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Taking Professional Quality Portraits with Your Cell Phone

by Darryl Brooks


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Good photography is all about the light. And if you have ever had any professional pictures taken, you probably remember a lot of expensive strobes and flashes being used. This is because a professional photographer wants to control every aspect of the light in order to get the best results with the least effort. But with a little knowledge, you can take professional looking portraits with your cell phone.

It is entirely possible to get professional photographs without using fancy lights, or even a professional camera. With a little knowledge, you can take professionally lit pictures with your cell phone or tablet. And we're not talking about having your subject stand in full sunlight and getting those squinty looking vacation snapshots. This article will discuss two ways to get professional photographs of your loved ones, one inside and one outside, without spending any money on lighting.

You are almost certainly familiar with the great 17th-century artist, Rembrandt. He did almost all of his portraits using window light and his style of lighting has come to be known as Rembrandt light. We will use this technique to light our indoor portrait, using window light and a cheap reflector.

First, you will want to find the right window. You don't want harsh, direct sunlight coming in. Either use a north facing window or a window covered with sheers or light curtains or take this picture on a light, overcast day.

Next, have the subject sit fairly close to the window with the light coming into one side of the person. You will stand down the wall from the subject shooting back towards their face. Take a few shots and adjust your exposure as needed. The lit side of the face should be well exposed but not too bright and the shadow side will be pretty dark, but still visible. This is what is called split lighting and is very dramatic. It is okay for some, but it's not very flattering and not what we are trying for here.

Now, have the subject slowly turn their head toward the light until you just see a little of the light hitting the cheek on the shadow side. When perfect, there should be a small triangle of light just to the side of the nose on the shadow side. This is perfect Rembrandt lighting.

If you are pleased with the results, you can stop here and nail that perfect portrait, but we are going to take one more step. We want to reflect a little of that window light back into the shadow side, filling it out just a bit. There are expensive photography reflectors on the market for this, but a piece of poster or foam board from the dollar store works just as well. Have someone hold the board or prop it on a chair so that just a bit of the window light is reflected back toward the shadow side of the face and take a final picture. You can use this technique to take flawless professional portraits.

When outside, you want to find what is called open shade. You want the subject to be in the shade, but in a location very close to direct sunlight, such as under the edge of a pavilion, the eave of a house, or a shady tree. Just make sure if you use a tree that the shade is even; you don't want dappled light hitting the subject. You also want to pay attention to and choose an attractive background. Using this open shade technique, you can get beautifully lit subjects outside without harsh shadows or squinty eyes.

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You can also have your subject turn to the side and use the same Rembrandt lighting we discussed for indoor portraits. Most people hate taking pictures outdoors on cloudy or overcast days, but this is a portrait photographer's dream. If it is overcast outside, the whole world is perfectly and evenly lit and makes for great portraits.

Use the light that is available to you, and with a little practice and these techniques, you can achieve professional results without spending money on lights or expensive cameras.


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