Research: Basic Studio Lighting Setups & Techniques – Portraits

Within this post, I shall discuss and review some of recent research of basic studio lighting set-ups and techniques in relation to portraits. In this area of research, I want to revisit some the methods outlined within Photo Skills A during my first year and from this then expand my knowledge of studio techniques and practice.

Studio work is generally less important within my intended practice, however, I would like to gain further insight into general techniques and set-ups as a means of broadening myself as a photographer, so that if a time comes when I might need to produce images within a studio set-up for commissioned work, I will be more confident in my approach.

I have started this process with the consideration for studio portraits.

I decided to begin with a recap of the five classic studio lighting setups.

Bill Hurter

The Five Basic Portrait-Lighting SetupsBy Bill Hurter
Published by Amherst MediaParamount. Loop. Rembrandt. Split. Rim. Bill Hurter provides light-by-light instructions and diagrams to show you how to create these essential portrait setups in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book.

As you progress through the following lighting setups, from Paramount to split lighting, keep in mind that each pattern progressively makes the face slimmer. Each also progressively brings out more texture in the face because the light is moved father and farther to the side. As you read through the lighting styles, you’ll also notice that the key light mimics the course of the sun across the sky; at first it is high, then it gradually grows lower in relation to the subject. It is important that the key light never dip below the subject’s head height. In traditional portraiture, this does not occur—primarily because it does not occur in nature.

The setups described presume the use of parabolic lights. However, most contemporary portrait photographers prefer diffused light sources, which are very forgiving and which do not create sharp-edged shadows. If you choose to create the five lighting patterns described here using diffused sources, very little changes—with the exception that the key light is usually placed closer to the subject in order to capitalize on the softest light.

In such soft-light setups, the background, hair, and kicker lights may be diffused as well. For instance, strip lights and similar devices can be used to produce soft, long highlights in hair, on the edge of clothes, and on the background.

The overall aesthetic of using soft light is not only seen as more contemporary, emulating the images seen in the fashion world, it is also a lot easier to master. Big soft light sources are inherently forgiving, and since the subject is basically wrapped in soft light, retouching is minimized. Also, the transfer edge, where shadow and highlight areas meet, is much more gradual than with undiffused lights.

The diagrams below show the five basic portrait lighting setups. The fundamental difference between them is the placement of the key light. Lighting patterns change as the key light is moved from close to and high above the subject to the side of the subject and lower. The key light should not be positioned below eye level, as lighting from beneath does not occur in nature. You will notice that when the key and fill lights are on the same side of the camera, a reflector is used on the opposite side of the subject to fill in the shadows.

Paramount Lighting

Paramount lighting, sometimes called butterfly lighting or glamour lighting, is a traditionally feminine lighting pattern that produces a symmetrical, butterfly-like shadow beneath the subject’s nose. It tends to emphasize high cheekbones and good skin. It is less commonly used on men because it tends to hollow out cheeks and eye sockets too much.

Paramount lighting

Key Light. For this lighting setup, the key light is placed high and directly in front of the subject’s face, parallel to the vertical line of the subject’s nose (see diagram above). Since the light must be high and close to the subject to produce the desired butterfly shadow, it should not be used on women with deep eye sockets, or no light will illuminate the eyes.

Fill Light. The fill light is placed at the subject’s head height directly under the key light. Since both the key and fill lights are on the same side of the camera, a reflector must be used opposite these lights and in close to the subject to fill in the deep shadows on the neck and shaded cheek.

Hair Light. The hair light, which is always used opposite the key light, should light the hair only and not skim onto the face of the subject.

Background Light. The background light, used low and behind the subject, should form a semicircle of illumination on the seamless background (if using one) so that the tone of the background grows gradually darker the farther out from the subject you look.

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is a minor variation of Paramount lighting. This is one of the more commonly used lighting setups and is ideal for people with average, oval-shaped faces.

Loop lighting

Key Light. To create this setup, the key light is lowered and moved more to the side of the subject so that the shadow under the nose becomes a small loop on the shadow side of the face.

Fill Light. The fill light is also moved, being placed on the opposite side of the camera from the key light and close to the camera–subject axis. It is important that the fill light not cast a shadow of its own in order to maintain the one-light character of the portrait. The only position from which you can really observe whether the fill light is doing its job is at the camera. Check carefully to see if the fill light is casting a shadow of its own by looking through the viewfinder.

Hair and Background Lights. The hair and background lights are used in the same way as they are in Paramount lighting.

Bill McIntosh created this homage to Hollywood lighting using a 31-inch umbrella as a key light and a weak umbrella fill light, about three stops less than the key-light intensity. You can see the Paramount lighting pattern on the man produced a small butterfly-like shadow under the nose. The woman’s face, because her head was turned slightly toward the light, has more of a loop lighting pattern. A characteristic of the Hollywood style was the weak fill light, which enhanced not only the lighting contrast, but the dramatic nature of the lighting.

