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Behind-the-Scenes Garden Portrait Photography Session

Note: Be sure to check out our off-camera lighting portrait photography guide.

I love working with clients in beautiful environments! I photographed Ashley in a whimsical garden filled with vibrant color. Although it’s the middle of summer, the sun was blocked by thick clouds leaving me with flat, two dimensional light.

Many portrait photographers I’ve talked to prefer working in shade rather than open sunshine. It’s even and predictable. But shade lighting isn’t very dynamic. Does that matter? It does if you want your images to stand out!

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Off camera lighting can be daunting for new portrait photographers, but it doesn’t have to complicated or even expensive. Let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at this portrait session.

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Setting Up the Lights
Throughout this entire session I used a simple two-light setup. The main light is a Canon flash bounced into an umbrella. It’s used to fill in the shadows around the face and brighten the portrait. Most often, the main light is setup 45-degrees to-one-side and in-front-of Ashley.



On an overcast day (such as this one), I set the light to 1/2 power in manual mode. On a bright, sunny day I might set it to full power. On a more dim day or near dusk, I may back the power down to 1/4 or 1/8 power. Once you set the power, you can fine tune it by moving the main light closer or father away from your client.

Here’s a basic starting point for setting the power on your strobes:

  • In direct sun, set the flash to full power (i.e. no changes).
  • In overcast conditions (bright conditions), set the flash to 1/2 power.
  • In cloudy conditions (moderately bright conditions), set the flash to 1/4 power.
  • In full shade, set the flash between 1/2 and 1/8 power (depending on the available light).
  • In extremely dark environments, you can drop down to 1/16 power or even lower.

The second light is also a Canon flash and it’s used to accent Ashley’s hair. The light is set to 1/4 power in manual mode. I also attached an orange gel (CTO gel attached with Velcro) to the front of the light (bare) to warm it up. Doesn’t Ashley look amazing?

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Sitting on a Park Bench
I love this next set of shots! Other than moving Ashley to a park bench, nothing has really changed. I positioned Ashley on a park bench looking back at a 45-degree angle. As before, the main light is setup in-front-of and to-the-right-of Ashley. The second light is behind Ashley accenting her hair. Note: The two lights are approximately six feet apart.

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Standing Under a Garden Trellis
Ashley is setup directly under a trellis. The lighting remains the same. Although it’s cloudy, the second light (hidden behind the arch) creates the illusion that the sun is setting behind Ashley.

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Leaning Against a Rustic Fence
Here I positioned Ashley along a wire fence. The fence adds wonderful rustic texture and depth-of-field to the images. It also gives Ashley something to lean against.

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

Portrait Photography Lighting Guide - Learn How to Setup Lights

This Isn’t Advanced Lighting
Are you still using on-camera flash because you’re nervous about setting up lights? Not only is this kind of lighting fairly easy to setup – it’s relatively inexpensive! I am using old Canon strobes on $10 light stands. It’s time to break out of that comfortable routine and explore off-camera lighting! What are you waiting for?

About the Author: Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for over 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.

Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Portraits.

2 Comments

  1. What about your triggers? What kind do you use? Same for both flashes?

  2. Tim,

    I am using Elinchrom EL-Skyport triggers; however you could also use Radio Poppers or Pocket Wizards.

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