eye alone.

I recommend the Sekonic L-308S, it’s simple to use and will ensure accuracy in your metering.

Posing stools and posing tables play an important role in my portraiture, a portrait session is after-all called a sitting. Therefore one’s model or subject should be seated.

Having a stool instead of a chair can be helpful if you don’t want the chair back to be visible in the pictures. Also when the client is sitting, options for placing his/her arms and hands can be limited, so a posing table can help finding more poses.

Rory's work with Sir Patrick Stewart featured in Photo Professional Magazine
Rory’s work with Sir Patrick Stewart featured in Photo Professional Magazine

Looking at Lenses I prefer fixed primes for all my portraiture. Prime Lenses for DSLR Cameras are highly affordable, at the beginning of my career I started with a 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Lens. Costing just over £100 you can create wonderful results, Canon’s equivalent 50mm f/1.8 Canon Lens is only £99.89.

Nowadays I shoot Medium Format, opting for the Mamiya 80mm f/2.8 D or the Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2.

[Related: best lenses for portrait photography.]

Modifier-wise, I use umbrellas, collapsible lighting modifiers that spread the light output into many different directions.

Silver Umbrellas throw light everywhere within a 180 degree radius. The wide and even pattern of light created by a silver umbrella makes them perfect for lighting portraits.

Umbrellas will give your portraits a softer look, they are portable and easy to use, and very affordable, for example the 36″ (91cm) Silver/White Umbrella.

Lighting-wise you have many options from Bowens, to Neewer, Elinchrom, Lastolite and Profoto. I myself prefer Profoto for their durability; as a professional photographer on the move, I have found the more lower-end lighting less durable, needing regular repairs and maintenance.

3. Portraiture Lighting Techniques

Learning how to light your portraits takes years of experience. I teach some of the principles I have learned over the years in my workshops, but here I’d like to illustrate a few of my favourite techniques using lighting diagrams.

I’ve included the gear used so you can see that in some cases, I wasn’t using the most expensive portrait photography equipment.

Hopefully this will remind you that producing great images doesn’t require expensive cameras and lenses, even if you are photographing celebrities!

One Light

For beginner portrait photographers, learning a simple one light setup is essential. Rembrandt lighting can help you achieve professional quality portraits with a minimal amount of equipment.

Named after the artist Rembrandt who used the lighting method in his paintings, Rembrandt lighting is a style of studio lighting in which the subjects face is well lit on one side with only a small triangle of light appearing on the opposite cheek.

Rembrandt Lighting example
Nikon D5300 + Nikon 50mm f/1.8 | f/6.3, ISO 100

Equipment List:

Two Lights

Creating dramatic portraits can be achieved with the below two light setup, I prefer silver or Deep Silver Umbrellas for their sharpness, and using a Black Foam/Poly Board to add contrast and help sculpt the detail and character of the face.

Two-Light
Hasselblad H3DII-39 + 100mm f/2.2 | f/7.1 ISO 200

Equipment List

Two Lights v2

Making an adjustment to the above setup, you can backlight your subject separating them from the backdrop.
Using Lastolite’s Wyoming backdrop really makes the subject stand out.

Back-Light
Hasselblad H3DII-39 + 100mm f/2.2 | f/6.3 ISO 200

Equipment List:

Black Backdrop Rim Lighting

Portrait Lighting Techniques - rim light
Equipment List:

Location Portrait

Portrait photography tips - location portrait
Equipment List:

Contour Lighting

Contour-Lighting

Equipment List:

Portrait Photography Tips | Final Words

Actors Headshots by Rory Lewis
Actors Headshots by Rory Lewis

I hope these portrait photography tips and lighting setups help you to create some wonderful portraiture.

If you are interested in my workshops, I have a full program of Portraiture Workshops throughout 2018 in the UK which you can book here.

All courses are practical tuition sessions giving you plenty of time to learn hands on the skills taught, enabling you to work with professional models on the day and capture amazing photography for your portfolio.

Guest post by headshot photographer Rory Lewis | www.rorylewisphotography.com

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