Photography cheat sheet: Lighting setups for professional portraits

Photography cheat sheet: Pro portrait lighting setups
(Image credit: DCW)

One of the joys of portrait photography is how dramatically you can change the look and feel of an image with just a simple adjustment to your lighting. 

If you're working outside, for example, you might choose to use ambient light on its own or a flashgun for more balance, or you may want to bounce natural or artificial light from a reflector to help fill in shadows. 

Indoors, however, when you have complete control over all the lighting in the scene, you can push your creativity much further. And as our set-ups in this cheat sheet, you can achieve amazing things with just one light – and do miracles with two! It helps to have the best camera for portraits, as well as the best lens for portraits, but really, it's how you use the kit that matters.

Lighting styles

When you consider just how many different types of studio lighting kits, accessories and portable photographic backdrops there are, you start to realize that the possibilities are endless. 

Do you use one light or several? Where should these be in relation to your subject? Should they be modified with an accessory of some sort or simply used as they are? And should you light your background too?

Click the top-right-hand corner to enlarge image (Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Fortunately, there are a range of tried-and-tested styles that you can adopt quite simply. Even if you only have a single studio light and an accessory such as a softbox or brolly, you can get cracking with some simple Rembrandt-style lighting, which is characterized by one side of the face being lit well and the other side more in shadow.

Add another light to the mix, and perhaps another accessory too, and you can try a few further styles. You can opt for virtually shadow-free results by positioning the lights in specific positions, or you can light the background to make your subject stand out differently against it. You may even want to throw in a few coloured gels to create something unconventional.

Click the top-right-hand corner of the sheet below to get it in high resolution –and make sure to bookmark us and check back for more great photo cheat sheets!

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• More photography cheat sheets
• More portrait photography tips
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Chris George

Chris George has worked on Digital Camera World since its launch in 2017. He has been writing about photography, mobile phones, video making and technology for over 30 years – and has edited numerous magazines including PhotoPlus, N-Photo, Digital Camera, Video Camera, and Professional Photography. 

His first serious camera was the iconic Olympus OM10, with which he won the title of Young Photographer of the Year - long before the advent of autofocus and memory cards. Today he uses a Nikon D800, a Fujifilm X-T1, a Sony A7, and his iPhone 11 Pro.

He has written about technology for countless publications and websites including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Dorling Kindersley, What Cellphone, T3 and Techradar.