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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  • Tino

    Darlene, thank you for the article – some really great technical information you have shared. I have noticed that you compensated light towards the model and nothing towards hiding your backdrop. If however you compensate overall light towards the backdrop (maybe 1 or 2 stops underexposed) you will find that the light reflecting off of the model is not as crisp as it is currently. Of course you can painstakingly remove the visible areas of the backdrop to retain the light quality on the model. Not sure but my experience suggests that the model were probably too close to the backdrop for whatever reason or you compensated for the model.

    The other area I find a little distracting is the Field of Depth you opted for in some of the photos. Glamour / Portraiture shots should have everything in focus of the model, especially the neck, unless you are trying to accentuate a certain part / area of the model.

    • Tino – again I’m not sure what you mean by “compensated light towards the model and nothing towards hiding your backdrop” – what does that mean? I just used the light from the windows falling directly on her.

      “If however you compensate overall light towards the backdrop (maybe 1 or 2 stops underexposed) you will find that the light reflecting off of the model is not as crisp as it is currently.” – can you explain what you mean by that? You mean if I had blocked some of the light falling on the background? What do you mean by the light being “crisp”? I’ve never heard of light described using that word – light is usually either hard or soft. Blocking some from the background doesn’t change the quality of light falling on the subject – that is directly from the size and distance of the light source, in this case large windows.

      “Not sure but my experience suggests that the model were probably too close to the backdrop for whatever reason” – yes it is close because the background is a 42″ round reflector. If I had moved it back any more I would have seen the edges of it and it wouldn’t have been a complete background. This was a quick and dirty example done in a classroom in 10 minutes and the point is to show what’s possible. If you read the tutorial I mention about moving the backdrop as far behind the subject as possible to make it more out of focus. As the light is coming from the side the background will receive the same amount of light as the subject – moving it back will not change that. But angling the background away from the windows will.

      “Glamour / Portraiture shots should have everything in focus of the model” – well actually the trend in portraiture is a very stylized look and having the body out of focus and the face sharp is very popular right now especially for weddings. Also keep in mind that shooting at f/2.8 the exposure was 1/200th. Changing to f/8 would require a shutter speed of 1/25th. In most cases that is fine and most people can sit still for that. But it would also put my entire background, wrinkles and all in focus. No, aperture and shallow depth of field is a preference not a rule and there is no “should” do anything it’s all about the intention of the photographer and the look they desire to create. I personally like this look.

      • Tino

        When it comes to photographing a woman, her neck is her most sensual body part between her shoulders and face. It is always in focus. If however you do a close up of a woman where the shoulders are barely visible you may choose to fade out the neck area and have full focus on the face only. But as you said, it is the photographers choice…. it does not mean the client will accept your choice, nor the industry for that matter.

        • Thank you for your opinion. In fact my clients DO like this look and do pay for it. Most clients do not look like the model here in this example and fading out of the body also helps minimize it. I let the light fade off too and take a slightly higher than eye level angle and it is very slimming and flattering to the average person.

          Sorry but frankly I don’t give a damn what “the industry” accepts, never did, not going to start now. I shoot for myself and for my subjects/clients and I suggest that anyone reading this do the same. Try not to match yourself up to some idealized version of what you are “supposed” to do according to the industry or anyone else. If you like it, and the person you’ve photographed likes is – that’s all that matters. There is no “should”

          As for “sensual” if photographing a woman CEO of a big corporation, is that really appropriate? I hardly think that is the look she’ll want to convey in her business portrait.

        • Blake Lewis

          Hi Tino. Don’t pay too much mind to Darlene, and try not to take what she says too serious. I find from history that she doesn’t take too kindly to any form of criticism. She’ll happily thank people for blind praise, but always seems to address other feedback with scorn and derision, as if she’s a combatant. It’s a fairly common approach from someone that’s an average photographer and used to getting praised for unremarkable work by people that don’t know better. As soon as someone offers something – even constructively – she reacts like she’s being attacked.