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting (also called 45-degree lighting) is characterized by a small, triangular highlight on the shadowed cheek of the subject. The lighting takes its name from the famous Dutch painter who used skylights to illuminate his subjects. This type of lighting is dramatic. It is most often used with male subjects, and is commonly paired with a weak fill light to accentuate the shadow-side highlight.

Rembrandt lighting

Key Light. The key light is moved lower and farther to the side than in loop and Paramount lighting. In fact, the key light almost comes from the subject’s side, depending on how far his head is turned from the camera.

Fill and Hair Lights. The fill light is used in the same manner as it is for loop lighting. The hair light, however, is often used a little closer to the subject for more brilliant highlights in the hair.

Background and Kicker Lights. The background light is in the standard position described above. With Rembrandt lighting, however, kickers are often used to delineate the sides of the face (particularly the shadow side) and to add brilliant highlights to the face and shoulders. When setting such lights, be careful not to allow them to shine directly into the camera lens. The best way to check this is to place your hand between the subject and the camera on the axis of the kicker. If your hand casts a shadow when it is placed in front of the lens, then the kicker is shining directly into the lens and should be adjusted.

Allegro Haynes is a talented violinist who plays with the Virginia Symphony and the Harbor String Quartet. She is frequently featured as a solo violinist. Bill McIntosh wanted this portrait to look as if could be a movie set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. He used a 31-inch umbrella as the key light and a weak umbrella fill set at about three stops less than the key. Two small kickers from the right and left rear of the subject lit her hair, and a small background light illuminated the painted background. The lighting pattern falls between the Rembrandt and loop lighting patterns.

Split Lighting

Split lighting occurs when the key light illuminates only half the face. It is an ideal slimming light. It can be used to narrow a wide face or nose. It can also be used with a weak fill to hide facial irregularities. For a highly dramatic effect, split lighting can be used with no fill.

Split lighting

Key Light. In split lighting, the key light is moved farther to the side of the subject and lower than in other setups. In some cases, the key light is actually slightly behind the subject, depending on how far the subject is turned from the camera.

Other Lights. The fill light, hair light, and background light are used normally for split lighting.

Split lighting divides the face into halves—one side highlighted, one side in shadow. Vicki Taufer used large softboxes to produce a wraparound light on the highlight side of the face and a silver reflector on the shadow side to produce a moderate lighting ratio and good facial modeling.

Profile Lighting

Profile lighting (also called rim lighting) is used when the subject’s head is turned 90 degrees from the camera lens. It is a dramatic style of lighting used to accent elegant features. It is used less frequently now than in the past, but it still produces a stylish portrait.

Rim lighting

Key Light. In rim lighting, the key light is placed behind the subject so that it illuminates the profile of the subject and leaves a polished highlight along the edge of the face. The key light will also highlight the hair and neck of the subject. Care should be taken so that the accent of the light is centered on the face and not so much on the hair or neck.

Fill Light. The fill light is moved to the same side of the camera as the key light and a reflector is used to fill in the shadows (see the rim-lighting diagram above).

Hair and Background Lights. An optional hair light can be used on the opposite side of the key light for better tonal separation of the subject’s hair from the background. The background light is used normally.

In regards to advice, I found a simple web page that outlines a quick reference point for creating a portraits at home or for me, possibly in the university studio. It offers a useful recap of more contemporary but simple lighting set-ups for studio portraits, as well as offering a means of starting think about the extent in which a photographer can maintain full control of light and composition within a studio.

With access to university equipment and time to experiment, I should be able to elaborate upon some of these methods myself.

What’s more, these lighting techniques will provide you with a solid foundation from which you can start experimenting to find your own style.

In our lighting setups cheat sheet below you’ll learn how to use high contrast light at a 90-degree angle; diffused light and a reflector; high contrast light at 45 degrees; high contrast light at 45 degrees with a reflector; low contrast light at 45 degrees with a reflector; and finally rim lighting from behind.

Lighting Setup 1: High contrast light at a 90-degree angle

Lighting Setup 1: High contrast light at a 90-degree angle

A striking result achieved with minimal kit. Using a single flash head at this angle can give an unflattering result, though.

The light will show up bumpy skin textures and create stark shadows and bright highlights.

Without a diffuser, the quality of light will be high contrast and if placed near the subject will create problems with fall-off where light is spread unevenly across the face.

By not using a reflector, shadows will be deep.

Lighting Setup 2: Diffused light and a reflector

Lighting Setup 2: Diffused light and a reflector

This is a much gentler set-up where the same light source is softened with a diffuser and a reflector.

Diffusers give the same effect as daylight cloud cover, spreading light from a tiny source into a larger area.

The diffuser will reduce the intensity of your flash unit, so you may need to slide up the output of the flash head, but the effect will be more flattering.

The reflector works by bouncing stray light back onto the unlit side of the face.

 Lighting Setup 3: High contrast light at 45 degree

 Lighting Setup 3: High contrast light at 45 degree

With a similar effect to the first shot, this type of lighting reveals a bit more of the sitter’s facial characteristics, but with the same pockets of deep shadow.

Positioned at less of an acute angle, this light won’t pick up so much skin texture but it won’t show the face in any kind of flattering aspect, regardless of the pose.

