Skip to main content

How to Light a Portrait

Portraits come in all shapes and sizes, but follow a few basic guidelines and you'll set the scene for a beautiful and professional shot.


  • Step 1: Decide portrait type Decide what type of portrait you want to take: headshot, bust, torso, three-quarter, or full length.
  • Step 2: Mount camera Mount your camera on the tripod.
  • Step 3: Arrange set Arrange the set to suit your preference.
  • Step 4: Position subject Choose where you want your subject either to sit or stand.
  • TIP: If your subject will be standing, take small pieces of tape and mark the floor for easy foot reference. This makes it simple to find the right position again after a break or stretch.
  • Step 5: Arrange backdrop If you’re using a backdrop, arrange it a minimum of six feet behind the subject so any shadows fall on the floor.
  • Step 6: Position lights Position your lights. Each light should be equidistant from the subject, and set on either side of your camera at a 45-degree angle.
  • TIP: Portraits can be taken using only one light, but the results may create harsh shadows on the face.
  • Step 7: Choose low-speed film Assuming your subject will be well-lit, choose a low-speed film, like 100 or 200. If your camera is manual, select a wide aperture. If it’s automatic, look for a portrait setting.
  • TIP: If your lights are strobe, check your camera’s owner’s manual to make sure your shutter speed will sync with them.
  • Step 8: Greet subject Greet your subject and bring them onto the set.
  • Step 9: Make sure subject looks good Make sure your subject’s wardrobe, makeup, and hair are to your liking.
  • TIP: For both male and female subjects, the use of facial powder may reduce any unwanted highlights or shiny reflections.
  • Step 10: Have subject take position Ask the subject to take his or her position on the stool or on tape on the floor.
  • Step 11: Focus on subject's eyes Focus on your subject’s eyes.
  • Step 12: Compose your shot Compose your shot—whether it’s a headshot, bust, torso, three-quarter, or full length—in the viewfinder.
  • Step 13: Ask subject to relax Ask your subject to take a deep breath and relax. Then, on the count of three, shoot your picture.
  • Step 14: Take many shots Take as many shots as you and your subject are willing to do.
  • TIP: The more frames you shoot, the better your chances of getting just the right facial expression.
  • Step 15: Be spontaneous Once you’re sure you got 'the shot,' have fun with angles and expressions. Your subject might feel more relaxed, and who knows? A little spontaneity could yield an even better shot.
  • FACT: Annie Leibovitz, one of the world’s most famous portrait photographers, commands up to $100,000 a day.

You Will Need

  • Work or studio space
  • A camera
  • A tripod
  • A backdrop or natural environment
  • Lighting equipment (preferably two lights)
  • And a subject
  • Tape to mark the floor
  • A light meter
  • A stool

Popular Categories