Photography Lighting Techniques

How To Shoot a Casual Portrait With One Light and One Modifier

Lighting Tutorial

The casual portrait is taken in a studio… Which is not exactly a casual setting… So what does it really mean? For me it starts with an attractive subject, photographed in simple casual clothing, in a relaxed posture with simple, flattering light.

This is a shot that I would do a variation of frequently when I was doing modeling portfolios, because it allowed my new model to relax and to not have to worry about a pose, and to instead really work on mood and expression.

Read on and I’ll show you a simple one-light, one-modifier setup for easy casual portraits.


A casual outfit is the basis for the casual portrait. But you can do the shot with a light sweater, make it a sexy glamour shot or even give it a little bit of a commercial fashion feel. It is important to plan the outfit with your model in advance of the shoot. Don’t risk having your model show up with a bunch of flashy floral prints stuffed into a bag.

Explain to your model that you want solid colors, no prints, no patterns and no florals. The outfit should be simple and casual. Have your model send you simple selfies – taken in the mirror so that you can see the outfit in advance and sign off on it. Then be sure to remind her that all outfits should arrive ironed and on hangers so that you are not dealing with creases and wrinkles.

These little details will have a huge impact on your final shot, so don’t cut corners.


In this case, the studio has neutral gray walls, but you could do the shot on pretty much any color wall. Instead of setting up a background, the model is actually posing alongside the background and I am shooting from one corner of the room, towards the other corner, which now becomes the background, as you see below.

Casual portrait Lighting Setup One

I use a large Octodome for these shots, but you could get away with a medium sized softbox. Anything smaller will work, but if you make the lighting much more dramatic then you will see a lot more fall-off before the background, which will make it very dark.

You can see below that I have my strobe and modifier set on camera left and above my subject. I will create variations on this by changing my light placement. If I move the light more to the left and feather it forward, I can create this light falloff that you see here on camera right.

Casual portrait Lighting Setup Two

If I move the light above the camera, I lose the light falloff on the right and have a much more even light on the face. All of these options work well for both three quarters and full length poses and you can even do headshots with these arrangements. And as you have seen, it looks good in both black and white and color. The key is to keep the outfits and the colors simple; you want the shot to be all about your subject.

Shooting Tips

Since the casual portrait is all about the subject – it goes without saying – leave the jewelry out of these shots. The makeup and hair will always have an impact on the outcome, so don’t overlook the importance of having help in that area.

I have even left my light modifier in the shot as a frame. Just something to think about.


The key to making the casual portrait work is the pose – or lack thereof. You will notice that all I am doing is having my subject lean in a relaxed manner against the wall. Now, indeed, you can’t just tell your model to lean against the wall. Depending on how nervous they are, you can get some really uncomfortable-looking postures, so you still need to pay attention. The most common issue is when the model leans against the wall and then slinks down so that her shoulder is rising up towards her ear.

You also have to pay attention to the hands. Give your model something easy to do with their hands so that way she will stay relaxed. Understand that the more you talk about her hands and the more you say things like “relax your hands” or “make your hands look graceful” the more awkward they will look because they will become hyper-aware of those things. Instead of being relaxed and focusing on the emotion that you want for your shot, the model will be thinking about how their hands feel.

You may have noticed that I often have the model fold her arms for this set-up. Make sure you can see both hands and that the fingers look long and relaxed.

Other Casual Portrait Ideas

You can of course do a casual portrait shoot with speedlights, and if you have a second or a third strobe available, you could add a second strobe behind your subject with a colored gel to bring color to the background. You can even add a third strobe as a rim light to give just a little more pop to your lighting.

You can also go ahead and pose your model with her back to the wall – leaving your main light in essentially the same spot but changing your camera angle.

Or you could have the model sit.

As always, the possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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