digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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How to Create a Dramatic Profile Portrait Anywhere Without Using Flash

Would you believe me if I told you this portrait was made in less than 10 minutes, in a classroom, during one of my courses? Well it was! I even have my students as witnesses, ask them or the model Jill if you still don't believe it.

My point is not to amazing you with my skills but to show you how you can do this too. You can create a stunningly dramatic portrait anywhere without using flash. Follow this tutorial to see how:

Step 1 – Get a willing subject to pose for you

In my case I was working with a professional model but it is key that you get someone who is patient to pose for you. As you're learning you'll likely fumble with camera settings and be a bit nervous or anxious yourself. Having a model or subject who is supportive and patient will help you relax and not feel like you have to rush. This is not a race, take your time and do things methodically.

Step 2 – Pick a location to do the portrait

Finding a location is easier than you think. There's no need to scour your city for special photography locations when your living room may work just fine. If you have windows in your house you can do this without stepping foot out your door. If you want the challenge of a place you're less familiar with, you could also travel to your model's home.

When you're scouting for the best spot at your chosen location look for large windows, that have indirect lighting. Meaning – the sun is NOT coming straight into the room. If it is, either pick another room, come back later in the day, or put up a white bed sheet to diffuse the light.

Step 3 – Do a test shot

Now is the time to put your model in place and do a test shot. For this demonstration I was showing my students how to do a profile portrait, this was the first one I took. There is no flash or any other light modifiers being used here, just the light from the windows in the room.

Profile portrait tips 750px 01
85mm lens (on full frame camera, use a 50-60mm on cropped), ISO 400, 1/125th at f/2.8 using a tripod

You'll notice a few things here. First, I'm clearly in a room with a lot of stuff on the walls and in the room so I have to work around that. You'll see in the next few images how I refine that as we go.

Second that the light on her is just okay, but not great. To make a dramatic profile portrait you actually want the light coming from behind your subject. This creates a more shadow on the side of their face toward you, and adds drama. In the next image you'll see how I've corrected that. Here is the lighting diagram for the image above.


Step 4 – Refine the lighting

When you are working with natural light, in this case from windows, you cannot move the light source. But you do have the ability to move yourself, and the model, which is exactly what I did here. I got her to switch places with me. This is the result:

Profile portrait tips 750px 02
ISO 400, 1/125th at f/2.8

Much better right? I also closed the blinds on the windows in front of her, which are beside and behind the camera angle. This created a situation where the light was only coming from the windows behind her creating the more dramatic lighting you see above.

Notice how more of her face is in shadows with only a small rim of light sort of outlining her face. This is a good thing! Shadows create depth and add shape and dimension to any image, portraits included. Shadows are your friend. See the lighting diagram below for subject, camera and window placement.


Step 5 – Adjust the composition

When your subject in a portrait is facing in one direction, it is usually better and feels more comfortable, to leave more space in front of them. Like they have space to look into or move forward. When they are in the dead center of the image it's a bit static and can feel awkward or even boring. Notice the small change in the image below. It's very subtle but she has room to look now.

Profile portrait tips 750px 03
ISO 400, 1/200th at f/2.8 (adjusted shutter speed as first exposures were too light)

Step 6 – Tweak the pose

You may think there isn't much to tweak or refine in a head shot pose, right? Wrong! How the body and arms are positioned makes a big difference. The only thing I changed in the image below is I got her to put her hand on her hip, which also caused her elbow to stick out. See how it gives the head shot more of a solid, wider base? Again subtle change to take it up a level.

Profile portrait tips 750px 04
ISO 400, 1/200th at f/2.8

Step 7 – Change the background

Next, is to get rid of a cluttered classroom background. I have two large round 5-in-one collapsible reflectors. I setup one with the black side, and had one of my students hold it up to actually become the background. If you don't have a reflector bring along a plain coloured dark bed sheet and figure out a way to rig it up as your background.

Get creative, try clothes pegs to hold it up, draping it over furniture, or any other DIY method you can think of to make it work. Make sure your sheet is as wrinkle-free as possible so the texture doesn't show up in the background. Also get it as far behind your subject as you can, that will help it be more out of focus. Using a large aperture (in this case f/2.8) like I did will help too.

Profile portrait tips 750px 05
ISO 400, 1/200th at f/2.8

The other thing to notice here is that I've got a second person holding up a gold reflector to add some light to her hair. This is called a hair light or rim light. It helps to separate her from the background. If your subject has dark hair it's even more important, otherwise they may blend right into a dark background. See diagram below for reflector placement.


If you don't have a gold reflector try making your own silver one out of poster board with some tin foil crinkled up and pasted over it – does the job! Prop it up or get a helper to hold it behind your subject on the other side from the windows. So if the windows are on your right as is the case here, the reflector will be on her left (from your position).

This is how it looks without the gold reflector on her hair. See the difference?

Profile portrait tips 750px 06b
ISO 400, 1/250th at f/1.8

Step 8 – Little details

You may also notice something else I fixed in the image above and below (same image). One of the things you need to watch for when doing a profile portrait is hair sticking out under the chin or nose, and being able to see the second eye. Take another look at the first image in Step 7 above, you can see both of those things.

So I got her to turn her head a tiny bit more to fix the eye showing issue, and tuck in her hair to make sure it wasn't growing out of her nose. Generally not something that is desirable. This is also a pet peeve of mine. Too many photographers will just say “I'll fix that later on computer”, which makes NO sense to me when it literally take about 10 seconds to fix in person. Why cause yourself more work later? Look for these little details and fix them when you're shooting and you'll automatically take your work up a notch.

Profile portrait tips 750px 06b
ISO 400, 1/250th at f/1.8

Step 9 – Try variations

There are two ways to do a profile portrait; with the body facing the camera or turned the other way. All the images so far have been with her facing the camera. To reverse it just get your model to rotate on their chair – always ask them to turn their knees as the body will follow automatically. Then get their face turned back the same direction to catch the light, essentially looking over their shoulder out the window.

Profile portrait tips 750px 07
ISO 400, 1/250th at f/1.8

Okay your turn

Now that you've seen the progression from my first test shot to the final dramatic portrait do you believe you can do this anywhere? So it's your turn to give it a try. Follow the steps and share your results and questions in the comments below.


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