Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits

Photography | August 22nd 2010

Studio work is nearly the exact opposite from location shooting, especially for portraits.  With location portrait shoots, the focus is easily on the person posing, but the surrounding elements also contribute to the final product.  Also, the studio presents some more challenging lighting situations, as the photographer needs to create the light, rather than modify what the sun is providing.
Because studio work alone can be intimidating, adding in people can often make things nerve-racking.  Here are 10 tips for shooting studio portraits that we’ve found really help.

1. Think of shooting in a studio like a bowling ally.

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Camilo Rueda López

Photo By Camilo Rueda López

With your model in place, and you directly in front of them, you can only move forward and back.  You cannot move to the left or right, and depending how wide your lighting is, neither can the model.  Rather then take two steps to the left, you will have to ask the model to turn.

2. Watch the clock

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits- Photo By Lucas Cobb

Photo By Lucas Cobb
Not for time, but for direction to your model.  It’s very easy to confuse and get confused if you ask them to turn right or left, but turning clockwise or counter-clockwise is the same for you and the model.

3. Who’s right?

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits- Photo By Bex Ross

Photo By Bex Ross

While clockwise and counter-clockwise will help to an extent, sometimes you need the model to move right or left, and for this, you’ll need to know who’s right.  It’s best if you can train your mind to ask them to move to their right, so they don’t have to think about where to go.  This is very important when dealing with models who don’t do it professionally, like high school seniors.

4. Go prime

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Photo By Nayu Kim

Photo By Nayu Kim

There is and always will be arguments for zoom lenses in the studio, but if you can, stick with primes.  They tend to be sharper and it’s one less setting you have to do.  The standard lens most portrait shooters use will fall somewhere between about 80mm and 200 mm.  If you shoot a cropped sensor camera, don’t forget to include this into your choice of lens.  Canon full-frame shooters tend to prefer lenses like the 85mm f/1.2 and 135mm f/2, while cropped sensor shooters tend to prefer the 50mm f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses.  Nikon shooters as well lean towards the 85mm f/1.4 lens.

5. Be at the right height

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Esther Gibbons

Photo By Esther Gibbons

Your height, combined with the distance between you and the model, and their height will ensure you are at the proper height.  Because most all portraits look best when shot at the eye-level of your model, you’ll need to compensate.  Sometimes this will mean bending down a little or even getting on one knee, other times you may need a step-stool or ladder to boost your height a little.  The wrong perspective can really ruin a portrait.

6. 1/125 and forget it

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Kevin H

Photo By Kevin H

Studio shooting camera settings are pretty simple and straight forward.  Set your camera to manual mode, set the ISO to 100 (or 200 if you don’t have 100) and the shutter speed to 1/125.  Because of the strobes, there will be virtually no difference shooting at 1/100, 1/125, 1/160 or even 1/200th of a second.

7. Use a light meter

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-new1mproved

Photo By New1mproved

In camera metering is great, but it doesn’t account for multi-light setups, nor can it help you nail your exposure on the first shot, or properly expose hair lights or background lights with a breeze.  Just because you know how to read a histogram doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a light meter, it will take the headaches out of lighting.

8. Focus on the eyes

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Kate S

Photo By Kate S
Regardless the aperture you choose, for shallow depth of field or not, the eyes are what really tell the story of a portrait.  Your focus should always be on the eyes, where they are looking and ensuring they are in focus.

9. Do a custom white balance

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Maury McCown

Photo By Maury McCown

We know, custom white balance is brought up here time and time again, but for good reason!  Studio light modifiers, like umbrellas, softboxes and snoots all have an effect on the color output of the strobes, so doing a custom white balance before each shot ensures the most accurate possible color representation.

10. Try just one light

Ten Tips For Shooting Studio Portraits-Photo By Nick Wheeler

Photo By Nick Wheeler

Famed fashion photographer Helmut Newton was famous for using only a single light.  Doing so, and changing the angle in relation to the model can create dramatic shadows and stunning photos.  Just because you have access to a handful of strobes doesn’t mean you always need to use them.  Try some more simple approaches to lighting and modifying that single light, instead of using every tool in your toolbox.
Studio portraits can be some of the most complex shoots to setup, but also some of the most rewarding.  Hopefully these ten tips will help and inspire your photography and continue on the path of knowledge.


This post was written by Mike Panic for Light Stalking, a photography website dedicated to beautiful photography.



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