Only one half of the face will be illuminated and, without any reflector, the other half will become a silhouette.

Lighting Setup 4: High contrast light at 45 degrees with a reflector

Lighting Setup 4: High contrast light at 45 degrees with a reflector

A much better kind of lighting set-up that reveals the three-dimensional characteristics of the face.

Used in conjunction with an efficient sliver or bright white reflector, there’ll only be a subtle difference between the lit and reflected sides of the face.

This slight drop in brightness from one side to the other can start to mimic natural lighting. Much more flattering and a real starting point for most portrait photographers.

To darken the shadows, pull the reflector away from the subject.

Lighting Setup 5: Low contrast light at 45 degrees with a reflector

Lighting Setup 5: Low contrast light at 45 degrees with a reflector

With the addition of a diffuser in the shape of an opaque umbrella, this kind of main light is much lower contrast than the previous five examples.

This creates a bigger burst of softened flash, which makes this portrait much more evocative than descriptive.

To further weaken visible shadows, place a warm-coloured reflector near your subject’s face.

An umbrella will create a similar effect to a softbox and can be partially obscured to give strips of light.

Lighting Setup 6: Rim lighting from behind

Lighting Setup 6: Rim lighting from behind

The ideal method for emphasising the outline perimeter or shape of your subject’s head.

In this lighting setup, the subject is not lit from the front but from behind to create a dazzling rim-light effect.

Only a tiny light source is needed and care must be taken not to set the flash unit at too high a power.

To prevent the face from recording as a silhouette, open up the aperture nice and wide and, if needed, use a couple of reflectors either side of the model to bounce light back into the face.


I have also started to look at more depth articles that offer a wealth of advice, not just in act of controlling light but in the overall practice of studio photography, in relation to people. I found an excellent examples through the insight of photographer, Sara Lando who discusses a great deal of useful aspects to consider before, during and after a photo shoot.


On Photographing People: Pt. 1

Sara Lando is an occasional contributor to Strobist, but is also a commercial photographer based in Milan, Italy. Today, I am very pleased to present the first in her three-part series on photographing people.

Let me back up. A few months ago, I met with all of the Strobist’s correspondents in Los Angeles. We were brainstorming to fill the knowledge gaps in the site’s content. Suddenly Sara started off on this tangent on all of the things that get lost in the shuffle when thinking about lighting and lenses and cameras, etc. Picture a tiny Italian woman gesturing continuously as she uncorks a full brain dump (from a very, very creative mind) on all of the little things that many people never think of when photographing others.

As I was listening I kept thinking, “Someone should be writing this stuff down RIGHT NOW.

English is Sara’s second language, and I normally smooth it out a little when editing her pieces. Not today. I am sending this through largely untouched. Should you come across an unusual way to express something, just imagine the Italian accent behind it. 

On Photographing People, Pt. 1: Before the Shooting

By Sara Lando — So you know your f-stops, you can balance speedlights with ambient, you can overpower the sun and color correct light to the point you can walk into a room and guesstimate the Kelvins like a boss… and yet all you get are sharp images of really uncomfortable people?

Can you be a people photographer if you’re not a people person?

My best asset, according to clients and subjects, is the fact that I can make people enjoy having their picture taken and, as a result, I can ask them to do almost anything and they’ll be happy to oblige.

It hasn’t always been like this, though: the first time I had to photograph someone that wasn’t myself, I spent the night before puking, and it was half a disaster. Ten years later, these are the things I wish someone had told me back then.

Before you can even think about what to do when you’re photographing someone you have to convince them to be in front of your camera. And a lot of people find this to be really hard (after all a camera is one of the best ways to avoid talking to other human beings…).

There are basically two possibilities: hiring a professional model vs asking someone, be it a loved one or a stranger (I’m intentionally not going to cover how to steal portraits from unaware passers by with very long lenses). If you’re really uncomfortable with asking people you know, I highly recommend avoiding paying for a professional model. Yet, it is often harder to take a good portrait of a model because they have enough experience to save your pictures when you don’t know what you’re doing. So you end up mistaking a photo of a beautiful girl for a beautiful photo. You learn very little and waste lots of money.

Also, models won’t tell you what you did wrong (but they’ll tell the next female photographer they work with, aka: me), while a wife is probably making a list the moment you unzip the camera bag. Suck it up and go for it!

I very rarely meet someone who doesn’t hate to have their picture taken though, so we meet our very first obstacle:

How to convince people to be photographed by you

Truth is, people don’t hate having their picture taken. People hate being tagged on Facebook in awful photos that everyone will see.

My advice is to start with friends and loved ones, people you feel comfortable with and can easily speak to. If you already know your friend Bob is a Star Wars fan, he will not pass on the opportunity of posing for a portrait with a full Darth Vader costume. And if you’ve been married for years to a woman who hates the shape of her ears, you won’t make the rookie mistake of having her hair up for the pictures (ending up with her forbidding you to EVER show them to anyone).

Volunteer as the official photographer at your nana’s 90th birthday. Bribe your kids. Do it again and again.

