Portrait Photography for Beginners

Last Updated on January 23, 2022

Portrait Photography Beginners Guide 2020

Portrait photography is the beginning of various genres of photography. While the genres advance, basics remain the same. Be it a wedding, fashion, commercial, event, and even bird photography – all are based on a simple idea about portrait photography.

Of course, commercial portrait photography still exists, but there are also other derivatives of this beautiful art. Therefore, to understand the nuance of the art, one must strictly follow the basics of photography – follow the light.

Lighting Setup-Portrait Photography for Beginners

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Worship Light – For it will make or break your portraits

There are two ways TO DO:

  • Follow the standard lights and then keep copying the setups from others.
  • Observe the light and follow your own journey.

And the third way is combining both of those mentioned. While you learn the basic light-setups (and perhaps some advanced, in time), you can continue observing the light and know the difference of how very little changes can make a huge difference to portraits.

You can only shape portraits when you have the knowledge of your starting setup, and then working around with the available light and model – or via shaping light in the studio.

Breaking the Components of Light

While there are various ways of breaking light to study, for the ease of the readers, we will break it into three major components:

  1. Quality
  2. Quantity
  3. Colour

Quality of Light – The understanding of which has turned photographers into pros

The quality of light is determined by its softness or hardness. Soft light produces soft, dull shadows and elegant portraits. Portrait photography for beginners is usually about finding the soft light and taking pictures until they advance to be able to take pictures of the opposite – the harsh light.

Harsh light produces harsh shadows, which is excellent for giving shadows but the portraits don’t turn out as fine unless the photographer understands how the light will work.

Lighting Setup-Portrait Photography for Beginners

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Quality of light is dependent on two factors:

  • Size of the light source
  • The distance between the light source and subject

The size of the light source is an important determiner of softness or harshness of the light. The smaller the size of the light source, as compared to the subject, the harsher is the light and darker and more defined shadows are the result.

The greater the distance between the light source and the subject, the harsher will be the light, and hence the resulting dark harsh shadows.

The two factors considered together and in relation to the subject determined the quality of light. For example, the sun is the biggest object in the galaxy, yet it is considered a small source of light.

The reason is that it appears small compared to the subject and subject’s vantage point, and the distance between the subject and the source of light is enormous.

How to soften the harsh light outdoors?

Beginners often start outdoors. This is where they face major challenges – of shooting in daylight. To understand light, however, portrait photography should be done closer to the sunrise and sunset – the golden hour.

Apart from the beautiful color, the quality of light is really good, and soft shadows are the result.

When the time of the shoot isn’t in our control, the photographer needs to look for shades. It could be a garage, under a tree, etc.

Carrying a diffuser and putting it near the subject matching the angle from which it falls diffused the light and make it soft.

So what does diffuser do?

The diffuser basically increases the size of the light, it becomes the source instead of the sun when sunlight passes through it. Cloudy days provide diffused light because they increase the size of the light as compared to the subject.

This produces soft light. Another advantage of cloudy days is the drama that they offer to work with the portraits.

Lighting Setup-Portrait Photography for Beginners

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The quantity of Light – The point which is mostly negotiated by modern-day DSLRs!

The quantity of light is the amount of light available for a shoot. More light enables us to use higher shutter speeds and smaller apertures (larger f-number), both of which help in producing sharper images, and also can help freeze motion in motion portraits.

Low light requires expert handling of the situation or external speedlights. Wedding and event photographers rely on speedlights to produce stunning portraits.

Colour of Light – The reason why photographers still chase the sunrises and sunsets.

The Colour of light is the degree of coolness or hotness of light. That is a simpler term. Colour, though, can create magical portraits when outdoors.

Colour balance, or white balance, is another term that will help bring natural colors in the picture, which are very important in portraits.

Basic Portrait Lighting Setups – Points of Portrait Lighting

Some of the basic lighting setups or styles are also the most standard starting points in the art of portrait photography. Portrait photography for beginners should ideally revolve around these setups and read faces to apply these to them, and then experiment with the lights.

Broad Lighting in Portrait Photography

Broad lighting is used to make a model’s face appear broader or wider. In this setup, the face is turned slightly towards one side, and the side in front of the camera is the one that is well-lit. The other side, is usually, less lit than this side.

Broad Lighting Setup

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Short Lighting – Portrait Photography

Short lighting is the exact opposite of the broad lighting. The side of the face in front of the camera is not lit, and hence under the shadow. This makes the face appear thinner, and it is one of the secrets that photographers use to make people look more attractive.

 Short Lighting Setup

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Butterfly Lighting – for Portrait

One of the most beautiful lights to ever be used; butterfly light creates a pattern of butterflies through the shadow of the nose. This is done by using light in the line of the nose, only coming slightly from the top and pointing towards the face.

It is a thorough beauty light used to create attractive portraits.

Butterfly Lighting Setup

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Rembrandt Lighting – Photography

Named after the famous painter Rembrandt who used this light quite often in his paintings, it is an angular light that leaves a triangle of light on the face in the shadow region.

This is achieved by lighting the face from one side, at about 45-degree angle, and above the head height.

The light provides beautiful faces that portray dimensions and details, which gives a soothing effect. Rembrandt lighting, like all others, depends on the shape and size and hence varies from face to face.

And therefore, the study of faces became an essential part of lighting up the portraits.

Rembrandt Lighting Setup

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Split Lighting – Portrait Photography

As the name suggests, split lighting splits the face into two. This is achieved by having the light precisely 90 degrees (left or right) to the face, sometimes slightly back or forth depending on the shape of the face.

