My 18 Favorite Portrait Photos & How I Created Them

Oct 25 2011

lovely Siri, not the iOS Siri ;)

Beautiful Siri. Canon 5DMKII + 85mm f/1.8, 1/60, f/2.5, ISO 100.

I use cheap and simple set-ups for my portraits. You can achieve most of these looks with one or two flashes ($350), some Alien Bees Cyber Sync wireless triggers ($120), a basic umbrella kit ($70), a foldable disc reflector ($40) or foam core boards ($2), and some coloured gels ($10). While some of these were taken with my pro-level Canon 5DMKII ($3500), many were taken with my old entry-level dSLR, the Canon Xti/400D ($350). You can take amazing portraits with any camera, the key is great lighting. Here are 18 of my favourite portraits and the details on how I shot and lit them:

For the above outdoor shot of Siri (the model, not your iOS girlfriend), I used a basic 2 flash set-up to liven up a dull location. I lit her face with one 580EX flash shot through an umbrella directly in front of her about 3 ft away. To fill the shadows on the lower right side of her face, I used a silver reflector to bounce the light from the flash. The second 430EX flash was shot camera left behind her to light her hair. The flashes were triggered wirelessly with the Alien Bees Cyber Syncs.

Nicole's Baby Blues

Nicole. Canon 5DMkII, 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/80, f/2.2, ISO 100.

This was my very first shoot with my new 5DMKII. I photographed Nicole in a bus stop as it was getting dusky. Not the most glamorous location, but I noticed that the lights of the cars driving were making lovely bokeh circles in the background. I used a simple one flash set-up: One 580EX flash, shot through an umbrella above and slightly left of camera about 3 ft away from her face. The closer the light source is to the subject, the softer the light. Using a shoot through umbrella also gives a lovely catch light in your subject’s eyes. If you are not a fan of the reflection of the spokes you can always clone them out in Photoshop.

AJ vintage

AJ. Canon 5DMKII + 85mm f/1.8, 1/200, f/2.0, ISO 100.

I used one of my favourite, easy set-ups on this shoot with singer, AJ. She was back lit with the sun through a large open window which gave her a natural hair light and a single strobe was shot through a large umbrella on 1/16 power to fill her face. The background was blown out and bokeh’d which I really like for this look. I used Photoshop to create a faux vintage cross-processed look. Click here for a video tutorial on how to create a similar look.

*i found you*

Kara. 5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/200 @ f/2.8, ISO 100.

This shoot was quite experimental. I wanted to completely blow out my background and create lens flare that wrapped around my subject. I used back lighting with a bare strobe (580EX) at 1/16th power directly behind Kara slightly to the right. I played with different camera positions to get the extreme lens flare that I wanted. This shot was a bit of a happy accident because the placement of the lens flare was difficult to predict. To balance the light on her face, I placed a 430EX directly in front of her about 2 ft away & diffused the light through an umbrella. This was shot at a very wide aperture (f/2.8) so I had to make sure to get my focus tack sharp on her eye, as everything else was out of focus.

Kylee Epp Promo Shot

Lovely Kylee. Canon 85mm f/1.8.

This summery outdoor shot was backlit with the sun and then lit from the front with a 430EX flash with a 1/4 CTO gel (orange to give the image warmth) which was shot through a 52 inch umbrella at 1/4 power and triggered using a more expensive wireless trigger, the Pocket Wizard Plus II. If you want to go with the Pocket wizards, the gold standard of wireless triggers, but way more expensive than the Alien Bees, I suggest getting 2 FlexTT5s. They are the most versatile and can be used as both a transmitter and a receiver.

Stunning Shauna

Shauna. Canon Xti, 24-105 f/4.0 lens, 88mm, f/5.0, 1/200, ISO 100

This girl could be a CoverGirl. She was so natural and comfortable in front of the camera. Working with a great model makes a photographer’s job so much easier. She was backlit by sun with a 580EX shot through large umbrella 10 degrees to the right to fill. I shot this at f/5.0 which is slightly higher than I normally shoot at because I wanted to make sure I had sharp focus of her entire face and hair.

*eyes wide shut*

Bella. Canon 5DMKII + 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/125, f/2.8, ISO 100.

I actually shot this photo through a glass window, so it has a slightly hazy appearance. I used two off-camera strobes: One behind the subject (bare) lighting the background, one in front with a shoot-through umbrella).

*Runaway*

Taravat. Canon 5DMKII + 85mm f/1.8, 1/125 @ f/3.5, ISO 100.

