Many photographers assume that shooting portraiture requires an in-depth knowledge of lighting as well as a large budget for lighting gear and studio set up. Well the good news is that this is definitely not true. A portable home studio setup aided by simple speedlite flash heads will do the trick.

What lighting is required for portrait photography


A standard lighting kit, like the Hahnel Flash Kit is more than adequate. Not only is this kit very affordable as well as specific to brands like Canon and Nikon, it is made in Germany, it comes with a 2 – year guarantee and lithium ion battery support, which means no more hassles having to use rechargeable batteries. The best news is that it includes a transmitter so you can use this flash off camera, perfect for portraiture.

My suggestion is to purchase the kit with 2 flash heads and the transmitter, which will fire both heads and set you in good stead to do almost anything to capture the look and feel you desire. As I mentioned this will not break the bank. Try avoid being encouraged to buy just any so-called generic brand, as they do not always work the way you would expect. What you read is not always true or often results in misleading expectations and disappointment. Alternatively go for the real thing, but expect to pay more because of the name.

In addition to the flash heads, you will require off camera flash brackets to support your flash and umbrella as well as stands. These accessories are necessary and do not come at a hefty price. My suggestion is go cheap, a word not normally in my “vocab”, but these accessories have nothing to do with achieving the “money shot”, purely used for diffusion of light, hard or soft and to securely support the flash.

Flash heads

Should you only be shooting in studio, you might wish to invest in a more professional lighting kit. Note that most of the decent affordable flashes will require electrical points, the battery packs as well as the more compact and portable flashes are expensive and require back up batteries which will also set you back in your budget, whereas the first option you are running on batteries so electricity is not an option if you are prepared and charged.

Stick to top the brands like the Elinchrom D-Lite RX ONE Softbox To Go that comes with a great carry case as well as a transmitter and sync cable. The cheaper brands are problematic due to their poor performance and limited life span on parts and bulbs. May I suggest that you do your homework in this regard in your decision making process.

The studio/space for portraiture

For the likes of portraiture, you will not require a large space to work. It is the lighting that counts. So long as you are able to set up your lights at the without being compensated by space restrictions, you will be fine.

·      You will also need the following:

·      A portable background stand or mounting system (DIY) for support your backdrops.

·      Various back drop options and colours as well as taking texture into consideration to meet your taste and client requests.

·      Reflectors/flags or bounce boards for diffusion and bouncing your light (polystyrene is an affordable and common choice for most photographers)

·      Block out fabric as well as a diffusion source for the windows to prevent harsh sunlight.

Fortunately, this again is not that costly, with the advantage of being portable and compact to store when not being used.

You are now ready to start…

Firstly you will need to understand how your lights work.

This will involve ensuring your camera setting are correct as well as the compensation and power required from your light settings. Test shots are required to achieve the correct positioning of your lighting for your shot, as well as the exposure  and the temperature (kelvins/AWB Settings on your camera or light head). Decide on your shapers/soft-boxes for your set up as this is where the light will be dispersed from once the flash is fired. The testing process is the most important as it will affect the result of the entire shoot. Always remember that your lighting and colour temperature is a key factor for any form of genre.

My suggestion is that you attend a short workshop to understand the practical side as well as build your confidence using flashes top achieve difference looks from the basic setups below.

Setup1: The Clamshell

This is your most basic one light setup for even light distribution on the face. Very clean and great for natural beauty shots, wedding and portraiture for families and babies.

Setup 2: Back lighting

This setup can be modified with a hair or back light to ensure the person does not have a “flat look”, almost accentuates the person and makes the subject “pop” and look proud of the background. This will require and additional light source. You will also require 2 white reflectors to diffuse the light.

Setup 3: Rim Lighting

A rim light will add some drama to the look and offers a more personal and impactful look for portraits that require “life”. This is used for nudes as well as body shaping as it will provide definition to selected areas of the face or body.

Basic camera set ups for portraiture

The camera set up:

·      Set your camera to RAW format to ensure large files for better editing purposes. The larger the file size the more detail you have to work with.

·      Make sure your camera is on spot metering, as this is best for portraiture.

·      Decide in the depth of field that you require (DOP) and make use of your focal point selection before taking a your first shot, the set up should be executed during the test prior to the shoot.

·      Ensure that you are using  the correct lens as each lens has a different use for the genre you are shooting. A great portrait lens is a fixed 50mm or a professional 80mm lens. The glass as well as the aperture will make the difference to the final result, unfortunately these lenses coat, so           consider hiring or buying pre owned, so long as it has been checked properly by someone credible.