Whether you are a seasoned, novice or hobbyist photographer, it is likely you have spent time gazing at a compelling and emotive portrait, mesmerized by both the expression and the technique used to capture it. History is replete with photographers that have managed to stun and awe us with their portraits, be it the American photographer George Hurrell’s photographs of Hollywood movie stars, Steve McCurry’s iconic “Afghan Girl” shot, or Albert Watson’s black and white portrait of Steve Jobs.
Shooting portraits can seem like a daunting task. And if the process is happening in a studio - which is often the case with client-sponsored portrait and headshot photography - it adds more layers of complexity. A multitude of elements need to come together to produce a great studio portrait. Good light and good location are the most important prerequisites, but the list of to-dos doesn’t end here. Photographers must also focus on the camera settings, backdrop, composition and technique, among other things.
This article provides a handy guidebook of what it takes to execute successful photoshoots in a studio. Photography beginners will also find helpful takeaways on how to set up a studio in the comfort of their own homes for a range of budget considerations.
Here are a few great tips for shooting awesome studio portraits:
- Set a Goal
- Pick the Right Location for Studio Portraits
- Understand Photography Lighting Basics
- Types of Lighting Techniques
- Opt for Lighting set-ups
- Shooting Studio Portraits in Natural Light
- Using Light Modifiers for Studio Portraits
- Select a Backdrop for Studio Portraits
- Pick the Right Camera Equipment
- Choose the Right Camera Settings
- Create Strong Compositions
- Clothing - What to Wear for Studio Portraits
- Establish a Connection with your subject
1. Set a Goal
If you are planning to build a home photo studio, the first step is to figure out the type of shoots you would like to offer to prospective clients. Studios can cater to diverse needs, from personal portraits and professional headshots for corporate websites, social media profiles and speaking engagements, to family, wedding, baby and pet shoots. Your target clientele will also help in determining the appropriate set-up - and investment - required to create your dream home studio, including the location, equipment, backdrop and lighting.
2. Pick the Right Location for Studio Portraits
Finding the right space for the studio is undoubtedly one of the most important factors for long-term success for a photographer interested in portraitures. Here are some questions to help you build the perfect home studio. Is the space big enough for walking around, operating as well as storing all the equipment? By some estimates, a photography studio should be at least 625 square feet, while the ideal size could go up to 1,250 square feet. Does the room have windows that offer ample natural light? While good studio portraits require the use of artificial light sources, window light, especially sunlight, will do wonders once you position the subject and camera in the right spot.
3. Understand Photography Lighting Basics
We now come to the holy grail of good studio portraits. Mastering the art of lighting is necessary for all varieties of portraits. The play of light and shadow, when executed correctly, will not only help bring out your subject’s most striking features; it will also showcase your creative skills to prospective clients. Depending on the type of portrait you are shooting - and the intended outcome - a range of lighting considerations need to be made.
4. Types of Lighting Techniques
There are several types of lighting set-ups that you can experiment with while taking portraits in a studio. This is especially true if you’re going for a more dynamic look. Butterfly, or paramount lighting (named after the iconic Hollywood studio) is a commonly used technique, which, as the name suggests, creates a butterfly-shaped shadow right below the subject’s nose. This can be achieved by keeping the light directly angled to the subject’s face. Then there is loop lighting, another flattering lighting pattern, which creates a circular shadow below the nose. To do this, the light is kept towards the side and pointed slightly downwards towards the subject. Other techniques include Split lighting, Rim lighting, Rembrandt lighting and Broad light.
5. Opt for Lighting set-ups
Depending on the assignment, your photography style, budget and the studio space, you could opt for a basic or advanced lighting set-up. You could achieve desirable effects by using just one light and a reflector. If you’re comfortable with more complex lighting techniques, three-point lighting is a standard professional lighting approach. It involves three light sources: key light, which is your primary light that will brighten up your subject’s face; fill light, which is used to fill in any dark shadows created by the key light; and backlight, which is used to create an outline of light around the subject’s head. How you position each of these three lights will determine the sense of dimension and depth that will get created on the subject. Our article on tips and ideas for great silhouette photography might give you some inspiration for your next shoot!
