Lighting equipment for portraiture – Photo Review

Advice on portrait lighting equipment available to photographers of all levels.

While sophisticated equipment in the hands of experienced professional photographers should guarantee attractive, correctly exposed and well-lit portraits, shots with the basic equipment can in many cases be just as appealing – and with effective use of the basic equipment also more spontaneous. (Source: camera house.)

The main types of artificial lighting for photographers are flash and continuous light sources.

flash: When you use flash, you are effectively shooting “blind”. You can only see the effect of the flash after the shot is taken. This can have unpleasant consequences.

Most snapshots were taken using their camera’s built-in flash, so be aware of potential issues. Subjects can either end up with their eyes closed or appear demonic due to the flash’s reflections off the blood-rich retinas at the back of their eyeballs.

The top photo shows how a direct flash can make the subject’s eyes appear red as the light reflects directly off the retina at the back of each eye. The photo below shows the effects of red-eye removal, which is included in most photo editing programs.

While you can find “red-eye reduction” modes in virtually all cameras, people often forget to turn them on, and even when they are used, they often produce disappointing results. Post-recording correction can also be unsatisfactory, as – as with all things – a little knowledge can be dangerous. In the hands of a competent user and with powerful software, correcting red-eye in flash photography should be easy and successful.

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Knowing what lighting is available and understanding how it is used in different situations can help you overcome these problems. Readily available flash options range from the built-in, low-power flash units found in entry-level and mid-range cameras, to complicated and expensive studio setups that are prohibitively expensive for amateur photographers.

Between these extremes are auxiliary flash units, which are more powerful than built-in flashes and much more adjustable and easy to use than studio systems. Luckily, there’s a lot that can be accomplished with relatively basic equipment; In many situations, you may not need to use the flash at all.

The main advantage of flash is its very short exposure time, which captures a moment. This minimizes the risk of blurring, although the extreme shortness of exposure increases the risk of the subject’s eyes being closed.

Camera flashes are convenient and affordable. But the light they produce can be very glaring unless diffused with an attachable translucent disk, as shown in this illustration.

When taking group portraits with flash, you often find that at least one person in the group has their eyes closed. You have to take a lot of shots to overcome this problem – and carefully review the sequence to make sure at least one of them is usable.

Interestingly, there is a scientific way to do this. The 2006 Ig Nobel Prize in Mathematics went to CSIRO’s Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes for calculating the number of photos it takes to (almost) ensure that no one’s eyes are closed in a group photo. You can find her original work at

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The average number of blinks someone blinks when being photographed is 10 per minute. Factors that cause people to blink more than normal include nervousness, dry air, stress, fatigue, wind, contact lenses, red-eye reduction pre-flashes, and social behaviors such as blinking in photos. The conclusion for calculating the number of photos to be taken for groups of less than 20 people is: divide the number of people by three in good light and by two in poor light.

Continuous light sources range from portable and relatively inexpensive LED panels to studio lights that can be fitted with hoods, stems and reflectors. They have three major advantages over flash:
1. You can see the effect of the lighting just before shooting.
2. They use far less electricity, generate far less heat, and are more comfortable for subjects.
3. They can be used for both video and still image capture. (Flash units are totally unsuitable for video.)

Both types of light sources can be combined with natural light to “fill in” dark shadows. In fact, this is often the best (and sometimes only) way to use a camera flash, as we explain in Chapter 7 of the Portraiture Pocket Guide. (Chapter 6 of the guide provides information on lighting techniques that can improve goaltender shot rate.)

Light and the law of distance

Before you can start working with light, it is important to understand how it works. This is defined by the distance lawwhich applies to all forms of electromagnetic radiation and explains why light gets brighter as it gets closer to an object and fades as it gets further away.

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The term “square” quantifies the amount by which the intensity decreases. This law is used to calculate the difference in the illumination of an object as it gets closer to and farther from the light source. Hence its importance in photography, particularly studio portraits (although it may be relevant in other settings as well).

This graph shows how the intensity of light from any light source decreases with distance. Changes are displayed in f-stops for easy reference.

To give a practical example of the concept in layman’s terms, if you move a light source that was one meter from the subject to two meters away, you reduce the intensity of the light falling on the subject to a quarter of the amount that reaches it by one meters distance.

If you want to halve the amount of light on the subject, increase the distance by a factor of 1.4 (the square root of 2) – which means you are moving the light to 1.4 meters from the subject. The opposite is also true; You can increase the strength of the light by 1.4 times by moving a light that is two meters from the subject to one meter.

See advice on cameras and lenses for portraiture

Extract from Pocket Guide to Portraits, through photo rating Tech Editor Margaret Brown.

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