I was incredibly shy when I started photography so I decided to take a bazillion self portraits instead. Whatever you decide to do, the main goal is to build a very small portfolio of decent pictures you can show to potential victims subjects. I have a couple of ongoing projects that are great for contacting potential subjects. Both are really easy setups and it takes me just a few minutes to get the shot, leaving me plenty of time to do something else. And most of all it shows potential subjects the kind of image they would be getting from me.

This is important because it takes an incredible amount of trust to let someone take you picture and you have to reassure people you actually DO know how to operate a camera. The only way to do so is by having work to show.

This alone isn’t going to be enough. Most of the time, people will still be wary. Why would you want to take their picture? Why them?

Spot the difference between “Can I take your picture? I asked everyone else and they said no,” and “Can I take your picture? I have this image in mind for a personal project and you would be the perfect fit for that. You can say no, of course, but can I show you my moodboard first?”

The second sentence works best for several reasons:

• you don’t sound like an a-hole
• you are making them feel worthy of being photographed
• you imply you have an actual project in mind
• you are giving them the chance to say no

If you don’t have a picture to show what you have in mind, this is where moodboards come in really handy. I can use less words and be more effective. I’m sure you can perfectly understand what I’m going after if I say: “Botticelli’s Spring, Vivaldi, champagne colored tulle, and really soft hand gestures” rather than “Biker gang in a smokey bar, runaway girl, smeared mascara and a missing tooth.”

Even a quick sketch can be helpful when you’re trying to explain a concept. Here’s an example of a concept sketch and the resulting image (takes a good leap of imagination, but it still works better than “I want to paint your face.”)

Of course you need to make sure you’re picking the right idea for the right subject. Don’t be the one who sidelights the girl with bad skin using hard light or tries to force the shy girl into a skimpy bikini; if the picture comes out awful it’s not because they’re bad models, it’s just that you’re a jerk.

The same approach is valid even if you are contacting potential subjects on Facebook or on websites for test shootings. Have pictures in your portfolio, approach people with a project that is designed around them and be professional about it.

If you’re working with a creative team everyone needs to receive the same reference material. You’re the director of the whole thing. If it comes together, it’s thanks to the team. If it fails, it’s your fault.


Once you start planning a shooting, the first thing you might want to do is to gather all the data you will need: contact info, location availability, measurements, details that might ruin the photo shoot (e.g. a long haired model who just cut her hair really short, or has a big tattoo you weren’t aware of). You can send a questionnaire to fill out, you can talk to people over the phone.

I’d rather invite them for a coffee. This is great for several reasons:

• you get to see them in person and you can start figuring out their best angles
• you get to see how they move
• you can start building a relationship with them, making them excited about the shooting
• you can answer any question or address any concern they might have and see if some of your suggestions rub them the wrong way

There’s a bunch of questions first time subjects always ask me:

1) what clothes do I bring?

Unless the concept is very specific or I have a stylist involved, I usually ask them to bring something really basic, preferably in plain color. A black top, a white top, something they are very comfortable in, and a bunch of their favourite clothes. I want them to feel beautiful. Everyone has that pair of pants they wear when they want to impress. It might not be what you end up using for “The Picture,” but it’s a great starting point.

One piece of advice I always give: do not wear stuff your kids might mock you for, 20 years from now.

2) What about makeup?

Having a makeup artist can be great (it makes people feel pampered and special and really cuts the time you spend post producing skin.) But I often like to work without one and for a first timer I’d rather have no other people on the set.

Usually women can take care of their own makeup, but I still ask them to keep it natural. A nice base and some mascara will be enough not to make them feel “naked” and a bad makeup can really ruin a good photo.

This is also when I reassure them about skin imperfections: I will take care of them. The lights I use will make their skin beautiful and if there is a pimple, I will get rid of it in 2 seconds in Photoshop. I also send them this rollover image.

Why would I do that? Because people will obsess about a single zit and they will try to cover it with their hand, hair or hiding it away from the camera. I want them to completely forget about it when we are working. Photoshopping away an imperfection takes less than 2 seconds, but I cannot photoshop away a scared expression.

3) can I bring someone?

I don’t mind people watching me work now, but it used to make me really nervous. I’ve always been honest about it, and I still prefer not to have people sitting around just watching.

Some may get very self-conscious while others are watching them—even more when it’s loved ones—because they are afraid of being judged as “vain”. My policy now is that if someone is on set, they work. I have them hold reflectors or strobes, I ask them to throw rose petals in the background. Wind machine? Pppft. I’d rather use a big piece of cardboard and someone’s escort.

There are things subjects usually don’t ask, but I tell them anyway:

a) bring your own music.

I like people to bring their i-Pods or burn CDs of music they love. It’s something familiar in a very unfamiliar situation and can be the difference between getting to the shot in 10 minutes or 2 hours. I ask for something specific according to the mood I’m going for: bring music that makes you feel powerful. Bring the kind of music you’d listen to on a rainy day. Bring music that makes you wanna dance. If they have the reference images and I have asked them to pick songs, I can be pretty sure they will be rehearsing in front of a mirror.

