The Amateur Photographer's Intro to Portrait Lighting and Lenses


Many people want to get started in home portraiture, but don't know where to begin. Besides studying composition, lenses, and posing, one must acquire a working knowledge of the basics of lighting. The first thing to realize is that not every photo can be shot using only natural light. For those of you that are scared of using external lighting, here is a quick introductory guide to help remove some of those fears.


Photo by isayx3

Lead Writer's Note: Some of these photos are submissions to the B&H Photo Flickr group. Hover over the images to see who shot them.


Strobes can be as small as on-camera flashes or as large as monolights and bare bulbs. Most modern strobes come with a built-in modeling light—a light bulb placed near the actual strobe which can help you preview what the lighting effect will be. You can then shut off the modeling light so that your model won't feel like a piece of rotisserie gold by the time you shoot them, if the light is too close.

In terms of color correction, strobe lighting is always daylight-balanced, unless filters/gels are placed in front of them.

The power ratings of strobes and continuous lights are different, with strobes typically being more powerful, because of the major burst of energy put out in a second.

Strobes can be used with Flash Modifiers as well.

Continuous Lighting

'Scream' studio set up

Continuous lighting (often called hot lights) provides a steady stream of lighting, so you can view the effects on your subject before you shoot. If you choose to put something around the light to modify the output (like barn doors, beauty dishes, etc.) you can check to see how that modifier has adjusted the lighting. Back in cinematography school, I loved the fact that I could immediately see the effects of the lighting, but I also remember just how cumbersome I felt the lighting kits were.

Continuous lighting comes in different colors: tungsten, fluorescent, and daylight. This can sometimes make white balancing more difficult to achieve in order to attain your desired color levels.

Your camera and lights work in an inverse relationship to one another in terms of color temperatures. So while at 6500K your camera's white balance may appear very warm, 6500K is very cool continuous lighting. The way to balance this out is to look at a color wheel.

Now remember, the camera's white balance and the continuous light's balance work inversely with one another. So according to the color wheel, if the light is dark blue, then you'll need to dial in a medium orange into your camera to obtain a balanced image.

Softboxes or Umbrellas?

Take a look at this video for an explanation of the difference between the two to help you decide which one is right for you.


Your choice of lenses is very important to consider when shooting portraits. Everything from focal length(s), aperture range, and special features can affect the results of your final image. 

Focal Lengths

Lens focal lengths are generally broken down into three different categories: wide, normal, and telephoto. Wider focal lengths are usually less than 35mm. Normal focal lengths run between 40mm to 60mm, and telephoto focal lengths are greater than 70mm.

All of the following photos have been shot with the Canon 5D Mk II, 24-105mm F/4 L IS, 580 EX II mounted on-camera, and triggering a 430 EX II mounted on a Gorillapod, with its legs wrapped around a gate.

The 580 EX II was aimed at a wall behind me to provide reflective illumination, while the 430 EX II was aimed directly toward the subject's chest.

Wider angle lenses tend to distort and stretch certain parts of people. This photo was shot at 24mm.

Just to show you how distorted the image is, the photo on the left is the original and the photo on the right has been processed in Lightroom 3 for distortion correction. Notice how there is less bulging in the image on the right.

Normal focal lengths produce images closest to what the human eye will see. This above photo was shot at 50mm.

Telephoto focal lengths will flatten out an image, and will render a look where appendages like noses don't bulge out too much. The above photo was shot at 97mm.

Aperture Ranges

Apertures (f-stops) are very important when using strobes or light because they can control the exposure output of the light source. Larger apertures (F/1.4, for example) will let in more light than smaller apertures (F/22). Keep this in mind if you're using a flash unit in manual mode. In practice, if you keep your flash output at 1/1 (and you keep your ISO and shutter speed at a constant level), and stop your lens down throughout the entire series, you will see the flash output become weaker, and the depth of field become less shallow.

F/1.8 at 1/250th








Special Features


Some lenses have special features, such as tilt-and-shift and defocus control. In general, most people won't use these because of how specialized they are, but they can still be used for very creative effects.

Was this helpful? Let us know in the comments below.


Heavy on lighting equipment and lenses; weak on lighting portraits. For example, just how did the photographer achieve the lighting exposure of the girl at the end of the article?

:) like the article, hate the hipsters :D just comes with living in brooklyn

 It's good, but the best is the girl at the end.