          • Lynne

            Blake Lewis, Darlene is definitely not average by any stretch of the imagination, and is such a polite, informative photographer and teacher, always willing to encourage, give constructive advice and share her experience and knowledge, often with humour, and she is ALWAYS encouraging!

          • Tino

            Lynne, as long as you sing Darlene’s praises she will carry you on her hands.

            To know a lot about a topic makes you an academic on the subject, not a professional in practice. Please keep that in mind next time.

          • If I’m not mistaken, Darlene has shot over 250 weddings as a professional photographer, has had her food photography used in magazines and If I’m not mistaken voted as one of three photographers of the year for Canada from a group of her peers, the professional photographers of Canada. Her skills as a photographer came first, her desire to teach to new aspiring photographers second. I could be wrong though. Feel free to correct me

          • Thank you for your comment. You and Tino are entitled to your opinions. I just don’t get why you read my site then if that’s what you think. Anyway, have a great day.

          • Tino

            No Darlene, it is not just Blake and I who are “allowed” to have our own opinion. In fact AND since your website is in the public domain AND since you have a “Subscribe” option, the entire world is entitled to its opinion. Besides that, you advertise yourself as a “Professional” photographer. Well, since I am an “amateur” I thought you could actually teach me something ALSO since you advertise yourself as a “Mentor” – well you almost failed. The only thing I learned here in the past few days is never to conduct myself in public in the manner you have done.

            What is most important, and something you should take to heart, is that when someone offers critique it is NOT a personal attack unless of course you either have an inferiority complex or you lie about your “professional” skill set. Frankly (as you put it) your public conduct is so not professional.

            Anyways, you have yourself a fantastic day.

          • Sandra Getuba

            Tino and Blake, dunno what the chip on your shoulders is but I think you are both way off the mark here. I was in the class where this photo was taken by Darlene and I walked away having learned a lot about creating dramatic photos using available light. I was able to implement what she taught right away in a shoot that I did the following week and it made a HUGE difference. Darlene is a wonderful instructor as well talented and accomplished photographer. Her work speaks for itself. Tino, like you, I am an amateur photographer and I find that being humble about not knowing much goes a long way towards my learning process. Maybe you can try that sometime.

          • It was a pleasure having you in my class Sandra, hope to see you again soon!

          • Tino

            Sandra, you seem like a very nice person and someone with a beautiful personality.

            Something that I am “blessed” with (feels more like a curse) is an eye for detail. I want to ask you this:

            What is wrong with the second image in Step 7 and the image in Step 8 ? There is nothing wrong with the image except both of them are identical although the description says that the one in Step 7 was with f/2.8 and the one in Step 8 was with f/1.8. I am very sorry to say but a full f-stop up/down does not produce an identical image.

            Darlene makes mistakes, sometimes basic mistakes, and when you point it out to her she sees it as a personal attack.

            (Don’t tell her I told you about the identical image)

          • Tino – I’m trying to be patient and gracious here but I’m just about out of patience. If you read the description the are different in that the second one in step 8 does not have the gold reflector on her hair. And her head is turned slightly so you cannot see the second eye and her eyelashes. Yes that image is there twice because it is showing a comparison of with the gold reflector and without.

            There was in fact a typo in the caption on the first one so I have corrected that now. I’m sure you’ll have something to say about how I’m incompetent on that too. Frankly it doesn’t matter.

          • Albert

            Tino, Your head seems so full of your own ego I am surprised you eyes work at all!!

          • Tino

            I don’t agree at all since I was the one who noticed the identical image. So, for my vision and brain function, it is still good…. how about yours, or are you having problems with both ?

          • Albert

            Well this clown (Tino) certainly should learn some manners! He states “The only thing I learned here in the past few days is never to conduct myself in public in the manner you have done.” He certainly appears to have done that. He is not behaving respectfully in public. He starts accusing someone else of not differentiating between comment and abuse and then carries out an obvious personal attack that can only be described as abuse.
            I’ve seen it before. Clowns that think by knocking points off someone else by attacking them, they will get the points. Of course they can’t argue about the subject as they know so little. They make a personal attack to try to undermine the mentor.