6. Shooting Studio Portraits in Natural Light
For more flattering portraits, light emanating from a window should not beam directly at the subject. Instead, experts suggest positioning the subject at a 45 to 90-degree angle from the window. Depending on the time of the day, the window lighting might be sufficient to light up the subject’s entire face, or only a portion. Light modifiers can be used to lighten up any shadows or low-light areas on the face.
7. Using Light modifiers for Studio Portraits
Several type of light modifiers can be used to compensate for natural light in a low-lit studio. Reflectors, a popular studio photography accessory, help bounce light onto the subject. They can also change the color and tonality of the portrait. There are different reflectors that serve different functions and lighting goals. Gold reflectors cast more of a warm glow, and are ideal for using during sunsets. They’re usually better suited for darker-skinned subjects because of the bronzing effect that they create.
Silver reflectors have a more cooling effect on the subject and help in creating a more neutral tone. White reflectors result in creating a soft, natural look, while black reflectors are used when the goal is to create more dramatic, high-contrast portraits. Reflectors also come in varied shapes, but the circular one remains the most commonly used option. It is recommended to place the reflector either on the opposite side of the primary light source or at an angle to the subject. Depending on your budget, reflectors can be either held in hand, or mounted on a stand. Meanwhile, photographers looking for more budget-friendly ideas, or ones who do not want to use too much lighting equipment, could also use sheer curtains to diffuse the harsh sunlight coming in from the window to create a more soft tonality.
8. Select a Backdrop for Studio Portraits
Having a plain wall is one of the safest backdrops for studio portraits. It doesn’t provide any distractions and allows the viewer to focus entirely on the subject. However, the decision to opt for a light or dark backdrop depends on the type of portrait you want to shoot. A dark backdrop results in more artistic and dramatic portraits. If you’re setting up a home photography studio, you could also use a plain-colored bedsheet or a curtain as a backdrop.
9. Pick the Right Camera Equipment
If you have the budget to buy or rent new camera equipment make sure to carefully pick the most appropriate lens for portrait photography. Experts typically advice using prime lens for studio portraits since they have a larger aperture. They are helpful in low-lit studios and they also create a more softer focus, compared to the zoom lens. They also result in minimizing distortion and improve the sharpness of the portrait. Besides, you can always physically move closer to the subject to get the desired composition in a controlled environment instead of having to rely on a camera’s zoom button. Prime lens of different focal lengths, from 35mm to 85mm, depending on the type of blurring effect you want in the background, can be used to shoot portraits.
Many photographers also prefer taking handheld shots because they can freely move around the subject. But mounting the camera on a tripod will guarantee a more sharp portrait. Using a tripod has other advantages as well. It’s must-have equipment in an extremely low-lit studio that has no windows. There are a range of tripods available in the market, from table tops and medium-sized tripods to specific tripods designed for studio use.
10. Choose the Right Camera Settings
Like in almost all other photography scenarios, studio portraits should be typically taken with your camera on manual mode so that you have full control over all the settings. Set your ISO on the lowest level possible, since the studio would have sufficient external lighting, either through natural window light or artificial light sources.
Depending on the camera you are using, you could use opt for a 100, 160, or 200 ISO. This will help you avoid grain and noise in the photos. The shutter speed should not be set too low - 1/125, 1/160 are some commonly used settings for studio portraits. The aperture depends on a range of factors, including your lighting set-up, the number of light sources available, whether you’re taking a portrait of a single person or a group, and the type of background focus you want.
A wide aperture ranging from f/2 to f/4, if you want a shallow depth of field and a blurred background so that the subject stands out. Use a narrower aperture like f/8 or f/11, on the other hand, would create a more wide depth of field and there will only be a slight blur and most of your shot will be in sharp focus. Focal length should also be less, since studios are controlled spaces that allow you the freedom and flexibility to move close to the subject. Depending on the size of the studio, you could opt for a focal length between 70-135 mm, or even go unto 200mm. Use single-point focus to avoid poorly-focused portraits that are incredibly challenging to fix on the editing table. Try to focus your shot in a way that places the most emphasis on the eyes. Don’t forget to do a custom white balance before each shot.
And lastly, make sure you are shooting in RAW so that you have uncompressed files that are easier to edit. Consider these camera settings as just some successful tried and tested approaches. You should experiment with different aperture, shutter speed and ISO combinations to get the best creative studio portrait.
