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Stupid Easy Portraits

November 28, 2012

The technology of photography as evolved to the point in recent years that amateurs like me can learn all kinds of things on our own by trial and error, with relatively little cost. The obvious way is simply by using digital cameras that let us instantly see our results on an LCD, and fill up memory card after memory card (and hard drive after hard drive) of awful images that help us learn.

But is it possible to learn to take professional quality or near-professional quality photos more or less on one’s own? I’m not there yet, but…

I am learning. Take the set up pictured above in the photo. I’m taking New Hope Tutorial’s yearbook photos. The setup is “stupid easy”:

  1. My Nikon D90
  2. My Nikon SB-600 flash mounted on a $15 stand shooting through a $20 umbrella
  3. A $20 reflector sitting precariously on an office chair

I simply set my camera’s flash mode to Commander, set the remote flash to function as the remote, and magically the little pop-up flash on my camera remotely triggers the flash when I click.  Then it is simply a matter of adjusting several key settings via my camera (in Manual mode):

  1. shutter speed
  2. aperture
  3. ISO
  4. Commander (i.e. popup flash) power
  5. remote flash power

… and two other factors:

  1. distance from my subject to the background (in this case, a French door)
  2. distance from me to my subject

I spent some time playing around with these settings (usually by keeping four constant and playing with just one to see the results), and by trial and error I arrived at what looked good — 1/125 at f/2.8, ISO 200, Commander flash at 1/100, remote flash at 1/64, subject about 9′ from background, and I about 6′ from subject with a 50mm f/1.8 lens.

What Does All This Cost?

Well, one could learn to do all this on the cheap (relatively speaking). The lowest model Nikon that can be set to commander mode is the d5X00 series, I think. But you could get a $22 cheapo remote trigger for a d3X00, too. So call it a $500 camera body, and a $100 50mm f/1.8. A used SB-600 flash will run about $300 used, I think. Flash stand, umbrella, reflector will be another $50 total.

So if you are already invested in a DSLR that can handle remote flash triggering (I’m not sure what the equivalent cameras are that can do this in the Canon ecosystem), you could be taking professional quality portraits for a few hundred bucks.


Photography is best learned hands-on, and I think one needs to be fundamentally curious about how it all works. So like anything else, the best way to get good is to learn how to experiment and “fail” effectively, i.e. to try things in a systematic way that force you to learn, not just trying lots of different things with no intentionality.

Try to follow my lighting setup above, or google YouTube videos (which is what I did) for different suggestions on simple lighting setups. Then try it for yourself. Take some shots — see what works and what doesn’t, then start changing just one thing at a time and see what happens.Then things will “click” as you go along (e.g. it took me forever to finally figure out that it is the aperture that controls how much intensity the flash provides in a scene).

I can also recommend Phil Steele’s online course on portrait photography. I learned a lot in a couple hours going through these videos. But I’d recommend watching the videos only after you have put in the time, so to speak, trying to figure things out with freebie videos and trial and error. You’ll get a lot more out of it. Also see Strobist.


From → Photography

  1. Thank you for this post! very helpful

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  1. Strobist: Brilliant DIY Underwater Strobe Triggering Rig | Michael John Burgess

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