          • Tino

            You know Albert, my definition if a clown is someone (like you) who has a lot to say about something you know so little about. If only you took the time to brief yourself on the history of the entire discussion then maybe you will not be so forthcoming with showing how ill informed you truly are. The personal attack is in retaliation to the personal attack from Mrs. Hildebrandt. Instead of apologizing, she rather went and edited her post – says a lot whole about herself.

            Next time, if you wish to call me a clown make sure you have all the facts else you just make yourself look like an idiot whose ego might not affect his vision but the same can not be said for your brain function.

          • Tino

            Hi Blake. Thank you for your kind words, I thought I might have been a little sensitive towards Darlene’s conduct, but later realised it was not me being the overly sensitive one. I have unsubscribed from this website as it really does not offer me much in broadening my “amamteur” knowledge.

          • Blake Lewis

            Not a problem, Tino – you see how she thanks people that agree with her, and insults people that disagree with her? It’s a pretty common thing I’ve seen over the years when people learn to use an expensive camera and all their friends praise them. What it boils down to is someone buys a DSLR and gets half decent, then because all their friends are so busy telling them how amazing they are, they struggle to understand when other photographers tell them the truth. Next thing you know, you’ve got their friends all ganging up on you and insulting you on their behalf..

            Hell, in one of her earlier articles, she wrote about how using burst mode on a camera was basically cheating, and how ‘real’ photographers don’t use it. Bull! It’s a perfectly viable setting on the camera to use in situations that need it. In another one, she talked about ‘essential gear for travel’ and listed about $9,000 worth of kit that average people won’t use or need!

            I like to say that these people suffer from ‘Geddes Syndrome,’ after Anne Geddes, who is a very popular, but very poor baby photographer. Yet despite being very below average, people seem to still keep giving her money. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Chirag Rana

    Great article Darlene. The step by step progression helped me to understand it very well. The question I have is does it matter if I have APS-C and not the full frame camera? I have 85mn lens which I use with Canon 500D.

    • Tino

      Yes and No. 85mm might not work perfectly on your camera to maintain the aspect ratio of your subject, but 70mm could be just perfect. You have to test your camera vs your lens and find the “sweet spot” when doing portraiture. If you have a lens that is capable to 105mm and 135mm, you can try that lens with those settings. 70mm – 85mm, 105mm and 135mm are the most used when doing portraiture as they produce the best results. Even a 50mm (1.8) prime lens can produce absolutely fantastic results.

      • Hi Tino – sorry I’m not sure what you mean by “maintain the aspect ratio of your subject”. The model isn’t a rectangle like 4:3 I think what you mean is it will not distort perspective. Using a 105mm or 135mm on cropped sensor will mean you have to be quite a distance from the subject. If you are in a small room that may not be possible.

        • Tino

          My apologies for poor choice of words, translating to English does not always produce the desired expression. However your interpretation is perfectly correct – perspective was the word indeed.

          70mm – 80mm works great with a single subject however when you have more than one subject 70mm – 80mm leaves little room to work with. Also, the OP (Original Poster) was not very clear with regards to his question and without assuming of course I thought it best to provide him with other options other than just 85mm.

          • Thanks Tino

          • Just to note: we were not talking about group portraits here, and if I have enough room to use one and back up far enough – I will. It will likely be too long for most groups though – but if we take it in the context of the article this is a headshot.

    • Hi Chirag, please disregard Tino’s answer below which may confuse you even more. Yes you can use the 85mm on your APS-C sensor. The only thing is that on the cropped sensor it is like 1/5x roughly the focal length so it’s more like a 130mm and you will have to be farther from your subject. That is not an issue though – when I used to shoot with film 135mm was the standard portrait focal length most photographers used.

      But there is no right or wrong. The longer lenses provide more compression and will show less of the background. Anything over 50mm on your camera will work well. I often use my 200mm on full frame, so like I said there is no perfect choice.

      • Chirag Rana

        Hi Darlene – Thanks for the inputs. Now I understood the specifics of which lens will suite for portraiture. You gave perfect explanation. One another question I have is – I have volunteered to photo shoot in the event at my university. I am limited to gear. I have 18-55 mm lens and as mentioned earlier 85 mm. Do I need to purchase 50 mm f1.8 or 18-55 mm lens would suffice.

