How to Shoot Fabulous Portraits in a Most Un-Fabulous Location

Wouldn't it be fabulous if you could shoot great portraits of your friends and family without stepping foot in a studio?  If you've been bitten by the DIY bug and want to try your hand at studio-esque portraits, this post is for you! Recently I was asked to photograph actor headshots for the cast and crew of the play Birth.  It was not feasible for the entire cast to convene at my natural light studio in Fort Myers, but I still wanted to bring out their personalities and beauty with glamorous portraits.

And to do that, I needed great light, great connection, and flattering poses.


Let's focus on that first part of the equation... great light.

We originally planned to shoot this on-location at the rehearsal space, outdoors.  But Mother Nature had other plans.  It was just starting to rain when I arrived, so I quickly moved on to plan B.  I scouted around for great light and found just the right spot.

Would you believe all the shots above were taken in a garage?  That's right... a garage.  You don't get more fabulous than that!


So of all the places... why a garage?

Well, my favorite part about a garage is that you have a lot of room to work.  I like to shoot headshots with longer (telephoto) lenses so I need quite a bit of space between me and my talent.  Secondly, once you hang a diffuser over the opening, you effectively create a massive softbox.  The larger and closer the light source is to your talent, the prettier it becomes.  Anyone who's ever been blasted by a camera flash (a small light source) and has cringed at the harsh, sharp shadows and blown out bright spots on her face, can appreciate the difference that soft light makes.  Third, I want to be as close as possible to the light source so I can bounce light back as needed.  With my natural light studio work, I am often working within inches and, at most, just a few feet from the unblocked window.  Often in buildings and homes, you'll find porches and overhangs just outside windows.  Not so with garages.


Now for a closer look at what goes into this impromptu studio.


The main light here is the sun, diffused by a silk scrim.  Even though it was raining, my camera (a full frame DSLR with great low-light capability) was able to pick up enough light.  For the best results at home, shoot on a sunny day with the camera of your choice.  I like using a diffuser because it spreads and softens the light and takes the worry out of hot spots that might result from dappled light coming through trees or reflecting off surfaces.

Pro diffuser option: 12 foot x 12 foot silk scrim (e.g. silk scrim, with or without frame)

Mama-Guyver DIY option: translucent shower curtain duct taped to garage opening. (e.g. shower curtain)


Fill light is provided by a reflector.  It fills in the light on the shadow side of the face.  With Robin's portrait, I wanted slightly more dramatic light to shape and contour her face so I backed off my fill light by pulling the reflector a few feet further than normal.  The nice part about natural light photography is that you can teach yourself to "see" the light.  Want more fill?  Scoot in your reflector.  Want less? Scoot it away or remove it completely.


Flattering Beauty light is often flat light, meaning the light from the fill and the main light are pretty close to even.  The advantage of no fill is that you can get a more distinct light pattern on the face, slim a fuller face, or go for dramatic looks.

See what I mean?


Both styles of light are beautiful.  Experiment with adding more or less fill and turning your talent into and away from the light.

Pro reflector option: 42x72 reflector + stand (e.g. Larson reflector frame, Larson reflector)

Mama-Guyver DIY option: Check your local craft store for the biggest sheet of white foam core you can get your hands on.  Spray paint silver if you want a more powerful reflector.


We go through all this work to get the light just so and then we realize that we want to take it away.  Look at the finished portrait of Robin above.  If you look carefully, you'll see that the light on her face is brighter than the light on her chest.  Your eye will naturally go to the brightest part of the image.  I used a handy dandy piece of cardboard that was lying around and propped it up so it would cast a slight shadow on Robin's neck and decolletage.


Pro flag/gobo option: 42x72 gobo + stand (e.g. Larson gobo frame, Larson gobo)

Mama-Guyver DIY option: cardboard propped up or held by an assistant just where you need it.


You'll notice I left a small gap of light between my diffusion panel and my backdrop.  This provides a bit of hair light on the talent and separates her from the backdrop.  You can experiment by blocking the light, letting it shine, or shifting your diffuser over to tone it down.  See what looks good to you in-camera.  Ultimately, I decided I wanted the background darker, so I found a random bit of garage clutter (an old pantry door) and blocked up that gap.

As for what type of backdrop to select, that's entirely up to you.  I like to keep the focus on the talent, so I often opt for plain and simple.  Here, I used a paper roll on a backdrop stand.

Pro backdrop option: backdrop stand, gaffer's tape or clamps, and backdrop of your choice.  (e.g. backdrop stand, seamless paper)

Mama-Guyver DIY option: Try duct-taping a fabric shower curtain or blanket between two ladders. Make it nice and taut.



So here it is.  All the light tools you need shown in the schematic above.

Have a great time experimenting with light setups in and around your home.  Stop on by my facebook wall and show me your DIY studio portraits.  I'd love to see them!


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Other DIY posts you might enjoy:

Posing Secrets of the Red Carpet

Go Big AND Go Home (to your Big, Beautiful Wall Art)