Portrait Photography Masterclass Part 1: Take a Self-Portrait in Classic Lighting

Watch the video: How to take self-portraits with classic lighting

In part one of a brand new series on portraiture, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about taking the perfect shots of people in the studio, from simple one-flash setups to more advanced techniques.

I start with a classic lighting portrait that you can do at home with a simple home studio setup and just one flash. You can use a basic flash and modifiers with some budget radio triggers to trigger your flash remotely, although you’ll have more success with a dedicated flash head, which will generally have faster recycle times, more options mod and can be plugged into the mains, meaning you don’t need batteries – check out our guide to the best photography lighting kits for in-depth advice.

So follow me as I show you how to take great portraits at home all by yourself, with a few simple flash accessories, a tripod and your creative camera…

01 Tripod installation

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Have your model sit comfortably on a stool near you. Shoot at eye level to maximize eye contact. I wanted to take this image as a self portrait to show that you can even achieve great results when shooting by yourself. I placed my chair in front of the background where I wanted it to be and placed a gray card on it, so I could focus on it and lock focus by setting it to focus manual.

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

I then switched to manual mode and selected a shutter speed of 1/125s, so as not to run into sync speed issues, an ISO of 100, for the best image quality, and a aperture of f/8, for great sharpness over the entire portrait. Make sure you have one of the best tripods to keep things nice and solid.

02 Configure flash

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Mount your flash on a high light stand or boom arm, so that it is pointing at your model at a 45º angle. You’ll want to make sure you can attach a modifier, like a beauty bowl, to it for a wider spread of light, which is less harsh. I added a semi-transparent diffuser to the front of the beauty dish to further soften the light, although a simple softbox would work well in a pinch.

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Start with 1/16th power on your flash and attach your flash triggers, so you can trigger the flash from your camera remotely. Take a test photo and examine it. If it’s too dark, you can open your aperture to let in more light or increase the power of the strobe. If it is too bright, decrease the flash output or increase the aperture value.

03 Experiment with white balance

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Adjusting the white balance will help get the right color temperature in the camera, so the image is neither too warm nor too cold. The goal here is to bring the image closer to what you can see with your eyes. A quick way to do this when using flash is to set your white balance to sunlight, which is 5200K (kelvin) on my Canon camera – this will instantly look realistic on the back of the camera.

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Alternatively, you can set a custom white balance using a gray card once your lighting is set and the model is in position. Take a photo of the gray card, then navigate to your Canon camera’s Custom White Balance option in the menu and click OK when you see “Use WB data from this image for custom white balance” on your gray card image. This process may change slightly if you are using a different camera system.

04 Try a reflector

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Once the model is seated, you can position the reflector close to the model, at waist height, high enough to bounce light under the chin, across the face and illuminate the area under the eyes. The reflector should be low enough that it cannot be seen in your frame. Having the frame on a stand or propped up on another stool is a good idea to free up your model’s hands.

(Image credit: Natasha J Bella)

Look at the photo on the LCD screen on the back of your camera and check that the exposure and focus are as expected. Zoom in on the image on the LCD screen and check the details around the image, look closely at hair and clothing, etc. and ask the model to adjust anything out of place. Allow enough space around the model in frame when compositing, so you have enough room to crop and straighten in post-production.

Read more:

The best cameras for portraits
Top tips for portrait photography
The best flash or strobe
The best Canon flashes
The best flash triggers for your camera
Best Online Photography Courses

Stewart C. Hartline