Photography cheat sheet: Lighting setups for professional portraits

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

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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 (opens in new tab) 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 the one light - and do miracles with two!

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Lighting styles

When you consider just how many different types of studio lighting kits (opens in new tab), accessories and portable photographic backdrops (opens in new tab) 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?

Read more: Photograph cheat sheet: How to understand f-stops (opens in new tab)

Click the top-right-hand corner to enlarge image (Image credit: Digital Camera World)
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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 (opens in new tab)!

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The lead technique writer on Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab) and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab), James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 

Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 

As the editor of Practical Photoshop magazine, he's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.