One of my best purchases has been the Jambox by Jawbone. It’s a small, powerful wireless bluetooth boombox you can take with you on location.

b) What I will do with your photos and what I won’t do with them.

You have to have this conversation before people step into your studio. They need to know they’ll be asked to sign a release and they need to be comfortable with it. I take the time to explain that the release also prevents me from using their pictures for commercial uses without their consent and that I will never publish something they haven’t approved first.

c) I give them my contact informations and collect theirs.

Not only I will need this information for the model release, but I will definitely need to get hold of people if something happens and there’s a change of plan and I need to make sure they can contact me if they have any problem.

My advice for dealing with “models” who don’t want to give you their phone numbers or at least an email? Don’t bother booking shootings with them. The pizza delivery place asks for my phone number when I place an order: it’s part of what they do. No number, no pizza.


Make sure the studio (or location) you’ll be shooting in is going to be clean, comfortable, with the right temperature for the clothes your subject is going to wear and a separate place for changing into them. If you don’t have a changing room, a screen or a sheet stretched between two light stands will do just fine. If you’re going to be outdoors, invest in a small popup tent.

Get food and water for the shooting. This might be obvious to some of you, but I assure you most photographer don’t even offer their subjects a glass of tap water.
I usually go for tea and cake, but also have bottled water and fresh fruit available. I’d recommend avoiding stuff that stains teeth (no cranberry juice) and keep disposable toothbrushes and dental floss available: you don’t want to photoshop speck of food out of people’s smiles.

Have a list of shots you want to do and figure out in which order you are going to shoot them: you’ll want to keep the time you spend building sets while your subject is standing there to a minimum. But you also might want to think about makeup and props: go from simple to most messy. If you have several steps of makeup, remember that building up is easier than taking away.

Build the first set and test your lights. Mark the spot in which you want your subject to stand. I usually ask my husband to stand in (after all that’s part of his marital duties), take a bunch of self-portraits or use my pig mask impaled on a light stand, which works just as well. (You don’t need to be fancy: I have used upside-down mops duct taped on chairs for quite a while and it works like a charm.)

I check my gear: batteries must be loaded, cards must be formatted, lens must be clean.

I make a call sheet and send it to everyone involved in the project: location address should be written on it, as well as everyone’s contact info and a list of things they are supposed to bring and a rough schedule of the shooting. It might sound something really silly to do if it’s not a big production, just like you might feel uncomfortable asking your friends to sign a model release because, after all, they’re your friends, right? To answer your question: my mum signed a model release when I took her portrait.

This might make me look a bit of a nutjob, but the night before the shooting I mentally go over the whole process: I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and imagine every step of the shooting; me taking out the camera and choosing a lens, me moving lights, etc. if I get stuck at some point, I know I have a problem to solve, then I figure out a way to do that and I come up with a plan B. This is particularly helpful when you have to transition between several sets. Your model will need to wash her face from glitter before wearing a white dress and you’ll be outdoor: did you get wipes?It’s not going to be like this each and every time, of course. And experience is going to play a great part in being able to get a good portrait even if my hair is on fire and my subject hates me. But being prepared gives me the luxury to make the most of the time I will have with them. If I get the picture I want in 15 minutes and the model is there for a whole hour, I now have at least 55 minutes to experiment and that is exactly what I want (I’m not great at math, but I’m quite good at pushing time limits).

On Photographing People: Pt. 2

Editor’s note: This is part two of Italian photographer Sara Lando’s three-part series on photographing people. Part one is here.

By Sara Lando — So you got yourself a willing subject, everything is ready, you’re pumped up and ready to shoot. Your doorbell rings. Woo hoo!

Slowly put down that camera and breath: we don’t fire yet. Now we welcome. 

During the Shooting

If this is the first time you meet your subject, you want to have some kind of conversation while they relax a little bit and you study their face. If you’ve already met them before, you still let them catch their breath. Ask them something about themselves; make them talk, be interested. Create some kind of connection.

The most basic human need is to feel like someone else in this planet gives a flying duck about us. We all secretly think we’re special (and maybe our invite from Hogwarts just got lost in the mail) and the the whole process of taking someone’s portrait is to let them know we agree with this assumption.

Having your picture taken is something intimate. It is about giving someone else total control over the way they are going to be represented, and they want to feel like you are actually invested in making them look good.

You don’t have to ask them about their most intimate thoughts, though: just find something you have in common a build from that.

You’re both runners? Ask them bout their next race. They have kids? Have them talk about them.

But remember: you’re working, already. You are studying their face, the way it catches light, how they move. Finding good angles is key to a good portrait.
Let me show you why:

I have a very asymmetrical face, due to falling face first from 6 feet high when I was 4.

You might not notice it too much if I face you straight on (to accentuate it, I’m actually lighting from one side, so you can see the shape of the shadow)
This means if you photograph me from this side I’ll be OK:

And if you photograph me from this other side I’ll be mortified, no matter how well lit your picture is going to be:

Quite a difference, uh? Most people have more subtle asymmetries, but 99% of us have a better angle. Many are aware of this and they will keep presenting what they think their best side is to the camera, no matter how many times you ask them to face the other way.

