Indoor and Outdoor Portrait Lighting Tips

If you’re into portrait photography you know that shooting indoors and outdoors requires slightly different approaches. If you’ve been shooting indoors mostly, you may have struggled initially when making the transition to an outdoor setup. The trick is in knowing what to expose for, using the ambient lighting to good effect, and using an external light to complement the ambient lighting. In this video, Daniel Norton demonstrates some simple tips:

Indoor Portrait Lighting

Norton uses a simple, classic lighting setup for the indoor shoot: one key light, one hair light, a white background, and a tethered setup so that he can check the shots in real time. He suggests, “The first step that you want to do when using studio light is that you want to know that you are in control of your situation.” This he does by switching off the radio trigger and firing off an exposure at f/8, ISO 100 and 1/250. The resulting frame is, as expected, just black. Basically, it means all the light illuminating the scene will come from the studio lights.

The key light—a studio light with a softbox—is set up at around 45 degrees to the front of the model on camera right and triggered by a radio trigger. The second light—a gridded studio light—is set up behind the model’s head on camera left. It acts as the hair light for the shot. Some of the lights from these two studio lights will spill onto the wall in the background, and that will create a slightly dark grey background for the shots.

indoor portrait photography lighting

portrait photography tips

As you can see, this is essentially a high contrast setup. There are a number of dark, middle grey tones punctuated by some highlights.

To change the lighting scenario and make it lighter, Norton repositions the back light and places it pointing at the back wall. The grid on the background light is replaced with a Magnum reflector. Here are the resulting images:

indoor portrait photography lighting

portrait photography lighting basics

Outdoor Portrait Lighting

For the outdoor scenario, Norton uses a single light—a strobe that is triggered using another flash, a SB-910 mounted on his camera. The key light is mounted inside a Joe McNally Ezybox.

Shooting TTL, he dials down the exposure to -2EV to ensure that he doesn’t wash out the model’s face.

This is the result:

outdoor portrait photography lighting

For the second scenario, Norton changes the camera angle as well as the direction in which the model is facing. The sun is at the back of the model, which means there is a natural separation between the background and the subject’s head. The strobe with the softbox is held at left of the model (camera right). Norton takes the TTL exposure back to ‘0’. This is the resulting shot:

overexposed portrait lighting

With the shutter speed slightly slowed down (therefore increasing the ambient exposure) to about half a stop, more of the background light is captured.

outdoor portrait lighting tips

With the model re-positioned and the light now coming from her left, the flash is fired from the right of the model to create a slightly balanced lighting effect. Another setup, another look.

outdoor portrait lighting

There you go. A bunch of portrait photography lighting ideas to work with—both indoor and outdoor. Let us know if you try out these techniques!

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