Improving your portraits with common household items 10-25-17

This is an article I originally wrote back in 2010 for another blog web site and have been meaning to bring it over to this site for some time.  I hope your find it useful.

I've been participating in various online photography forums on-and-off for many years now. One of the things that I have noticed in all of them is how often people are lead to believe that photography is complicated and expensive. They couldn't be farther from the truth.


With this in mind, I decided to take a cue from my good friend and colleague Richard Thompson, who spent many years selling cameras for Best Buy and Wolf Camera. Richard’s approach to sales is a bit unorthodox as he doesn’t always up sell a customer to complex, expensive equipment. Instead, he will often sell them on the idea of purchasing less expensive accessories that would allow them to make use of the equipment and features they already have.
Richard's method works particularly well for people that are starting out, as they are less likely to be overwhelmed by the prospect of learning something radically new. This is especially true when it comes to lighting.
The word “lighting” usually brings to mind the use of strobes. Unfortunately, many people overlook the fact that Mother Nature provides us with all the light we need to make beautiful pictures. One of the great advantages of using natural light is that there is no guesswork in the setup because we can see exactly what the light is doing. This isn’t always possible with strobes. The trick is learning to modify the light to get the desired results.
This can actually be done with ordinary household items that most of us have laying about in our cupboards.
For this article, I used the items shown above: Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil, 11” x 14” black and white mount board (white on one side, black on the other), tissue paper and painter’s tape. Ordinary cardboard that is white on one side can be substituted for the mount board and masking tape or Scotch tape can be use in place of the blue painter’s tape. All of these items can be purchased for about $5 each at your local drug store. These materials can be used in place of expensive light modification products that cost $200 or more.
To demonstrate how effective these items can really be, I started with one of my favorite “crash test dummies” in a common situation that many people are challenged with: making a portrait using window light.
As you can see in the image above, my subject is being lit by harsh, direct light from the sun coming through the patio door. The sunlight was a little warmer than I would have liked, so I created a custom white balance and took a picture from a position directly in front of my test subject. The results are very unflattering, as shown in the image below.
The light of the sun is creating a harsh shadow that covers the right-side of my test subject.
Using a few pieces of painter’s tape, I placed the tissue paper on the glass patio door to diffuse the sun light.
The tissue paper greatly improved the quality of the light coming through the patio door. Below, on the left, is the original image. The image on the right shows the result of the diffusion created by the tissue paper. The tissue caused to the light to spread out and spill on to the background, opening it up for us to see.
Portrait photographers often place a light beneath their subject to fill in the area under the subject’s chin. The light also creates a kind of radiant “glow.” We can accomplish this effect by adding a piece of white cardboard to the setup to reflect some light up into the test subject as shown below.
Once again, we see some improvement. Below, on the left, is the image made with the tissue paper diffusion. The picture on the right shows the result of the light reflected from the white cardboard. You can see that the right-half of my test subject is no longer in shadow and that it is pretty evenly lit. To reflect more light, the cardboard can be wrapped in aluminum foil.
Accent lights are frequently used to add dimension and help separate the subject from the background. The same effect can be created by wrapping a piece of cardboard with aluminum foil. Placed high and behind the subject, the foil will reflect the light necessary to create the accent.
In the image above, you can see that I have placed the dull-side of the foil towards the subject. The shiny side can also be used to reflect more light but will produce a much harsher quality of light. Which side of the foil you decide to use will depend on your needs and preference. Alternatively, the foil can be omitted altogether.
In the comparison above, the left image shows the effect produced by the addition of the tissue paper and the white cardboard. The image on the right shows the results after the addition of the aluminum foil reflector.
The final result is a huge improvement from where I started, as shown below.
I’m a firm believer that you can make photography as complicated and expensive as you want. From this example, it’s easy to see that good photography is not about what you shoot with but rather how you choose to use the resources and equipment you have.



Great article . And to think we have all these props at home already !!
I like the step by step explanation with supporting photos making it so simple to understand !

keep them coming.
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