Split lighting creates dramatic portraits that are intense.

Split Lighting Setup

Loop Lighting – Portrait Photography

In loop lighting, the shadow of the subject falls slightly over the cheek. It is created by lighting the subject from about 30-45 degrees to the side and 30-45 degrees above the head.

The shadow of the cheeks and nose should not be merged. Hence detailing must be carefully observed for this portrait lighting.

Loop Lighting Setup

**Lighting Diagram Creator for Photographers

Lighting up a Portrait in Studio or using Speedlight

Understanding the three-point lighting can help in achieving a thorough knowledge of portrait photography in the studio. The three-point lighting involves one key light, one fill light, and one rim light.

The key light is placed at about a 30-degree angle from the subject; height depends on the result that is expected. Usually, it is slightly over the head, pointing towards the face.

Fill light is usually at the same level as the subject and is kept at about 45-degree angle, opposite to the side of the key light. The most important part to remember here is that fill light is much lower in intensity as compared to the key light.

This light is just to fill out the shadows, as the name suggests it, the key light is the main light.
Rim light or backlight is used from the back and usually is at a higher intensity than the key light. It provides a separation between the background and the subject to make the portraits pop-out.

Lighting Ratio in Portrait Photography

The ratio of light intensity between the key light and fill light determines the lighting ratio. A lighting ratio of 1 with the same angles of both the lights results in a high-key portrait with minor details due to more illumination and lack of shadows.

A light meter is used to determine the correct exposure settings to illuminate the subject evenly.

Especially for portrait photography, it becomes a key component, and it is impossible to measure the lighting ratio without using the light meter.

Lighting Setup-Portrait Photography for Beginners

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Emotions: Key Aspect of Portrait Photography

Apart from the technical aspects of photography, portrait photography is more about emotions. There are two types of portraits: candid and posed.

Candid Portraits – Capture the Emotions

Candid portraits are all about capturing the emotions, and the moments. These aspects come in handy while shooting events, weddings, and even in photojournalism.

The key requirement is to be invisible. A long and fast lens helps but does limit creativity in terms of composition.

Posed Portraits – Posing the Subjects

Posed portraits are a bigger challenge for beginners of portrait photography. Posing is a hard form to understand, and photographers struggle to get the correct pose and expression even after gaining experience in the field.

The key to getting stunning posed portraits is to make the subject comfortable. It could be via conversations, music, or anything that can work as long as it helps to break the ice.

The model needs to let the photographer see through their eyes is really important. The two primary components of a posed portrait are:


The correct expression varies from subject to subject, and occasion to occasion. A family portrait will have a different expression – a warm and loving one, as opposed to a political which may depend on the person, the position, and the reputation the leader wants to convey.

The political portrait may be strong and imposing or warm and welcoming.


Posing is often tricky. The easiest way to pose a subject is to let them be natural. Even when using references, show the reference to the subject and let them make it their own.

Each body type is different, and the poses may vary from person to person. Posing also depends on the looks and must complement the expressions.

You can’t have a powerful expression with a flimsy pose, or vice-versa.

Lighting Setup-Portrait Photography for Beginners

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The Background Blur – and the Practice of the Opposite

Every beginner photographer and some experienced photographers run behind the background blur and bokeh. They make the portrait work because they provide a natural separation from the background by blurring it out, with the focus right in the eyes.

  • Background blur is achieved by using a fast lens wide open, which provides a shallow depth of field. A macro lens may provide an even better result because they have a much shallower depth of field. Usually, a 50mm f1.8 is a good starting point to learn background blur, being one of the cheapest, yet quality lens (available as per your camera body).
  • Bokeh is when the tiny circles of light start showing up behind the subject. The concept of bokeh is the same as background blur. The only additional requirement is to have some lights in the background that will provide the bokeh effect when out of focus. It is basically the out of focus lights that appear so beautiful.

Instead of opening the lens aperture wide, practice shooting with higher f-numbers will make the background visible. This will help you learn to shoot portraits and understand how backgrounds, colors, and compositions work.

Blurring out the background isn’t a challenge, it is using the background to make a good composition that is more difficult and rewarding.


Portrait photography is a combination of lighting, understanding and making the subject comfortable, and capturing the correct pose, expression, and moment.

It can be achieved in both natural as well as studio light. Portrait photography also has an additional important component – the composition.

Practicing the above techniques, growing with them, along with working with compositions, is an important exercise in portrait photography for beginners.

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Learn Portrait Photography – Online Classes

17 Photography Classes from CreativeLive, KelbyOne, Udemy and from the famous Portrait Photographers. 

  1. 28 Days of Portrait Photography
  2. Portrait Photography for Beginners
  3. Studio Portrait Lighting
  4. Commercial Portraiture
  5. Photography Composition & Portrait Photography Masterclass
  6. Posing 101
  7. Soft & Dreamy Portraits
  8. Step-by-Step Photorealistic Colored Pencil Portraits
  9. Portrait Photography Bootcamp
  10. Powerful Portraits using Body Language and Lighting
  11. Capturing Story in Portrait Photography
  12. Complete Photography: 21 Courses in 1 – Beginner to Expert
  13. Udemy Portrait Photography Courses
  14. How to Shoot Portraits in Any Location
  15. Contemporary Children’s Portrait Photography
  16. Capturing The Modern Family Portrait
  17. Wedding Portraits – Getting the Perfect Shot at Tricky Locations


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