My model was freezing during this wintery shoot, so we huddled in a back alley. I was almost ready to give up on the shoot because there was no light. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car coming slowly towards us. I asked Taravat give me a lost/mysterious expression and I snapped this. I lit her with a very simple set up: One 430EX flash shot at 1/8th power shot through an umbrella.

*i don't love you anymore*

Katherine. Canon 5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/500 at f/5.0, ISO 100.

Sometimes all you need is magic hour natural light & white reflector. Easy peasy. I experimented with faux Redscale processing in post to give it a distinctive look and without the processing the background was lacklustre and uninteresting.

light in love

AJ. Canon 5DMKII + 85mm f/1.8, f/2.0, 1/80, ISO 100.

This was actually the first test shot of a shoot with lovely AJ. I was figuring out my camera & flash settings and the flash was dialed up too high so it blew out the top corner of the shot. I used a bare flash at 1/4 power, positioned behind her head, slightly right, triggered with Cyber Syncs. I am definitely breaking the cardinal rule of exposure, but I feel like it works here. It’s is blown out & harsh, yet blurry & soft. The subsequent shots weren’t nearly as interesting, and ultimately the artist chose this shot. Rules in photography are great guidelines, but as an artist you can chose to break and bend them to suit your vision. Plus, who doesn’t like breaking rules?

Beautiful Shauna

Shauna. Canon XSi, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.5, 1/200.

I positioned Shauna so she was backlit by sun creating a nice hair light. I use this technique again and again. Backlight the subject with the sun, front fill the face with soft, even light from a strobe and a shoot through umbrella. For this I used a 580EX shot through umbrella 30 degrees to the right to fill. The 85mm f/1.8 lens creates really nice bokeh in the background.

Stephanie

Stephanie. Canon Xti + 85mm f/1.8, 1/125 at f/4.5, ISO 100.

This outdoor dusk shot was lit with one 580EX 1/4 power shot through umbrella above & slightly to the right of Stephanie.

Jay

Jay. Canon 5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/200 at f/4.0, ISO 100.

Again, the same easy one strobe set up: a 580EX shot through a large umbrella about 2ft from Jay’s face. Getting the light source close to your subject is the key to nice even, soft lighting. If you don’t have a flash, you can achieve a similar effect using a white bounce or foam core board that you can pick up in any craft store for $2. Just reflect the light source evenly on the subject’s face.

franziska's rainbow eyes

Franziska. Canon Xti (400D) + 50mm f/1.4

Another shot without any flashes. I was a bit nervous using stands and flashes around a pool and I had enough light to go without, so I just used the soft magic hour light and a silver bounce. If you shoot an hour before sunset you get beautiful light without any harsh shadows. You have to be quick though, it only lasts about 45 minutes!

Bella & Bokeh

Bella. Canon XSi, 50mm f/1.4, 1/80, f/2.0, ISO 100.

I wanted to try a moody night shot with city light background bokeh, so I set up a cool strobey night shoot with model Bella on my apartment balcony in Vancouver. I used a 430EX shot on full power shot through window with blinds closed, camera left to hit the side of her face and body. Another 580EX at 1/4 power shot through umbrella held 50cm in front of Bella’s face by my assistant. Both strobes triggered with Alien Bees CyberSync Triggers.

Pete Cashmore

Pete. Canon 5DMKII +85mm f/1.8, 1/200 at f/3.5, ISO 100.

I coaxed my more famous half, into being photographed with the same one strobe set-up I’ve been using during the windy, rainy spring months: A 580EX shot set on M at 35mm, 1/8th power, shot through umbrella placed directly infront approx. 2 ft. away. I added a lot more contrast and the blue background colour (previously boring and grey) through post-processing.

*beauty*

Siri. 5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/125, f/2.5, ISO 100.

This final shot uses those little coloured gels I mentioned. I used a 580EX shot through umbrella directly infront of Siri and a 430EX flash with full CTO gel (orange) shot behind Siri, camera left to light her hair. I held a silver bounce infront and below of Siri, slightly right of camera to fill her face. The bokeh in the background is actually rain being lit by the flash. And yes, she was very cold!

I hope this helps inspire you to take some amazing shots! Once you figure out a few simple lighting techniques, you’ll be on your way to creating beautiful portraits. Feel free to share your shots below :)

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35 Responses to “My 18 Favorite Portrait Photos & How I Created Them”

  1. Love your work Lisa. These images all speak “beauty” yet have a down to earth, “realistic” tone. Keep ‘em coming!!

  2. Great post. It’s amazing what can be achieved with simple flashguns and a good helping of creative talent! Lovely images.

  3. Flash and portrait work is something I have yet to do myself. Part of the reason is I don’t have any flash equipment to do it yet. It also intimidates me some, though that is probably because I’ve never tried it before. I like reading blogs like this because it helps me understand how to do it when I finally get around to doing it myself.

