How to Use Lighting to Create Stunning Portraits

Today’s article is written by a guest writer, my friend Chris Manacop. This guide will be better understood by those familiar with the Nikon flash system, though it is beneficial for other users as well.

Read on for Chris’s valuable lighting lessons:

Portraits can be very fun and exciting to shoot and to dream up different ways to light portraits. First, I will go over a simple one light setup. Powerful images can be created with one light if placed properly. I will post some images and go over the lighting techniques that were used in these images. As far as gear, check out for gear advice and additional lighting tutorials. That site has helped me tremendously in my photography and lighting journey. I will be going over some basic concepts that can help you get started.

The first image I would like to go over is this simple one light portrait.

Jose Garcia 8

This is a local actor name Jose Garcia. One light was used in this shot. I call this a “bread and butter” shot, something which I know will work and I can always go back to whenever I need it. Placement of the light was the old “tried and true method” — placing the light 45 degrees from the subject. The light source was also approximately 2 feet above the subject’s head. This was shot with an SB-600 bounced through a 43” white umbrella using Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System). With just one light, most of the face is lit up and the shadows are not too distracting. I myself do not have any studio strobes and thus do not have any modeling lights so I had fire a couple of test shots to attain the light fall off that I was happy with.

No Reflector? No Problem. Here’s another shot where one light was used.

Val 012

I myself tend to be a run and gun “guerrilla” photographer with rarely help from any assistant. Some daylight portraits in which I would like to use a reflector I can’t use because:

  1. There’s no one to hold the reflector
  2. I have no stand to hold the reflector

In this case, I normally revert back to my light stand, speedlight, and Nikon CLS. I metered the ambient lighting and underexposed it about 1/3 stop. I used the sun as one light and filled it with my flash. At the time this particular picture was shot I would have preferred to shoot through an umbrella, but the wind would not allow me to (I also did not have any weights or sandbags, nor did I want to carry these). I put the SB-600 on a stand and stuck a Stofen Omnibounce to diffuse and soften light. To get it even and balanced, I ended up shooting with a flash intensity of 1/16. Sometimes you can use flash and it won’t even be noticeable such as in the case above. On a side note, it is a lot easier to control flash on Manual mode because you can modify it accordingly. I-TTL is fantastic though the intensity is unpredictable. I personally would much rather shoot “M” in the field.

The below picture shows Night Shooting Action with one light. Here are a series of two shots that I will break down. They will yield similar results, but it just depends on how you want to get there.


Back to my “run and gun” tactics. For this particular shot, I of course FORGOT to pack my tripod because I did not realize I was going to lose light very quickly. I remembered reading a strobist article regarding using the sunset as a background so I decided to take advantage of the beautiful light. Unfortunately, without the tripod, I could not drag the shutter (this will be explained in the next picture). To attain this shot I metered for the sky, unfortunately in this lighting to even be hand-holdable I had to boost the ISO to 800. This is semi clean on a Nikon D70 but it is still visible. Once I had the sky metered I placed the SB-600 on a stand and shot through my white 43” umbrella to fill in the model. This yielded quite pleasing results.

This next picture was actually shot for print. This is Antonio Alvenida, the Author of “The DriftingBook”. The website is
86 Life

This photo was shot in downtown LA. Luckily Chris was a good little boy and brought his tripod this time. I was able to keep the ISO at 200 this time to keep the noise down. This picture was lit with one speedlight bounced from an umbrella almost directly from model right. I used a technique called “dragging the shutter”, which involves leaving the shutter open longer in order to register some ambient lighting. So for example instead of shooting at a shutter speed of 1/60 I would shoot at 1/10 to register of that ambient light. This is especially useful on night shoots because it is rather dark and cold if no ambient light is registered. But hey, if dark and cold is what you are going for, then have at it.

Back to the shot. I shot this from atop my truck bed in order to get a higher POV. I dragged the shutter in this particular case because I also wanted to emphasize the car in the background as well as the buildings and street lights. To sum up the engineering of this shot,

  1. SB-600 shot from camera left bounced from an umbrella
  2. Shutter dragged to register ambient and emphasize car

Dragging the shutter requires the models to stay still a tad longer but in my opinion it is worth it in the end.

