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Portraits are easy to do, but they are also easy to mess up. For many people, they may not even know the difference since the process of taking a basic snapshot has become second nature to anyone with a smartphone.
The messing up part isn’t really ruining the picture, it’s more along the line of not making full use of the potential of your existing equipment. Sometimes all that is needed is adding simple continuous lighting.
Portrait Lighting Tips with Continuous Lighting
One of the biggest improvements you can make to your portraits is to light them properly. For beginners and more advanced photographers, I like to recommend continuous lights, especially the newer LED lights.
(Here is one of the excellent small LED continuous lighting examples I’ve had fun with, the Litra Torch LitraPro.)
So, why am I recommending continuous lighting instead of the built-in flash that is in so many cameras?
Pros and Cons of Continuous Lighting
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Let’s get to the biggest con for using continuous lighting first. It’s another piece of equipment. Adding more gear to your kit doesn’t guarantee better results. You need to know why you are getting something, what you are expecting to do with it.
Extra equipment adds bulk, adds price, and requires taking care of settings and placement of the new stuff. In other words, it also adds complexity. But the tiny built-in flashes just can’t do all we want to accomplish with regards to portraits.
Which brings us to one of the biggest pros of continuous lighting versus other types of artificial light. In addition to costing less, many choices of continuous lighting are pretty easy to set up and use compared to strobes. Especially a compact LED light like the LitraPro.
If you are a smartphone photographer or if you just got your new DSLR or mirrorless camera, take a look at LitraPro.
Another con is you need to power the lights. Regular incandescent photo floods use a lot of power, meaning you want battery powered versions of those. Plugging in to AC power limits where you can use them.
The next pro is specific to LED bulb continuous lighting. LEDs are super efficient, so you can find many battery powered options. LEDs operate at a much lower temperature than incandescent bulbs, part of their efficiency.
Besides temperature relating to heat, color temperature is generally consistent with LED bulbs. The LitraPro, for instance, has a CRI of 95+, meaning that the color rendition of the lighting is superb and stays that way from portrait to portrait.
Recommended Portrait Lighting Books:
How To Use Continuous Lighting
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There are as many ways to use continuous lighting as there are styles of portraiture.
A small light can be attached directly to the camera or on a bracket holding the camera, action cam, or smartphone. Since the compact LED light we are leaning towards is battery powered, this frees us up to take it anywhere and point it in the direction your camera is aiming.
However, the whole reason we are adding continuous lighting to our photo kit is to improve our portraiture, so let’s get it off the camera. Now, we can employ some of those portrait lighting techniques we learned.
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When you picked up your compact LED continuous light, you probably also grabbed a mount or stand of some sort. Put your light on the stand and move it over.
An excellent lighting configuration is to move the light about 45 degrees to one side and raised up a little. What this does is create a modelling effect of light and shadow.
This is a very flattering light for most portrait subjects. Just enough of an angle to add interesting shadowing and highlights, but not so much that textures are emphasized. Pose your subject to make eye contact with the camera, turning their face to you but with their body turned toward the light.
See how easy that is? Whether you are using a smartphone, a simple camera, or an advanced system camera, just one continuous LED light on a stand can add dimension and depth to your portraits.
Go Beyond the Basics
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Now, let’s go beyond the basics. We still are using only one light on a stand, but now we’re going to add some drama to our portrait.
With your subject still posed as described above, move the light over to the 90-degree position. This is split lighting for portraits. Split lighting right away makes a portrait dramatic. Half of the face is well lit, the other half falls away into deep shadow.
Texture is greatly emphasized with split lighting, so it really makes a subject’s features stand out. If you also expose for low key, you have an interesting portrait to add to the results of your effort.
Still with the same small LED light, move it around the back side of your portrait subject for rim lighting. If you expose for the highlights, the shadows will be deep and moody. If you expose for the shadowed area of the face, the same rim lighting can create a high key effect.
Compact Continuous Lighting Adds Freedom of Choice
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As we mentioned at the start, we rarely recommend extra photographic equipment without having a very good reason for doing so.
Having at your disposal a compact, battery powered, LED continuous light opens up a whole lot of possibilities for your portrait photography. Doesn’t matter what type of camera you have or what level of photographer you are, this is one simple accessory that can give you freedom of choice for creating outstanding images.
The reason I recommend LED continuous lighting comes down to a few factors. It doesn’t usually cost very much, it can be used with the camera in any exposure mode with great results, it gives you a simple way to start using portrait lighting techniques.
These are the same lighting configurations used by professional photographers and other advanced photographers. Make use of them for your own portraits and your subjects will love the results. So will you.