This is where you decide wether you should reconsider moving your main light on the other side. And if you think their best side is the one they’re hiding, take two pictures and show them the difference. Let them know you are paying attention and all you want is to make them look good.

After my model for the day has shown me the clothes and accessories they have brought and is ready to hit the changing room, I have them sign the model release. I have stopped using paper for that, as I found that using easy-release on my iPad is more fun, much faster and I can e-mail the release to myself and them right away.

Don’t be a jerk about the release, though. Having them sign something like “I can use any of the pictures everywhere, forever and ever and you’ll never get any form of compensation” is not going to help you gain trust.

If you’re working with a creative team, you probably want to make sure that make up and hair are going to be ready in a definite amount of time. You do that by prioritizing: let the MUA know what is the focus of the picture. I’d rather have them spend more time on the hair (which is something I don’t like post-producing) than spend 20 minutes covering a zit.

Before starting to take pictures, I pop on their music. It doesn’t matter if I’d rather not listen to death metal while I work, I’m going to like it. There are 3 things you should never diss: people’s mums, their ex-partners and the music they listen to.

At this point I’ll start explaining them how I’m going to work and even if I’m eager to start, I’ll take my time with that. I will place myself right where I want them to be (thus showing no ninja is popping out to attack them) I will tell them which one is the light I want them to be facing, and I tell them that if I say “light” it means they are facing the wrong direction and they should look the other way.

I’ll also show them the masking tape cross on the floor. I will tell them that I need them to have their feet on the mark to make sure the light is beautiful on their skin, so let them know that each time I say “mark”, I want them to go back there (I never took pictures of someone named Mark, but I’d probably say “spot” in that case).

This gives them stuff to do: they’re on my team, now. This also makes it very easy to direct them, because asking them to turn, twist, move to the right (no! The other right) usually just leaves them very confused.

I also let them know that the first 20 minutes are going to be a warmup for both of us because I need to figure out some technical stuff and they need to get used to the lights and the camera. Why would I say something like that? first of all, most people’s experience of being photographed is a single shot that will go on Facebook, taken while they perform a duck face with a glass in their hand and that’s it.

I already know the first bunch of shots is going to capture a scared/stiff person who doesn’t know what to do, but if I don’t tell them it’s normal for me to take many pictures, they’ll think I keep doing it because they are not good enough.

The picture on the left is a very normal awkward first picture while I test lights. People, without directions, will just face the camera straight on and look uncomfortable. The picture on the right is 5 minutes later.

Let them know they’re doing great, keep the energy level high, let them have fun. Stopping too often because you need to adjust stuff is normal when working with professional models, but can be very upsetting for the average Joe.

You want to make everything in your power to make sure they’re having a great time and they feel taken care of. This is particularly important if you’re asking them to do something weird or extreme (e.g. shooting naked on the snow means you have hot tea waiting for the model in between shots and a warm blanket, or if you have your subject fully painted, you need to make sure you have a shower at hand).

Being considerate is probably the easiest part, but if you want them to really act natural in front of your camera, you want to prevent them from feeling stupid. What does this mean?

If there are people on set giggling, the subject will think they are laughing at them. Don’t be afraid to (kindly) throw people out of your set. Unless that’s the client, in which case you should take the time to explain why their behavior is going to cost them money.

Also make sure there aren’t several people shouting directions at once. This can happen when the subject mum/ fiancé /best friend is watching. It often comes from a good place, but is a recipe for disaster. There should be only one top dog on set, and you have to make sure it’s the one holding the camera. If everything else fails, have them hold a reflector while facing the wall. This won’t make much for your light but will make everything lighter just the same.

Connect with your subject, not with the gear. The more time you spend adjusting stuff, the more they will think they are not good enough.

Don’t be afraid to look silly while you are shooting. Show them what you want them to do. Go there yourself. If someone is not used to posing, mirroring your poses will be easier. Or at least tear some pages from magazines that they can copy. Quick tip: if you want them to turn their body, ask them to turn their feet your way and move in front of them. It’s easier and quicker.

If something is not working, keep shooting a couple of pictures before changing it up. Smile while you do this, or people will think it’s their fault, and will get frustrated or scared (imagine a dentist looking at your mouth saying to himself “hmmm… this probably could work… no wait, this sucks”)

Start from something relatively easy and comfortable for both you and the subject and then build the photo from there, then go back to something simple at the end of the shooting, when they are more relaxed. Taking pictures “just for the LOLS” after the official shooting is over often leads to way better and more natural posing.

Have fun. Let them go crazy and then bring them back. It’s important to find a balance between under-directing your subject (standing there without knowing what you’re supposed to be doing really sucks, which is why I really think each portrait photographer should have their picture taken regularly) and over-directing them (they might become really stiff really quick).

Asking people to scream, give me their best pirate face, saying something totally weird or having them jumping on beds is pretty much standard practice. Not that I care about taking pictures of people acting silly, I just want the picture that comes right after that.