        • Hi Chirag – that really depends what you are shooting and if you can use flash or not. The 18-55mm have a smaller maximum aperture so it doesn’t do as well in low lighting conditions. If you are trying to shoot in ambient lighting you may find it challenging and need a high ISO to keep your images from getting blurry due to a slow shutter speed (as a consequence of the smaller aperture). So the 50mm f/1.8 is certainly an asset in situations like that. On a cropped sensor you may find the 35mm f/1.8 a bit better for events as it won’t be so tight on things in your shot.

          • Chirag Rana

            Thanks you so much Darlene. I was thinking of buying 50 mm f/1.8 but you are right for a cropped sensor 35mm f/1.8 is a better one. But again the cost factor comes into picture. For now I will have to settle down with 50 mm f/1.8. What do you think about the pancake lens (canon ef 40mm f/28 stm) or 50mm is better due to factor f/1.8 vs f/2.8 in 40mm?

          • I personally wouldn’t get the 40mm over the 50mm yes because of the aperture difference. If you can have both then maybe but the 40mm wouldn’t be my first choice.

          • Chirag Rana

            Thanks Darlene. This helps to narrow down the options for now. I will go with 50mm f1/8.

          • Cool!

  • Phacetious Plebbe

    Very good article. I was going to ask how you managed to get the black background when you showed what was your starting shot, but then you mentioned your student holding up the black background.

    From what you started with, to what you end up with, thank you for showing us that someone, with minimal effort, can create such a stunning shot. I will be making note, as you inspired me, after quietly reading your various posts, to start walking with my dSLR once more.

  • Karen Rog

    Thanks Darlene,
    Now you’ve given me the tools and confidence to try this myself. I was never sure where to start.

  • Ron Vandenbosch

    thanks for the article, its always a good read, cheers

  • Owen

    Hi Darlene, I enjoy your articles here and on DPS, however I am curious about the model position in relation to the window light. In an article and a video seminar Jerry Gehonas (positive I screwed the spelling of that) recommends for females that you turn their body away from the light and turn the face back towards the light to create shadow and the possibility of short lighting and overall slimming of the female form. I am curious as to your thoughts on this. I cannot argue that you had excellent results with your model placement it appears from the diagrams that the models body is facing the light versus being turned away from it, I am not being critical in any way. I shoot primarily flash portraits but am working on my knowledge of natural window light. Did you place the model in this manner due to it being a head shot, profile portrait, or purely artistic choice. I am trying to learn as much as I can and would value your thoughts on the subject. Thank you for your time and your articles.

    • Hi Owen – actually I recommend the SAME thing he says! But when you’re doing a profile it’s near impossible for her to turn her body 180 degrees like a pretzel so her torso is facing away from the light while the face is toward the light. Just isn’t humanly possible. However, in this instance my model’s body is facing slightly away from the light. It’s facing the camera directly but the light is coming from her left behind her. Does that help?

      • Owen

        It does help. Thank you. Sometimes the diagrams make it visually difficult to work my way through all the different possibilities. Thank you for your time in answering my question.


  • Hi Jerry – use your camera meter as usual to determine the exposure. I set my ISO fairly low because I was using a tripod, but not as low as 100 because I wanted to maintain a decent shutter speed. Then from there you decide what aperture you want to use based on depth of field. I chose a large one to have a shallow depth of field to help make the background more out of focus. The shutter speed is the last piece and your camera meter will tell you what it should be. Use your histogram to tell you if you have a good exposure. Does that help?

  • dave riddell

    Darlene – I have just accidentally stumbled across your blog. As a beginner, this article is better than excellent for me. What makes it particularly helpful is that not only did you list the stages to obtain the final image but you detailed the thinking that went into each incremental progression (and hints like he one eye only etc ..).

    I like your emphasis on getting the image correct vs post production but I’m curious, how much retouching/other did you do?

    Thanks, Dave (Australia)

  • 100God

    wonderful read as always….

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