Learn how to manipulate light for the best portrait photography

What is portrait photography?

Portrait photography is the art of capturing the unique personality of a person using a camera. The skill of shooting the perfect portrait photo can sometimes be tricky and hard to achieve. 

Would you like to shoot great-looking professional headshots? In this article, you’ll discover some portrait photography tips to create stunning results. 

Head shot portrait
©karelnoppe photography_Portrait of a cute girl with a flower headband.

The above portrait was taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mark11 and a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS USM lens.

Shooting at  200mm with an aperture of f4 and a shutter speed of 1/500s. I also used a Canon Speedlite 470EX-A1 and the Godox softbox as a fill light.

Portrait Photography Techniques and Tips for Beginners

After more than 25 years of photographing people, I dare to say that my very first portrait photography tip is to master the light.

This applies to both natural and artificial lighting. Using the right light for each subject could enhance your portrait photos’ mood, colors, and visual impact.

Many amateur and beginner photographers don’t have access to expensive professional strobe lighting, but understanding natural light is a good starting point at first.

Natural light can be manipulated in many ways to create good-quality portrait photos. Recognizing a bad light situation on your subject could be even more effective.

My second portrait photography tip is to control your camera settings. Some basic settings could make a huge difference to get your desired results.

Other secondary aspects like backgrounds, props, clothing, poses, etc are important to achieve the desired portrait photo result.

I’ll discuss all these issues in detail down below with examples.

©karelnoppe Photography_Low key studio portrait of a seductive woman in black lace lingerie.

Understanding portrait photography lighting [ Color temperature ]

Color Kelvin  temperature chart
Color Kelvin temperature chart

If you’re looking for soft shadows and low-contrast outdoor portraits then shoot on cloudy days or in the shade.

These lighting conditions produce low color saturation and washed-out images. I’m not saying it’s bad for portrait photography, but you should be aware of the impact it has on your photos.

Cloudy daylight or shade has a color temperature between 6.000K  and 7.000 K approx. and will cast a blueish tone on your image.

The solution to this issue and to avoid unwanted tones is to set the correct white balance on your camera.

Most smartphones will correct the white balance automatically.

Setting the correct white balance manually before shooting saves time when editing multiple images.

If you’re looking for high saturation and vivid colors make use of direct light. When saturation increases the more pure the colors appear.

Depending on your intention almost any light source when used to your advantage will serve to light your images.

Mixing diverse light sources with different color temperatures is a creative way to create interesting images.

Electronic flashes and strobes light are normally calibrated for daylight with a temperature of 5.000 to 5.500 Kelvin and produce almost pure white light.

Some domestic light bulbs and led lights have more than enough intensity for satisfying portrait photography.

Their color temperature of 2.800k to 3.600k approx. could add some warmth to your portraits.

©karelnoppe photography_Low ambient light portrait.

The above picture was taken at home using a purple led light strip and candles. I used a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod and a nifty fifty Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens. The aperture was set at f1.8, the shutter speed at 1/80s, and the ISO 100.

Basic Portrait photography lighting 

Outdoor Lighting

The sun is the ultimate free light source to light your portraits. It’s also an ever-changing light that produces unique results depending on the time of the day and year.

In this picture, I used the sun as the only light source for saturated colors and strong enough to freeze the action. I used a 100mm lens with 100 ISO, an Aperture at f8, and a shutter speed of 1/1000s.  

©karelnoppe photogrpahy_Two kids holding hands running toward the sea.

Make use of reflectors to bounce sunlight and soften deep shadows. I use a 5-in-one reflector from both Lastolite, Neewer, and Manfrotto. These good-quality collapsable reflectors are travel friendly and best for outdoor shoots.

Blocking direct sunlight on your subject with the translucent diffusor creates a more homogeneous light with almost no shadows. This is a good technique to avoid overwhelming strong sunlight that will cause forced facial expressions on your model.

©karelnoppe photography_ Handsome boy next to a wooden fence on the beach.

In this image ( above) taken in the shade, I filled the shadow area with bounced light from a golden reflector. I avoided harsh direct sunlight on the boy’s face and corrected the blueish color tint of the shade.

On an overcast day, the clouds act as a huge diffuser that softens direct sunlight.

Diffuse light rays strike an object from many directions, eliminating deep shadows as shown in this outdoor portrait of two African girls on the beach.


Overcast day direct from camera After Photoshop edit

Overcast Outdoor Portrait

Another effective light source to soften deep shadows is electronic flash. For more dynamic results, I always separate the flash from the camera.


©karelnoppe photography_Two kids enjoying a day at the beach together.
©karelnoppe photography_Portrait of two young girls singing together at the lakeside.

I use the Canon Speedlite 470EX-A1 and Speedlite 600EX 11-RT with the Pocketwizard Flex TT5 transceiver and Pocketwizard Flex TT1 transmitter.

This controller and transmitter are used to control the off-camera positioning.

The perfect off-camera mount is a dedicated electronic flash with a Godox softbox and a Manfrotto tripod.

Other objects like white walls or any reflective surface could be used to your advantage to bounce light on your subject if you don’t have access to reflectors or diffusers.

Indoor Lighting

Continuous led and tungsten lights are more stable and easier to control. The biggest thief of sharpness is camera shake. Make sure to have enough intensity on your subjects to avoid camera shakes and blurry images.

A quick tip: The shutter speed setting on your camera should always be higher than the lens’s focal length.

Let’s say I’m using a 100mm lens on a full-frame DSLR camera. The lowest shutter speed setting with this lens should be 1/125 sec when handheld.