The “official” shot is on the right. On the left, what was happening moments before.

Here’s a good example of what I’m saying. Angelica is an adorable girl who’s pretty shy. She doesn’t have much experience in front of the camera and she doesn’t know her angles yet.

When we started shooting, she was evidently uncomfortable, she was posing after each shot and waiting for the next one and she wasn’t really *looking* at me, but she was rather resting her eyes somewhere behind me, without focusing them, which is very common when uncomfortable people try to “zone out”.

So how did I get from the picture on the left to the picture on the right?

1) I moved the main light to have her show her best side.

2) I walked to her and started explaining what I wanted while focusing on a spot on the wall behind her back. Yeah, it was weird. Then I looked right in her eyes and said “can you see the difference now? This is why I need you to really look at me.” I also shared a trick models often use: look down and then look at me when I ask you.

3) We forgot about taking pictures and spent about 10 minutes doing this. There was a lot of laughing involved.

4) I gave her a story to play in her head. If I tell someone “hunch your shoulders and look sad, but still elegant” it’s probably going to look fake. I’d rather say something like “imagine you are a very rich woman and you just got home from a party. You realize all these people don’t care about you: you are alone and it hurts.” They are going to fill the gaps with their own experience and that’s what I want.

5) I asked her to perform a specific action (cross you arms and stroke your hair while you look at me) rather than holding a pose. If she has a gesture to perform, her hands are going to look natural.. She was transitioning too fast at first, but it took less than five minutes to show her what I wanted and we were great after that.

Note: I am a tiny girl with a tiny voice. If I curse like a sailor and pull out a gun most people will still react as if I were pretty much harmless (and they’d be right. I’d end up shooting my foot). If you are a huge man with a beard and a peg leg and you are taking pictures of young girls, you need to factor that in.

When I say “OMG That bra is so awesome!” to a model, we’ll end up talking about lingerie. If a man says that, it’s a creepy way of hinting he was looking at boobs.

For the same reason you never ever touch a model. Have a female assistant fixing that shoulder strap for you, or ask the model to do so herself. And if for any reason people need to change on your set, that’s the best moment to chimp at your camera.

Don’t try to be funny or witty if you’re uncomfortable, but being likable helps. Treat your subjects the way you wish you would be treated if you were in front of the camera. If the person in front of you is evidently anxious, talk to them with the same tone you would use to calm down a scared kid. Your tone and body language should say “Everything we’ll be alright. I have it. We’ll get through this.”

Make it a good experience for them and they are going to like the pictures before they even see them. Most of all, remember to have fun. You are doing what you love to do, enjoy it!

On Photographing People: Pt. 3

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series by Italian photographer Sara Lando on photographing people. The series beginshere. I asked her to select some of her favorite images to illustrate this piece.

By Sara Lando — The model is gone, your studio is a mess, you’re tired but still a bit excited about the shooting and can’t wait to see your pictures on your big monitor.

Some might call it a day and go grab a beer. But there’s still a couple of things you might want to do before wrapping it up. 

I won’t talk about the importance of post production in digital photography (long story short: when you think you’re not doing any because you shoot jpeg, you’re just demanding it to some random guy trapped in a camera factory, who decided which de-mosaicing algorithms to apply to your raw files) and I still think most of what I’m going to say is still valid if you shoot film: just because your model is gone, it doesn’t mean the work is done. I know mine isn’t.

After my model is gone and the door is shut, I download my images right away and back them up on external hard drives. Memory cards are small, sneaky and the last thing you want to do is to format one of them before you know all your photos are safely stored in three different places. You don’t spend all this time, money and effort on learning how to use a very expensive camera just to lose those files because you were careless or lazy. I did, it burned.

With portrait photography especially, people are often emotionally invested and you’re kinda sorta supposed to actually give them some pictures at some point.


While I’m waiting for the files to download and copy, I usually quickly select 3 of them to send to my subject. Right after the shooting is the best moment to do so for several reasons:

1) I’m stuck there anyway.

2) I have just shot those images and I already know which ones I’m going to pick. There’s this feeling I get when I’m shooting someone and I really like what I see through the lens: it’s a little bit like being in love. And I know what came before and what came right after, so it takes me very little time to track those images down. It might take much more time after a couple of days or a week.

3) I want them to see a preview while they are still excited about the whole experience. This keeps the hype going.

4) If they receive a preview right away, they will not think it’s been photoshopped to death. If it takes you 3 month to get back with the final images, people are going to assume you have been spending the whole time working on them, so they most likely are going to think they look nice only because they have been retouched. This is particularly true for those who are used to seeing bad pictures of themselves. I almost never show the pictures to them in person because I want to make sure I don’t accidentally show them that one photo in which they have their eyes closed, their mouth open and no neck (there’s always a bunch of those).

5) It gives me the occasion to thank them for letting me take their picture. A small “thank you” goes a long way and even though your name is going to be the one on the credits, it takes two to play the game and you should recognize that.