  4. Lisa some people are gifted with the talent of taking good photos and some people are gifted with the ability to use the camera to see the beauty on the other side of the lens and you definitely have that gift. Your photos capure the soul and pure essence of the person in the picture and this is such a hard thing to capture. Beautiful I just love them.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Cheers Pam Brossman

  5. Great tips!! I’ve been wanting to experiment with the little gels you were talking about!! Love the different effects you can get!! Thanks for the great info!! REally found it helpful and can’t wait to see more :)

  6. Great inspiring shots and love the fact that you share such details on how you made those great photos. I will put my 85mm to use this weekend.

  7. Lovely pics

  8. Would love to see some of your work in Black and White

  9. Awesome pics, I could only dream of creating art like this.
    I have one observation, almost all are in the right side of the frame and almost all are looking over their left shoulder. do you tend to favor that in most of your shots?

  10. Nice work (as usual)!
    Btw it miss a +1 button at the end of your posts, I find it really usefull. For a Web & App expert like you, it will be nothing to do ;)

  11. Does anyone professional out there ever use anything other than Canon?

  12. Lisa you make it looks so easy but then again you are a topclass photographer. Great tips and ideas i hope to put to good use real soon.

  13. Lisa, I love your portrait work. I stumbled on your site as I was surfing through my Google+ feed.

    Beautiful…

  14. nice shoots i like that

  15. I love your approach and simplicity! One of the few benefits of digital (yes, I’m an old guy!) is the instant feedback and Photoshop! So cumbersome to carry all that equipment when all you need is a flash and a reflector. I’m glad you’re not afraid to use PS and make a few corrections. Although, a lot of your models don’t need a lot of correcting!

    Thanks for sharing the tutorial – I’ll definitely subscribe to your blog!

  16. Victor Zhyla , Vyborg October 30th, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Hi, Lisa extraordinary! I admire thy picture. I-just an amateur. In addition kompatnogo Pentax had a mobile phone Nokia X6 with a 5 megapixel lens .. Often fotorgafiroval and some pictures I liked .. What posovetuyush buy-what kind of iPhone (with the lens is equal to or greater than 5 M) …

  17. Dear Lisa,
    Thank you for sharing your amazing work and providing all the additional technical info. You have a distinctive style and simplistic approach to portraiture which complements each and every person you photograph. It was pleasure meeting you at the photo expo in NYC!

  18. Wonderful shots! The technical details, tips and tricks you give are invaluable. I’m most impressed by the detail and coloration in the eyes of your subjects.

  19. Really nice. How much, if any, Photoshop was involved?

  20. Beautiful portraits! All photos were done perfectly capturing every angle of each image with a unique style.

  21. beautiful stuff and thanks for sharing!!! That guy looks like pete cashmore btw!!!

  22. Never mind this just I just googled “mostlylisa pete cashmore” :) Awesome!!!

  23. Stunning portraits. Love the one of Pete.. Great Colour and DOF.

  24. Love the photos. You are so talented and btw that Pete guy is very lucky!
    Looking forward to the world tour Lisa

  25. It’s really life.. your photos whispering something special for souls … Thanks for sharing …

  26. Amazing portraits, I love your work Lisa, and I am trying to learn as much as I can from you.
    Thanks.

  27. Fantastic lighting. Love how simple each lighting setup is! I love using 2 flashes maximum usually.

  28. Do you have to have the flash on a stand? What I mean is can you hold the flash with one hand and take a photo with the other? I do a lot of street photography in NYC and get hassled about my reflector stand all the time.

  29. Very stunning images Lisa! Too bad not shot with our equipment :-). Just fantastic!

  30. Divinas fotos! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  31. The thing I notice most here, throughout the images is great catch light in the eyes. Great portraits, really nice work. The backlight is great too, but portraits are about the eyes and you do a great job capturing them.

  32. Hi Lisa, great work you´ve done there, thanks for sharing! :) I´ve noticed, that you use the 430EX a lot. Is it powerful enough to accompany the 580EX? I mean would it be ok to use it for example for all body portrait? I currently have one 580EX and thinking to get another unit, but I would prefer buying a 430EX, as it is very less expensive. Thanks for your reply in advance :)

  33. @Marian — For me it was a cost issue, so I just made do with the 430EX. That being said, I never had any problem with them not being powerful enough. They are much smaller and lighter which is nice if you are working alone. I do place my flashes very close to much subjects, so that might be a factor. Hope that helps!

  34. Hi Lisa, what a great collection of images. I love the lens flare. I think it adds a really interesting visual layer. Thank you.

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