- Panel Lights
- Fresnel Lights
- On Camera Lights
- Soft Boxes
- Ring Lights
- Panel Light Pros: versatile, high CRI, good for general photo and video use.
- Panel Light Cons: large size, can get warm, a little higher priced.
- Fresnel Light Pros: controllable light cone shape, high intensity.
- Fresnel Light Cons: high heat output, relatively expensive.
- On Camera Light Pros: extremely versatile, low price, portable.
- On Camera Light Cons: lower power, strain on camera, possibly unflattering.
- Soft Box Pros: soft light quality, usable with a variety of light types.
- Soft Box Cons: large, lowers light output.
- Ring Lights Pros: shadowless light for close ups, catch light for 3/4s or full length.
- Ring Lights Cons: low power, specialty use mostly.
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The types of portrait lights you will use for your own portrait photography lighting configurations will vary depending on several factors.
Whether you’re shooting in a studio or on location, whether you want dual usage capability for video lighting, your budget for lights for portrait photography, and how sophisticated or simple you want your setup to be will all influence the types of portrait lights you use.
Portrait Lights Guide
photo by photographer via iStock
You can use this list of types of portrait lights as a portrait lights buyer’s guide or as a guide for how to adapt what you already own as lights for portraits or a mix of new and old.
The types of portrait lights we’ll highlight are:
Panel lights are among my favorite lights for portraits and for doubling up as the perfect videography lights. Current panel lights are almost always LED bulbs, which is great for all sorts of photography.
LED panel lights may be A/C powered or a mix of battery and plug in. The battery power option for many panel lights makes them suitable for use in your studio or for on location. Since they’re LED bulbs, battery life is fantastic, though I always carry extra batteries for all of my equipment.
LED panel lights are also usually variable in power and color temperature. This allows you to blend them with any ambient light for on location portrait photography lighting. You can add different light modifiers to many panel lights such as barn doors, grids, and colored gels.
These types of portrait lights are super versatile, about the only downsides to using LED panel lights are that they tend to cost a little more than simple lights and they get a little hot, even the LED bulb versions, since they have a lot of bulbs.
As an example of these types of portrait lights, look at Ikan for the Onyx OYB5 Half X 1 LED light. It has battery or plug in power options, adjustable color temps and power levels, and a CRI rating of 96. CRI is a rating of the quality of the light emitted, 90 to 100 is very well suited for all types of photography.
Fresnel lights (pronounced fruh- nell or fray-nell, it’s a French word) are focusable lights for adjusting the width of the cone of light emitted. A fresnel light is often part of a system of lights though you could use one all by itself for some shots.
A fresnel light uses a lens in front of the bulb that is moved back and forth to focus the shape of the cone of light it emits. The LED versions of these types of portrait lights are easier to work with, I think, than the traditional HMI lights found in many movie or TV studios. LED fresnel lights are less expensive, cooler operating, and smaller and lighter than HMI fresnel lights.
The Stryder SFB150 LED fresnel light from Ikan is one example of these types of portrait lights that is within the price range and operational abilities of many portrait photographers. It has a light cone ranging from 30 to 65 degrees so it can be used in many situations.
On Camera Lights
I guess we could include flash units in this category, but I’m sure a lot of you are very much like me in regards to lighting choices in that we like lights with dual use capability, for photos and videos, so I tend to concentrate on continuous lights for portraits and other types of photography.
Battery power and LED bulbs are king here, since this style of light needs to be highly portable, lightweight, and have accurate color. An on camera light is very usable in environmental or outdoor portraits with high ambient levels in that it gives definition and consistency in facial detail.
From Ikan, you can find several models similar to the ILED144 on camera LED light. Not as powerful as larger, off camera lights, but very portable.
It is easy, though, to get unflattering results when relying on one as your sole or dominant light source because of the straight on view of the lamp. Also, you need to be careful not to put too much on your camera’s accessory shoe because of increased risk of damage.
A soft box is a housing that diffuses the light from whatever bulb it’s mounted to, from a strobe, a CFL bulb, or LED bulbs. The soft box is a much larger area of light emitting to the subject, which softens the light compared to a point source. Additionally, the softbox material is often diffusing as well.
You can add a specially made softbox for a specific light, such as the Chimera for the ILED144 posted earlier, or find a generic one for almost any style of light you already have. Since the large area is part of what makes a softbox a softer light, you do have to deal with a bit of unwieldiness at times, especially when setting up outdoors.
A ring light is one of the most specialty use of all of the types of portrait lights, but they are beneficial for a lot of subjects, including portraits. Besides offering shadowless lighting when used close up, they can be added to a portrait lighting configuration for a nice catch light for the eyes of your subject.
A ring light kit with everything you need to use one in a studio or on location is the Oryon 18” RLB48-M2 Kit with the ring light, batteries, remote control, light stand, and carrying case. After using it for portraits, try it out for your small product photography.
A Full Kit
photo by gorodenkoff via iStock
Personally, when it comes to lights for portrait photography, I like to have all five of these available to me. Sometimes I will use each of these types of portrait lights for one lighting configuration, though I’m usually using just two or three.
Choose and use what makes sense for your photography needs. As you use them for creating outstanding portraits, also try them out for your video productions to get the most out of your lights and cameras.