Getting Pro Looks for Peanuts

You want to shoot some portraits. You don’t want to spend a fortune doing it. You want them to look professional.

I hear ya!

Luckily for you, I am a total tight-ass when it come to buying gear. (Not so much when it come to buying sneakers)

In this guide, I will take you through what I know about portrait photography and how I shoot a budget. (Leaving more money for sneakers!)

Photography Equipment

Yes, I am one of those photographers who tell you that any camera is a good camera. My cell phone takes killer shots, as does my DSLR and my old film camera. Why?

Because the successful portrait photograph equation does not include equipment.

I was on a shoot recently and I took a photo with my phone, just so the client would have a picture to post about his day. When I showed him the photo, he said. “Why do you have all this gear-you could just be using your phone?”

And it is true. I could have taken it with any camera-it is about the lighting and subject. That’s what makes a great portrait.

So, just use what you have. Most phones have great cameras.

That said, using a good camera means the quality of the image is going to be better, not the picture itself.

Felix Ben by Don Urban Photography Felix Ben by Don Urban Photography (Nikon D750)

Portrait Lighting

The cheapest studio lighting? A window. A window with soft light coming in. NOT direct sunlight. If you have direct sunlight coming in use a diffuser. My best diffuser is a white shower curtain on a plastic tube frame. (I told you this was going to be on a budget!)

The above image of Felix Ben was taken just with window light, no reflector. Now that is good for a guy, but may not be that flattering for a woman. It may be too harsh a contrast between dark and light.

The next option, price wise, is to get video or continuous lighting. These are not as expensive as they sound. They really are just big fluorescent globes in a soft box. These can be had on eBay (I love eBay!) for very little. They come on a stand with a big softbox that collapses down into small portable unit. These are really cheap and good.

The next step up would be an on-camera flash. I bought a great Godox one that was 1/5 of the price of a Nikon one, with more features-including a wireless flash trigger, so my flash can be put anywhere I want.

The final category is a studio strobe. These are big, require a stand and are expensive. They recycle faster than flash guns, so it takes less time to charge the flash between shots. They usually plug into a wall, but you can get portable ones, they accept a large range of accessories, and are capable of producing very powerful light. But, like I said, they are expensive.

Here is what you can do with a cheap flash (Godox TT520II) mounted in a softbox. Nice, soft even lighting-this can be very flattering. No harsh shadows.

Amber Ben by Don Urban Photography Amber Ben by Don Urban Photography

Backgrounds or Backdrops

I love simple backdrops, and if you are on a budget, you should too.

My favourite background is a blank white wall. The other is a painters drop sheet that is lightly splattered in paint. The other fav background is a piece of plywood I ‘liberated’ from a local worksite. I bought a large piece of black paper when I was starting out, and just stuck that to a wall.

Look at photographers like Herb Ritts or Paolo Roversi and see the stunning portraits with minimal backgrounds.

Katelyn Boyd by Don Urban Photography Katelyn Boyd by Don Urban Photography

In the above photo of Katelyn, she had this wonderful ballet dress she wanted to wear. I just sat her on a little old stepladder and used an old painters canvas drop sheet as a backdrop. I wanted it to look like the inside of a tent.

Use what you have. Simple is always best. Throwing them out of focus is ALWAYS a great option.

If the lighting isn’t perfect, you are going to have to control it. Stick some cardboard over the window to narrow the light. An old net curtain may be able to create lovely shadows across a face. Use heavy curtains to block light, move you subject closer or further away from the window.

Narrow the light from your flashgun with a cardboard tube to make a snoot. A scrunched up white shopping bag can make a diffuser. Point your flash at a nearbuy wall to soften the light.

Reflectors are your best friend. Pieces of cardboard make great, cheap reflectors.

Ebony Rose by Don Urban Photography Ebony Rose by Don Urban Photography

Place your subject with them side-on to a window in a dark room. Place the reflector opposite the window. Move it around until you get the result you want.

That is all I used for this image of Ebony Rose. I wanted a little bit of fill light, but not too much.

Sometimes you will need a more balanced lighting style, other times ‘just a little’ is better.

Keep props to a minimum. Keep things simple. A simple chair or stool is all you need for most portraits.

Jude Paddow-Row by Don Urban Photography Jude Paddon-Row by Don Urban Photography

Plan Your Lighting

Think about what lighting you have, and how you are going to manage it. Go with what you have. Only have window light? Use that. Only have a builders flood light? Good. Use that.

Builders flood lights are so cool. I don’t own one, but when I turned up for this portrait session I saw one in the corner and thought I would give it a go. They create a strong light and strong shadows, perfect for this portrait of a professional dominatrix, Mistress Tokyo.

This is what a builders flood light can do:

Mistress Tokyo is a Dominatrix from Sydney Australia with over 16yrs BDSM experience. As well as being a kink educator, she is curator of Australia’s newest community space, “Peak”. She is also a fetish performer. Tokyo has conducted a variety of workshops for the last 6yrs around Australia and on the East Coast (USA). Her newest offering to the Sydney community is “Peak”; a space where people can express themselves “@ Peak” through BDSM workshops, rope groups, martial arts and photography.

Using Reflectors

Reflectors can be anything from white pieces of cardboard to a stretched canvas to a $5 circular reflector from eBay. Look around your house for anything to reflect light.

Unless you want to add colour to your models face, stick to white. Use a bulldog clip to hold it to a lightstand, or just hold it in one hand while you fire away with the other.

Dela by Don Urban Photography Dela by Don Urban Photography

Editing Your Portraits

Now, I will only briefly touch on this. If I could give only one piece of advice it would be this: The editing you do should be complimentary to your vision. Your original idea should not be tampered with. Meaning that editing is not the place to get creative.

Editing should enhance your image- not radically change it. 

Again, keep it simple in terms of editing, brightening or darkening can help, as well as a little contrast. A little LESS saturation never hurts, but MORE always does.

A good example is this image of model Carla Calabia. That is full sun coming into my lounge room. Such strong shadows! I instantly knew this high-contrast image would be perfect in black and white. Editing should enhance the image. 

Like everything, simple always works best. Aim to simplify your processing. I create presets in Adobe Camera RAW so I can get the look over and over again. Saves time, saves having to ‘work it out as you go’ and starts to create a uniform look around your portfolio.  

Carla Calabia by Don Urban Photography Carla Calabia by Don Urban Photography

I hope this has been of some help. As you can see, you really don’t need to spend a fortune to get pro looks for peanuts!

Window light, some cheap reflectors, simple backdrops like canvas, a white or dark wall and you are ready to go! If I have missed anything, or you have some suggestions you would like to add, please let me know in the comments!

Best wishes until next time,


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