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- The Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Crafting Light and Shadow
- Portrait Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots
- How To Use Fill Light For Outdoor Portraits
- Essential Portrait Lighting Tips
- Portrait Lighting Mistakes
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Sophisticated lighting techniques can be accomplished within any budget. Sometimes all we need to do is be a little creative. Inexpensive portrait lighting ideas can come from just about anywhere. I like to periodically search online for tips from others.
I can put what I find or what I came up with myself into two categories. Cheap portrait lighting gear and inexpensive portrait lighting ideas. Some people call these ideas hacks, but I find that if I search including the word “hacks,” I get an awful lot of fluff and some ideas that really don’t make much sense.
Inexpensive Portrait Lighting Gear
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Here are a few things I’ve been using for my own portrait lighting. You’ll notice that several of these are extremely useful for shooting portraits on location. Other tips are probably best suited for in our studios. Some ideas would make MacGuyver proud.
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I love using reflectors in my outdoor portrait lighting. They are also very useful in a studio or other interior location. Most often, we use a fold up reflector as a fill light, perhaps even an eye catch light
By strict definition, a reflector is not a light source, but rather a light modifier. This is because it does not produce any light on its own, it reflects light from another source. A nice trick or tip is to use the reflector to redirect light so that it actually becomes a form of light emitter itself.
As a thought exercise, we have moved our portrait subject around the park so that there is no direct sunlight falling on them. That skylight is a wonderful, soft light, like having a 28,000 mile wide softbox.
photo by XiXinXing via iStock
Trouble is, skylight is still rather directional, mostly from above, and it’s a little cool in color temperature. If your position is favorable, you could capture some direct sunlight in the reflector and throw it onto your subject. Thus the reflector could become the key light. Not available in every situation, but we’re just conducting a thought exercise.
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Handheld Portrait Light
If everything in the above scenario falls together perfectly, that’s an awesome portrait look. Nature often tends to be different from our ideas of perfect control, though. So other options for cheap portrait lighting should be on the table.
Perhaps the most usable option I have found for many different situations is a portable handheld portrait light. My current favorite is the Hakutatz LED light. It’s an LED light with adjustable color, battery powered, lightweight, and controllable from an Android or iPhone.
Let’s go back to that skylight lighting portrait scenario. If you don't see a shaft of sunlight peeking around a corner or a bright spot on the ground nearby indicating a clear view of the Sun, then you don’t have much for the reflector to work with.
So, pull out your small, smartphone sized Hakutatz LED light and use it as illumination. The portrait subject could hold it in their hand, with skillful direction from you on where to point it, and now it is either a fill light or primary light. Since you can control color and intensity from your smartphone, you have all the creative control necessary.
If your portrait subject feels odd holding the light, or if your framing would reveal the light in the picture, you could use a clamp or the always handy OctoPod to make using it handsfree.
An advantage of using a portable LED light is that you have control over where to position the light. An on camera light or flash will work, but having your inexpensive portrait lighting separate from the camera opens up a whole bunch of options.
Since it’s a continuous light source, you can see the results before snapping the picture. That makes positioning the light very simple, no guesswork involved. Your camera meter can provide the proper exposure or you can override with exposure compensation or manual settings.
Inexpensive Portrait Lighting Ideas
Some of the best options for cheap portrait lighting gear is to use what’s already available on your camera, in your photography gear bag, or in your vicinity. Without buying anything, or at least not anything else, you can take control of your portrait lighting for studio or on location shoots.
Built-In Camera Flash
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I often preach loud and clear about using some sort of lighting equipment other than the tiny flash built into your camera. Because those built-in flashes are tiny, they don’t have much power. Also, being so close to the axis of the lens, they can produce the dreaded red eye effect or give flat, unflattering lighting.
As explained in the video below from Adorama, properly controlled, the built-in flash can be very useful as cheap portrait lighting gear. In order to properly control it, we need to dig a little into our camera control settings menu. Look for the option that says something like Bracketing/Flash or Flash Control.
If you have it set for TTL Auto, you will probably get good results when employing it as outdoor fill light. Another method is to manually set it to a fractional output level. Some cameras allow variation from ½ power all the way to 1/128th or 1/256th power.
If the ambient light is bright enough, you probably won’t be bothered by red eye effects. Subject position and pose can also be used to control that extremely common portrait light mistake.
photo by Ridofranz via iStock
Sometimes, there isn’t much you can do about light placement, especially if the light source is the Sun.
To avoid our outdoor portrait subject having squinty eyes, we often turn them away from the Sun. If the Sun is low in the sky, that may put us in a situation where the camera meter will give settings that result in a silhouette.
Opening up the camera menu, pressing the button, or twisting the dial for exposure compensation, we simply dial in on the plus side and add enough exposure to their face. You didn’t even have to spend a dime.
Coming Up With Ideas
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
The best light for any photographic situation that may come up for you is that metaphorical light bulb that indicates an idea in your head.
Take stock of your current gear and methods, see where an addition of a reflector or a handheld light could benefit you. Also imagine situations to use what you already have and know but apply them to portrait lighting.
Inexpensive portrait lighting ideas are everywhere. Some are not worth trying, but many are. Try out what works for you and let us see the results!