I only send very small samples (400x600px) and keep the post production at minimum, usually I just develop the RAW files and adjust contrasts or sometimes convert the shot to black and white. I explain that what they are receiving are not the final images and I ask them not to publish them on Facebook/Twitter/wherever, yet. I also let them know exactly when I will be giving them the photos.
One of the most common complaints I hear from models when they talk about photographers (believe me, they do), is the amount of time it takes them to send them usable photos.

I don’t care if I’m shooting a paid job, a test or doing a favour for a friend: I treat each and every shooting as if I was paid top money.

If I don’t have time to deliver, I’d rather postpone the shooting. People forget how much they paid (or didn’t pay) for their photos, but they always remember how professional you have been, when it’s time to name a photographer for a job.


The more experience I gain as a photographer, the less post production I need to do on my images, yet everything I deliver to anyone has to be finalized. You never know who’s going to look at those file and unless you are working for a big client and just hand over the memory cards, what you show—and how—is something you should have complete control over.

You should already know how many pictures you are going to send (it’s an information I often include in my model release.) But I never just burn a cd with everything that has been shot: the really bad images are erased immediately, never to be missed. And if I said I would deliver 15 images, I try to make it at least 18. Again, it’s all about making people feel treated really well.

I usually send a link to gallery of images (Lightroom works great for that, because it’s fast and looks nice) they can look at on the web and a link to a .zip file of the same images they can download and have on their computers. I also spend some time writing the email that I’m sending, because “here’s the link” is effective but not exactly warm. I usually tell them which ones are my favourites and why. Those are the photos I’ll most likely publish and I want to make sure they are really looking at them.


Unless the model has been paid (and therefore the client is the one calling the shots), giving my subject the possibility to veto what I can publish has been the fastest way to build endless trust. If I have done my job, I know it won’t happen.

I have never shot a picture that has changed the history of photography and probably never will. But I know how it feels to be on the receiving side of a very bad picture displayed without your consent (thanks mum for hanging THAT shot in our living room for years) and it’s very upsetting. If someone vetoes your shots, it’s usually because you have tricked them into expecting something completely different and that’s your fault.

Sometimes people might veto a shot because of something that can be easily corrected in post production (sometimes it can be as small as “the almost-invisible-ring I’m wearing was given to me by my ex boyfriend and he left me for my best friend, so I don’t want that picture published”), so before you start thinking they’re tasteless idiots, ask them if it’s something you can fix.

You might argue that it’s *your* picture, and you can do whatever you want with your art… it’s an interesting discussion, and I can see the point here. Yet I am not into the business of making people miserable and this has always worked fine for me.

It happened to me only once to have someone asking me not to publish a specific picture. They felt like it was too intimate and even though they liked the shot, they asked me not to publish it on the Internet. I have photographed the same person several times after that, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened, had I just told her “I have a signed release, I’m doing what I want”.


Because of Murphy’s law applied to photography, you want to make sure that the images you don’t really like, never EVER leave your hard drive, as they are probably the ones that will end up everywhere and that’s usually when people remember to give credit.

When I select the images, I pick everything I would like to show and a couple of shots I won’t use in my portfolio but I still like and I’m sure my subject will love because they look very good in them. Those are the ones that will be printed and hanged in their houses, posted on Facebook and showed to grandchildren.

One of the things I am most proud of is that a really high percentage of the people I photograph uses my images as their profile pictures in Facebook, Twitter or other social media. I always include the right to use my pictures on social media in my model release, and I’m very easy-going about that. They use something I did as the official representation of their identity and it’s really flattering for me, but there’s more than flattery involved.

Think about that for a moment: that picture is going to be seen by those who know how that person looks like on a daily basis. They see that person on a winter monday morning with a flu and then they compare it to my image. They are going to assume I am a good photographer, even though all I have done was place a light, find the right angle, make them do most of the job and select the best shot!

Regardless of what your subject decides to show others, you want to be very specific about what you publish on your website/ Flickr/ whatever. Many people consider a portfolio a way to show what they have done, but it should be more a display of what you would like to do more of.

You will find that the closest your portfolio is going to be to what you care about, the easiest is going to be to find models that are like minded and perfect for your projects. Don’t try to please everybody, don’t be afraid to stand for something. All you care is the back of people’s heads? Own it.

A great photo is about what you exclude just as much as what you show, and the same can be said of a great photographer.

What I found particularly refreshing about this example is that it build from experience and genuine insight. It is informal in nature but still very informative.

There must be a balance between your own intentions and those of the client you intend to produce images for, regardless of whether it is a favour for a friend or a for a large scale publication, there needs to be a consistent level of professionalism and respectability, this maintain through various elements prior, during and post shoot in the studio. From how you talk to and behave around your model(s) to get the gain the most successful effect or representation to being swift in your submission and response of the featured images.

From this, I believe that I learnt a great deal about the structure and attitude required for successful professional studio practice. Much of this would take years of genuine experience to fully implement, however, it is useful to know how to avoid some the general pitfalls that photographers face within the earlier stages of their photography.

To conclude, through this research I have been able to de-construct various core aspects to consider within future studio portrait images.


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