If you’re using a camera with a smaller APS-C sensor and a 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor the minimum shutter speed with the same lens should be at least 1/250 sec.

But even with these settings, other factors like trembling hands, heartbeat, or moving subjects can cause blurry and out-of-focus images.

©karelnoppe photography_Portrait of cute teenager playing guitar at home.

The cute teenager portrait was taken with a 100mm Image stabilized lens with an aperture set at f4 and a shutter speed of 1/125s. An off-camera electronic flash mounted with a 40x40cm softbox was used as a fill light.

A few ideas for better results are:

1. Use a steady tripod

2. A higher ISO gives more freedom to adjust shutter speed and aperture. ( Take note that higher ISO’s reduce contrast and adds more grain to your portraits).

3. Get your model closer to the light source if possible.

4. Use a lens with a wide aperture like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens ( Perfect for indoor and low light photography)

5. Use a lens with image stabilization.

What is Lens Image Stabilization and how does it work?

If the lens you’re using offers 2 stops of IS you’ll still get a sharp image at 1/125s instead of 1/500s compared to a lens without Image stabilization.

With a stabilized lens, a camera shake is detected by two gyro sensors inside the lens barrel, one for yaw (side-to-side movement) and one for pitch (up-and-down movement). The sensors detect both the angle and speed of the movement.

These “smart” lenses are a good investment for portrait photography.

Indoor Strobe and electronic flash Lighting

Indoor Strobe and electronic flash Lighting.

To achieve the best indoor portrait photos use dedicated electronic flash or studio strobe lighting.

These light sources have several advantages over continuous light:

1. Strobe lights are calibrated for daylight at 5.500k.

2. Strobe lights are more powerful than continuous light.

3. Strobe lights stay constant in power and color after each photograph.

4. Strobe lights allow shooting at higher shutter speeds ( freezing motion) without boosting higher ISO.

5. The ability to shoot handheld.

6. Strobe lights don’t emit heat on your subjects.


Elinchrom has an entry-level Strobe light D-LITE RX  kit with great performance.

In this beautiful portrait, I used a single Elinchrom D-LITE RX 400 with a Elinchrom 60x80cm softbox.

Low key Studio Portrait Setup
©karelnoppe photography_ Low light studio Portrait

©karelnoppe photography_ High key studio lighting setup against a white background

Best Camera Settings for Portrait Photography

This chart above shows how lens aperture and focal distance affect depth of field.

Telephoto lenses for portrait photography

What on earth is a Lens Bokeh?

The word comes from the Japanese word Boke which means “blur” or Haze”

Bokeh is the out-of-focus area of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens. This effect is common in portrait photography and easy to master.

To add the best bokeh effect to your portraits use a telephoto lens and a wide aperture.

In this image of a little princess in the woods, I used a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS USM lens at 200mm with an aperture of f4 and a shutter speed of 1/500s. I also used a Canon Speedlite 470EX-A1 and the Godox softbox as a fill light.

©karelnoppe photography_Little princess in the woods

Wide-open apertures are crucial to isolate the subject from its background. When shooting moving subjects the priority setting should be a fast shutter speed to avoid blurry images and camera shake.

Remember the quick tip: The shutter speed setting on your camera should always be higher than the lens’s focal length.

On occasions, I use a  Manfrotto monopod for extra stability.

Wide-angle lenses for portrait photography

Image distortion is the biggest drawback when shooting portraits with wide-angle lenses.

Taking a headshot with a 24mm lens will cause facial distortion. Getting too close to your subject will a wide-angle lens maybe not be the best idea.

Wide-angle lenses are not bad for portrait photography and can be used in many situations.

A 23mm wide-angle Fuji lens was used to capture this dynamic full-length beach portrait. The subject was almost 2 meters from the camera with no visible distortion.

The shot was taken with an aperture of f11 and a shutter speed of 1/1000s to freeze the action with the sun as the only light source.

I use wide-angle lenses for full-length portraits, group portraits, and situations where the background is almost as important as the subject.

©karelnoppephotography_ Girls jumping on beach_ Fuji 23mm at f11 and 1/1000s

Portrait photography tips on lighting physical features ( pleasing your models )


Avoid profiles of uneven noses. For short noses shoot from a slightly high angle. Raise key light to shorten nose shadow.


Lower key light to reduce shadows in the eye socket. For large eyes lower the camera and for small eyes lift the camera.


Round faces require short lighting. Increase the contrast ratio with the sides of the face in the shadow. For narrow faces reduce the lighting ratio. Use soft diffuse lightning


Shooting models with glasses are tricky. Use a higher key light angle and avoid direct harsh light.


Keep light off prominent ears, huge foreheads, or large noses.


Flat diffuse lighting works best to reduce wrinkles. Oblique and hard light emphasizes them.


Shoot chubby people from the side and skinny people from the front. Use general lighting to fill slim people and narrow lighting to slim plump people.

©karelnoppe photography_Hiking in the mountains.

Final thoughts for your next portrait shoot

Some people just have that “photogenic” or camera-friendly look!!

Taking portraits of people with little photographic value will push your skills to their limits.

Choosing the most suitable person is nº 1 on my list when planning a photo shoot. 50 % of a successful portrait is already gained when shooting a camera-friendly model.

The 2nd most important aspect is the lighting sources used to light your subject. Take special interest and plan your light sources before shooting.

Other secondary issues like props, backgrounds, clothing, makeup, and artistic intention are also important to make your portraits pop.

Last but not least try using a little bit of human touch.

Just a few positive words to uplift the state of mind of your model will lead to great portraits.

©karelnoppe photography_ African kid leaning on a wooden fence.

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