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Best Lights for Portraits

Photography is about light and controlling light. Light creates the mood in photographs. Under good light, any ordinary object can turn into a beautiful photograph. Portrait photography is no exception. You have unlimited ways to control light in studio to create different moods. You can use from simple on camera flash to more high powered studio lights and the popular tungsten balanced photofloods. The question is, which lighting gives the best effect?

On camera flash: This would be my last choice. On camera flash gives flat results and you have very little control over the light. You also risk red eye with on camera flash and risk loosing details in the portrait. Controlling the background is another problem unless you use two flashes: one for the main subject and one for the background. The only advantages of this method is ease of use and correct color balance for daylight films. Use on camera flash only as the second light source to fill in shadows.
Off-camera flash: This is the best way to use your flash for portrait photography. This gives much softer result but positioning the flash and direction of light needs extra care. There is no right or wrong way of positioning the flash. It depends which part of the portrait you want to bring out more or how you want to control shadows. If working with a single flash you need to create a balanced exposure to control background. Although off-camera flash creates softer light than on-camera flash, it is still not the best method. It is best to use off-camera flash with some type of reflector and a photoflood.
Reflectors: By placing a reflector and a photoflood, you reduce contrast and remove shadows to bring out details. Since photofloods are tungsten light, your off-camera flash is used to balance the light for daylight film. You can also position your flash to remove shadows or illuminate the background. You can also use the reflector without a photoflood to bounce off the light from your flash to create a soft light without washing out the details. Depending on the placement of the reflector, some shadows can be added to the portrait to bring out the most interesting parts of a person's features.
Photofloods: These are very inexpensive and popular units for portrait and other types of studio photography. Floods are tungsten balanced films and much like regular desk lamps, so make sure to use films with correct color balance. There are unlimited ways you can use floods. I prefer working with floods and reflectors. This combination creates soft light and allows filling in shadow details. You need to carefully place the light depending on the type of result you are after.

The best way to find out which light is best for portraits is to run a test by positioning the light source at different angles and comparing the results. You can buy a set of floods and stands for under $50.

Recommended reading : Corrective Lighting and Posing Techniques for Portrait Photographers

Focusing on real people, not models, this book provides practical solutions to masking common flaws, such as concealing a double chin, creating a thinner waistline, or masking complexion problems and wrinkles. Covering both studio and location photography and everything from head shots to full-length portraits, this is an essential guide for making every client look his or her best.

Smith Victor KT750 3-Light 750-Watt Thrifty Photoflood Kit with Corrugated Carrying Case

Thrifty Kits are designed to fulfill basic lighting requirements at an exceptionally affordable price. Each Thrifty Kit has hand spun reflectors made of high strength aluminum with chemically attached interiors for maximum light dispersion. The outer finish is photographic black baked on enamel. The Raven RS6 telescopes to 6' and the Raven RS8 telescopes to 8'. Each Thrifty Kit comes with a photoflood lamps, sockets and cordsets, a corrugated carrying case for storage and transport and the Imaging with Light Guide.