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How to practice portrait lighting without a model

Watch video: Portrait lighting tips – practice portraits without a model

There are lots of areas of photography that only require you and your camera. Landscape, street, architectural – you can just head out on your own and start shooting. Portrait photography, however, is something that you can only practice with the aid of another person to sit for you. 

If you can’t find a subject, or you don’t yet feel comfortable enough to hire a professional model, it can be next to impossible to practice your portraiture – and especially your lighting skills. Yes, you could try self-portraits; however, to really learn how to use your lights and how their placement affects your subject, you need to be on the other side of the camera.

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(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

The solution? Purchase a mannequin head! There are a vast number of different heads available online, with eBay being the best place to start. For just a few pounds you can pick up a polystyrene or styrofoam head, which will be enough to show you how the placement of your lights creates different lighting patterns. 

However, for best results, we recommend purchasing a professional mannequin head – sometimes known as a dressmaker’s dummy or haberdashery head. Rather than being all white, these heads are available in different skin tones so that you can see how varying light temperatures affect differing skin color. 

Some heads can be articulated like real heads, and some can even have proper eye detail that can pick up catchlights! 

1a Single sidelight

(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

This project is ideal if you only have a single light, as you can try placing it in different positions with different modifiers to see how it affects your subject. Here we’ve got a single flashgun with a honeycomb.

1b Shadowed split lighting

(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

Placing your light at 90 degrees you get a dramatic split lighting (split lighting being when the subject’s face is ‘split’ by the light). Using a mannequin shows how the iris is illuminated by the light from this angle.

2a Single flash with bounce card

(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

Now we’ve set up the single flash unit in an elevated position. We attached a bounce card to ricochet a softer light back down onto the subject, rather than blasting it with directional light as in the first setup.

04 Rembrandt lighting

(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

This setup produces a Rembrandt lighting pattern, with the signature triangle of light on the cheek opposite the light source. The beauty of this project is that enables you to practice fine-tuning the position your light with no model.

3a Double sidelights with gels / colors

(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

Not having a subject on call can put many amateur photographers off investing in extra lighting and learning how to use it. Here, you can start introducing more lights – and even experiment with gels and colors.

3b Colored split lighting

(Image credit: Digital Camera World / James Artaius)

Unlike the first setup, with just a single sidelight, here we’ve used a pair of LED strip lights to create split lighting. This is a great way to see how power differs between LED and flash illumination, and also to practice introducing gels and complementary color palettes.

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Read more portrait photography tips