Now we’ll take a look at Two Light Techniques

Incorporating 2 lights in a shot can often dramatically increase the mood or enhance the shot. Remember, the sun can also be used as a second light (this will also be covered).

Hair Lighting


This shot above is a traditional one light “bread and butter” portrait. Very nice, but adding one more light can dramatically increase the photo.


Here I introduced a second light. To put the beam of light tighter in one area, I fashioned a homemade snoot on one of my speedlights. You can learn how to make this on The second light was placed behind the model and pointed it at her hair (hence the name HAIR LIGHT). As you notice it creates highlights in her hair and dramatically increases the mood of the image (this will also be discussed).

The Sun can be your friend. But let’s cover the basics of photography, DON’T SHOOT INTO THE SUN.

Ok, normally that is a good rule of thumb but things can get a litte “hairy” and improvisation can be quite helpful.

Kyle Mohan Lighting
This is Kyle Mohan. I wrote an article and shot pictures for him and his car. To see the whole article and shoot please visit Kyle is a Professional Drifter and I needed a portrait with him and his car. In this case, I used the sun as a hairlight. It added a nice little edge. I metered for 1 and ½ stops underexposed because I wanted to tame the sun because it was shot at mid day. One of my tactics for shooting at this time of the day is to just overpower the sun. I placed the light almost parallel to the left of the driver. No light modifier was used this was shot bare bulb again because of the time of day. I mainly chose the light placement because of the shadow that it cast, a very extreme shadow which gives a “tougher” look (he is a race car driver for crying out loud). He has to look tough. Once again only one speedlight was used here and I used the sun as second light.

Well I’m a staff shooter for and sometimes when I am covering events I end up in some situations that aren’t ideal for photographers in terms of lighting. This case it’s a bikini contest.

Yes, I know, POOR ME shooting a bikini contest. This is an average 23 year old male’s dream. Yep, well too bad I’m a photographer, since I have other things to worry about like quality of light and compositon, and no time to oogle and body parts. As evident in this photo the press section was placed in the worst place possible, I was shooting directly up at the models and into the sun. Fantastic, like I said, a photographer’s nightmare. I was getting decent stuff by timing it when they blocked the sun and popping them with the flash. This is what I did in the photo above. Unfortunately I was not getting a lot of keepers so I decided to take the flash off camera. This is easy using Nikon CLS, just some quick navigation and I was ready to go. No light stand, no problem, I have two hands right. Well with camera in one hand and flash in the other I started metering for exposure. This was taken at 3pm so light was a tad harsh, I decided to use it to my advantage and just nuke the sun. I pointed the camera at the sky set the camera at its fastest sync speed (which is 1/500 for those D70 users out there) and metered for the sky by adjusting the aperture. I then underexposed the scene by 2-stops to give a more dramatic effect. Once that was set, I started firing test shots and adjusting the flash intensity as I went. All in all I ended up firing the flash at full power around f/18 or 22 (I don’t recall the exact number). Here are the results:


Bikini Photography Shots in the Sun

These have more of the mood and look I was going for considering the circumstances.

Now let’s cover Edge Lighting to create some drama and tension.

Some light on the edge not only can add a cool effect but add some tension as in Kyle’s Picture. It gives the picture more mood and character. Take this picture for example, nicely exposed and very evenly lit. It conveys a warm down-to-earth feeling. And edge light was used here. This shot was lit with 2 speedlights shot through two umbrellas. One camera left at 45 degrees. One camera right extreme model also shot through an umbrella. The edge light is used like a hair light but I used an umbrella so it spreads more.

Mary 9115 Dinner Time

Well putting a cigarette in her mouth just totally changes the mood of the picture. Lighting must be adjusted accordingly to accomdate this new “mood”. I wanted to create a shadow with the edge light to emphasize this.

Mary 9124web

That’s all for now folks. All these shots were shot by my Chris Manacop.

Thanks to Tamar for letting me write a post for her blog; sorry if it’s a tad winded.

One Response to “How to Use Lighting to Create Stunning Portraits”

  1. Thank you Tamar for much needed article!

    Toronto Wedding Photographer

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