Lighting Options for Great Indoor Portraits

Photoflex Lighting School Lesson

Photographing children can be a daunting task. In this lesson, you will learn some basic strategies for getting your subject to interact naturally with the camera as well as using your Shoe Mount Flash to get more naturally lit portraits. 



This snapshot was taken with a point-and-shoot digital camera with the built-in flash enabled. Although this picture captures our subject in between dizzying spins on his kitchen floor, it mainly reveals drawbacks that professional photographers tend to avoid. 

It's important to consider every element of the frame when taking a portrait. The background, foreground, distance from the subject and balance and feel of the frame can make or break the image. As you can see, the composition in this image is fairly uninteresting. Overhead perspectives create unnecessary distance from your subject as you are litterally looking down at them and the unnatural quality of the built-in flash lighting creates a flat, dimensionally dull image.  

Camera Angle

If you have spent time with a three-year-old, you know that it's almost impossible to have them sit still for long, not to mention for a whole photoshoot. Photographing children when they are in one spot is your best chance at getting the shot. In this case, the energetic subject was limited to his high chair where his movement was limited. This photo-shoot provided us with some great morning sunlight coming in from an East-facing window, allowing a nice back light to illuminate our subject. 

Taking advantage of his sitting in one place, the first thing we did was change the camera angle. In this shot, we used a DSLR camera with a flip-out LCD, giving us the opportunity to shoot from a lower angle without having to crouch low, great for child portraiture! If you do not have a flip-out LCD camera, you will need to get down to your subjects level for a good shot. 

The first thing we decided to do was alter the camera angle. Here, we used an SLR camera that had a flip-out LCD, which allowed us to shoot from a low angle without having to crouch down low -- perfect for child portraiture. Alternatively, using a camera without this feature would require you to get down low with your subject.

We approached the subject and oriented the camera so that the background was the plain wall behind him. Once the frame looked right, we took the shot. 

Bouncing Sunlight

Although the resulting image was too dark in the facial areas of the subject, the rim light effect of the sun was very apparent with the dark wall behind him. In order to remove the dark tones from the subjects face, we bounced some of the sunlight into the shadow areas using the Soft Gold Side of a 32inch Photoflex® MultiDisc®. We attached the MultiDisc to a Photoflex® LiteDisc® Holder and then attached the LiteDisc Holder to a Photoflex® LiteStand and positioned it to the left of our subject. 

At this point, our subject was getting a little restless in his chair and, as you can see from the next shot, we had captured him in mid-squirm. With indoor, available light shoots, you are often limited to slow shutter speeds. These slow shutter speeds will most likely cause motion blur with any fast or sudden movement from the subject. As you can see below. However, we can note that our contrast ratios have vastly improved in the shot as we make the best use of the MultiDisc®.

Many people get tense or self-aware when there is a camera lens pointed right at them, whether for a moment or several minutes. This tension can be seen on the photographs causing awkward facial expressions and movements.  One commonly used method for relaxing photography subjects of all ages is to identify when your subject is getting tense or uncomfortable, ask them to close their eyes, relax their face and focus on something else. Let them know you will be waiting a few moments before asking them to open their eyes. Tell them that when they do open their eyes, they should look straight into the camera lens. You'll be surprised at how well this works. Mostly you will be able to captire relaxed, fresh facial expressions that seem spontaneous. 

In terms of the lighting, note how well the MultiDisc® fills in our subjects face with soft, warm light. One simple reflector will allow you to create nicely back-lit portraits in just a few minutes.  

ShoeMount Flash Lighting

If you don't want to depend on natural indoor light, which confines you to a slow shutter speed, it's time to remove the MultiDisc® setup and attach a Photoflex® StarFire™ to the camera. Once the flash was powered up and ready to go, we proceeded to adjust the power level in order to properly expose our subject. 

At this point in the shoot, we knew we had to keep our subject busy with an enjoyable distraction if we wanted to keep him in the chair longer. Our quick fix was to set up a laptop with his favorite DVD to keep him distracted. When working with younger subjects, this could be a great way of keeping them entertained during the boring process of camera set-up and light configuration. With the movie playing, the camera and flash ready, we shot wro more images without worrying about facial expression as we were looking to master the lighting set up first. 

As you can see above, this is a typical result from a on-camera flash. Light from the flash travels in approximately the same direction as the lens and it tends to flatten the shot's elements, making the sense of shape and dimension difficult to gauge. Other issues that can be seen right away are the sharp and unnatural-looking shadow cast from the chin as well as the tiny and inaccurately centered reflections in the eyes. Many of these negative results are unavoidable when using this type of lighting. 

Modifying Your Flash For Natural-Looking Results

Luckily, you can modify your flash's light to create much more natural results. Here, we took the camera, the Extra Small Wireless Kit, and a Photoflex® StarFire™ mounting it all to a flash bracket. 

To see this setup in more detail, check out Techniques for Softer Fill Flash

By the time we were done configuring the camera with the flash and SoftBox, our subject had quieted down and was content to continue watching his movie, affording us a couple of more shots in the same spot.  With the SoftBox attached, we moved in close to our subject, waited for the right smile and took the shot. 

The overall lighting for this image was quite satisfactory. The light rim around his hair, the soft and directional light illuminating his face and the brightness of his eyes made for a nice shot.  Additionally, the room was nicely illuminated with the MultiDisc® fill. The only missing component was having the subject looking into the camera rather than at the laptop. You really only have a small window before the excitement in the eyes of a child watching a movie turns into a glossy stare.

To avoid the glossy stare, we turned the movie off, talked about the movie highlights and asked him to close his eyes and think about a scene he had just watched in the movie. We moved in a little tighter, and when he opened his eyes, we took our final shot. 

If you're planning on doing a child portrait in the near future, remember to consider your location and time of day, get comfortable with your camera and lighting gear, keep an ongoing rapport with your subject while you are shooting, and most of all, have fun!

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