11. Create Strong Compositions
Studio portraits typically have a tight framing, but that does not mean you cannot infuse some creativity in the poses and composition. Depending on the desired outcome, you could do black and white, or color portraits. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, is known for his iconic black and white portraitures in the 20th century. While most portraits involve the subject looking directly into the camera; you could also take a few shots when the subject is looking sideways for a more ambiguous effect. You should also click across the range of emotions being displayed by the subject so that you can capture a range of facial expressions. Depending on their personal comfort, you could either have them stand or sit on a chair or a stool. Here are 12 amazing photography compositions tips and techniques for your next shoot!
Do check out this Pixpa article on some of the best photography poses. While there are a range of compositions you can play around with to get the perfect studio portrait, with the rule of thirds being the most commonly used technique, be sure to photograph your subject at their eye-level. The eyes are one of the most important aspects of a portrait - and viewers should be able to gaze directly into the subject’s eyes. The subject should also be advised to bring their head slightly forward and down, which will result in a more flattering chin in the portrait. Finally, experts typically recommend that the shot should be framed in a way that the top of the subject head is not cut off from the portrait. For more ideas, do check out 15 top tips to master the art of taking stunning portraits.
12. Clothing - What to Wear for Studio Portraits
What your subject is wearing will also impact the outcome of the portraits. Most photographers recommend clothes without any patterns, stripes or whacky colors that will distract the viewers’ attention away from the subject’s face. Having the subject wear muted colors will also help avoid jarring contrast with the portrait’s backdrop.
13. Establish a Connection with Your Subject
None of the above techniques will work if you don’t have a rapport with your subject. Portraits can be an overwhelming and intimate experience for subjects, so it is your job as the photographer to make them feel as comfortable as possible before the shoot begins. A relaxed body language will result in more natural, authentic portraits. Do not start photographing as soon as your set-up is complete. Spend some time talking to the person and ask some ice-breaker questions to build a connection. Do not stop yourself from giving as much direction as possible to your subject, both before and during the shoot. You could give them suggestions on posing techniques. Here are some unique male model poses that you can use for your next shoot. Subjects often struggle with knowing what to do with their hands when their photograph is being taken, so offer some guidance on how to comfortably position their hands to relax their posture.
Depending on the type of portrait being taken, prepare a list of questions in advance. Do some research in advance to know more about your subject, especially if you are photographing someone famous. For example, ask your subject to think of the most important person in their life, and maybe share a little about that bond. You could also ask them to talk about their passion or their professional accomplishments. Finally, also maintain eye contact with the subject. Here are 10 innovative ideas for taking great self-portraits. It will make an excellent creative exercise to try out something new! When the Scottish photographer Watson was photographing Steve Jobs in 2006, for example, he is reported to have asked the Apple co-founder to imagine a scenario in which he was facing a 3-4 people who disagreed with him, although Jobs knew in his head he was right.
Do check out these articles on photography
Successful studio portraiture is as much about using the right techniques as it is about your own creativity and perspective as a photographer. As Hurrell famously said: “It’s all so simple. No one believes me … you strike a pose, then you light it. Then you clown around and get some action in the expressions. Then, you shoot.”
Indeed, there are no cardinal rules in photography, but every decision you make on these 13 aspects of studio photography will impact the final outcome and ensure that the portrait captures the essence and personality of the subject. Check out some of the best portrait photography portfolio examples built with Pixpa, to get some more inspiration for your next big portraiture assignment.
These photographers have made excellent use of Pixpa, an easy-to-use website builder to showcase their photos. You can draw inspiration from these creative professionals and study their portfolios, to get a clearer idea of how you want to showcase your repertoire of work.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the primary light used in studio portrait photography?
One of the most common lighting setups used for studio portrait photography is three-point lighting, which is a standard professional lighting approach. It involves three light sources: key light, which is the primary light that will brighten up your subject’s face; fill light, which is used to fill in any dark shadows; and backlight, which is used to create an outline of light around the subject’s head.
How much should I pay for a portrait session?
A studio photography portrait photoshoot usually starts at $100 to $300 per hour depending on their skill level.
How do you take studio headshots?
Usually a good studio headshot is an image from the shoulders up against a plain background, looking directly into the camera, with good lighting that lights up the subject's face.