For me, a strong, mood provoking portrait comes down to a number of different elements all coming together at once. You need good lighting contrast, colors with tones that complement one another, good skin textures, and a level of expression from the model that captivates a viewer’s interest.

The key though is to join all these facets without overdoing it with either your styling or lighting. So in this article I am going to take you through my approach to setting up a portrait, the considerations I make, and how I set things up on a recent portrait shoot, which I will show a few images from below.

So let’s start with lighting. A good portrait means that you don’t have too much light filling in all around the subject in order to avoid flattening out the shadows too much. Ideally, the best portraits have more shadow than not, which adds mystery and suspense to the composition. So my approach is usually to just use one main light source.

In the case of the 3 shots below, I had only one light with a large 100 CM squared soft box placed to my right (model’s left). I brought the softbox as close to the model’s face as possible, but without allowing it to enter the frame. The closer the softbox is to the subject, then the better the diffusion of the light will be thus, resulting in softer light with less reflections and hot spots appearing on the model’s skin.

I then added in a second light behind the model to my left (model’s right) for a touch of soft backlight. For this I used a 120 CM long strip-softbox to give me more of a long narrow beam of light covering her upper torso from behind. The purpose of the backlight is not to create a strong rim light or fill light that distracts the viewer from the subject’s face, but just to add a hint of soft lighting onto the dark side of the model.


I try and make this backlight barely noticeable and so I don’t even really count it as a light source. But it is particularly important to have it there if your subject has dark skin or your using a dark colored backdrop. The backlight also provides some separation between the darker edges of a subject and the background, which makes it quite useful on one-light portraits. Without it, on the darker side of the subject, you could have too much darkness otherwise (depending on the color and type of lighting being used for the backdrop).

As for the backdrop lighting itself, sometimes I don’t add any light to the backdrop at all for moody portraits like these. But in this case I did want a bit of a color gradient going across the backdrop. So I set up a light at the top right hand corner of the frame to create a bit of a bright spot on the backdrop just slightly above the model’s head.

The light you see on the backdrop may appear as if it is light spill coming from the softbox I was using to illuminate the model’s face, but the truth is the softbox was too far away from the backdrop to add any noticeable light to it. So I had to use a separate light source for the backdrop in this setup.

I could have also had that light gradient coming onto the backdrop from the backside of the model instead, but I wanted the bright gradient of light to enter the frame from in front of the model. This was just a subjective choice of course. Many people prefer to have a spot of light in the center of the backdrop instead to create a glow around the subject and dark vignetting at the edges of the corners. I find that traditional style of backdrop lighting too predictable though and I rather have my light gradient running from one side to another. Again, just a subjective choice.


So in this setup I used a 3rd light for the backdrop as I mentioned, positioned it high above the model’s head to my right and pointed it directly at the upper corner of the backdrop using a grid modifier over the light to create a more focused beam in just one small area.

The next question is styling. I think always good to keep it simple. Less is more. Headbands can be nice for women sometimes and can add an element of exotic ethnicity. Also, I think showing more of the model’s skin other than the face is nice too. So I like to bring in some shoulders and arms for female portraits. Other than that, I didn’t really want anything else in the photo. Maybe just some colorful fashion jewelry. This is my point about keeping it simple.

For colors, I find that a dark gray backdrop gives a nice, rich feeling to studio portraits. I tend to stay away from colorful backdrops, unless you are going for a glamour look, which obviously I wasn’t. White is too bright and takes away from the intent on the images being atmospheric. And black is just too dark. So dark gray in my opinion is your best bet. A good classy and clean balance that matches with just about any color of makeup or clothing you might be shooting with.

With this particular model, I wanted colors that would contrast well against her dark skin tones and make her facial features stand out. It is also much easier to create nice contrast against dark skin tones using rich colors than it is with lighter skin tones. I also wanted a fairly natural looking makeup approach with just some basic powder to smooth the skin. So very little color added to her face except for the light purple lipstick which gave some strong color pop to her lips. Added to that, the dark red headband, and use of the beads, it all matched well together and helped set it off.


Hands are also a very important element for portraits and, if you can bring them into the portrait in a meaningful way, they can really add to the strength of your image.

Eyes are of course the strongest point of communication to convey the subject’s emotions in a portrait, but hand gestures are also a strong mood inducing extension of the body. So by adding in the beads it also offered a reason for me to add in some hand placement into the compositions.

A few other considerations are things like having smiles or no smiles. Smiles are of course nice and happy and make people appear warm and approachable. But I also like to mix in some shots without smiles, shots both looking at the camera and looking away to again add some mood and mystery to the model’s appearance.

Vertical framing is usually the best orientation for portraits, but one can also mix it in with some horizontal compositions showing partial head crops, a bit of shoulder, and with the model framed by applying the rule of thirds.

As for post processing, I tend to do as little as possible. I remove any obvious skin imperfections and that is about it. I also don’t sharpen the image except for the eyes and sometimes the lips. This helps to bring out just the important features of the model’s face and avoids making the skin too sharp.

On this series my only regret is the overuse of hand gestures and distracting beads on the wrist in the third image above. If I did it all over again I may have had her only place one hand on her chest or none at all.

So that about covers it and I hope you enjoyed this article. Keep your portraits simple and don’t over think your setups. And as always, please feel free to post any questions or comments below.