How to Light a Portrait

Learn how to light portraits from professional photographer Joe Sinnott in this Howcast photography tutorial.

I’m Joe. I teach photography at School of Visual Arts in New York. This is basic lighting for portraits.

This is a very simple thing that pretty much anybody can do if you’ve got any kind of an off-camera flash at all.

You want one that’s got that action going on. You’ve probably seen photographers bounce their light off the ceiling. This is better when you’re doing a portrait. You bounce the light off of the wall like this.

When you shine the light directly, flash is really, really focused. Focused light tends to be not flattering. It makes very harsh shadows. Every piece and bit of your face that can possibly make a shadow is going to make a really long one when you use the flash straight on at your subject.

But if you bounce light off a wall or something, it has a tendency to spread and flatten out and unfocus, and become very diffused. Diffused light has very, very, soft shadows and soft shadows tend to be more flattering.

Engage with your subject. Syd, you don’t really need to be engaged with this but tilt your head a little bit to your right. Very nice. A little bit more. Good. Lift your chin a tiny bit. Turn your head to your left. Chin down very slightly. Arrrrrrrrr. You’ve done this before, Syd, I can tell.

You want to use your flash at an F-stop somewhere around 4 or 5.6, something that will allow your background to go really out of focus so that all the attention is spent on your subject, which is where you want it to be.

It’s an easy trick. It doesn’t require you to buy a lot of lighting or equipment or anything like that to do it. And that is one basic way to light a portrait.