Child Photography Portraits: Lighting for the Future

We see children in postcards, magazines, and billboard displays, and are often sold on the image solely by the expression or an emotional element that grabs our attention. As a photographer, this should be your primary objective—to grab your viewer’s or client’s attention.Many times the elaborate backgrounds or the props will take center stage over the lighting approach. Lighting becomes more of a formality. I’ve been guilty of this myself. We then end up with a good portrait of a child, where it could have been a great portrait of a child. This article should shed some light (no pun intended) on lighting approaches that may help you in your future portraits, as well as in lighting the next generation. 

When I begin my sessions with children, I sometimes take a different approach than I would regularly do with my more mature subjects. I build a set that will provide me plenty of latitude in regards to depth of light, allowing movement forward and backward. It also produces very well-lit images and puts me in the range of shooting at an aperture of f/8 and above. I also take into consideration the final use of the image. I often photograph children for commercial and advertising purposes, making the clothing the first priority. This lighting approach is well-suited for that purpose. I let each individual subject dictate the lighting style that I use. Many times, natural light is the call of the day, adding two or three reflectors to the equation.


My objectives when it comes to lighting children are to achieve three goals:

• To present my subjects with depth and dimensionality, creating rich shadows throughout the portrait with proper placement of my highlights.
• To draw the focus to the subject with proper light placement.
• To use adequate light to stop action and create sharp images, especially with active kids. With older kids, I can get away with using constant lights.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

I present my subjects with depth and dimensionality, creating rich shadows throughout the portrait with proper placement of my highlights.

Setup One

I begin with the placement of my background. When photographing children in the studio, I lean toward the simple approach of a seamless background. You can get creative with this by adding spotlights and gels, as I’ll explain later. For the key light, I frequently use a large 7′ Parabolic Silver Umbrella made by Westcott. The silver liner adds more specular highlights and “pop” to the image. White makes the quality softer. Sometimes you can get away with just this one light by placing it closer to the camera axis, creating more of a wraparound quality. (Note: Placing the light too far over and in front creates a flatter light quality.) The Westcott umbrella goes on a Dynalite flash head with a 7″ parabolic reflector. 

Keep in mind there are many variables that may influence your final exposure, and may change the quality of your light. Take note of your surroundings when placing your lights. I sometimes shoot in a high-key studio with white marble floors, which opens up the shadows incredibly. Other times I use a gray seamless, which will have less fill. 

For the example of Cash, my 7-month-old subject, I placed my key light 5′ in front and set it at slightly less than a 45° angle toward the camera axis. As my subject was on the floor in front of the green seamless, the light was dropped to 5′ off the floor. I feathered the edge of the umbrella to come across the front of my subject. This technique is used to create even light throughout the skin tones. At this distance with 250 watts, I had a reading of f/8 for my key light. 

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

On children, I like to use two or three lights combined as fill. This gives me open shadows throughout the entire portrait. The key to this technique is to keep the combined meter reading starting at a half-stop less than your key light. I placed an 18″ Dynalite Beauty Dish with a grid and a silk diffuser as fill to camera right. Using a beauty dish as fill gives you a more specular quality of light than using, for instance, a white umbrella. My meter reading for this light was at f/4.5. 

My second fill light was a white satin umbrella set 1′ behind my camera. It was used as a weak fill, metering less than the beauty dish at f/4. Accumulating these lights reduced my lighting ratios slightly. I had a combined meter reading just shy of f/5.6. I sometimes add a small Westcott 12×18″ softbox just under camera at f/4 as a third option. The principle is to maintain your key light at least a half-stop brighter. You can also experiment by increasing the power on your key light to f/11 and keeping your fill lights the same. This can produce more shadows for added interest.

For my accent lighting, I used another Dynalite 7″ parabolic flash with a 20° honeycomb. I set this light behind my subject to strike the left portion of his cheek and shoulder. I powered this light one stop more than my key light for a reading of f/11. The background was placed just 2′ behind my subject to pick up the spill of my key and fill lights. As my key light was feathered across my subject, and the fill lights were weak, it prevented any distracting shadows onto the background. My final reading for Cash was 1/125 at f/8, ISO 100.

Child Photography Portraits: Lighting for the Future: H. Rodriguez

Setup Two

I recommend this approach for older children due to the precise placement of lights. The light quality is harder, which is less flattering for young kids with round faces, but complimentary in children with good bone structure. This lighting approach is for a more commercial look. The example of Natalia in red, which I’ll outline, was used for her composite modeling card.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

I began with a 9′ red seamless set 5′ away from the subject as my background. I placed a flash head equipped with a 7″ reflector and a 20° grid as my key light. This light was set 5′ from my subject and directly overhead. It works best using a butterfly or Rembrandt style of lighting. This is where the lesser range of movement is limiting to the child being photographed. Moving the head position off the mark will create unwanted shadows on the face. This light was powered for a meter reading of f/11, giving me a more-defined image. The narrow light pattern created from the 20° grid illuminates the face primarily, sending most of the subject into shadows. My fill light approach was to place a small white umbrella to the left of the subject at a 90° angle. Having this light come across the subject, creates detail in the garments, especially if the subject is wearing black. Note: Placing direct light on a dark or black fabric flattens the look of the texture. 

I metered this light at f/5.6 on my subject, then placed a Westcott 12×18″ softbox as a second fill light. This was set on the floor under camera and aimed at the subject, for a meter reading of f/4. In the example, I placed my subject on top of a stainless steel and glass table. This was used to add interest to the shot. For edge lighting, I used a strip bank with a red Rosco CalColor filter and set it equal to my key light. I used a 16×20″ softbox without diffusion as a second. This light is usually about a half stop brighter than my main light. I sometimes will fire a Dynalite 7″ bare bulb off a silver reflector to add a nice highlight along the edge of my subject.

To spice up your children photography, place tulle fabric between the seamless background and the child, and back light the fabric. This will add depth and interest to the image. The final exposure was 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100. 

rodriguez_feature_07 A slight deviation from this setup will give you completely different results. In this example, the small softbox metered at f/11 becomes the key. The small white umbrella was placed to the far top right of the subject as fill metering f/8 for a closer ratio, and the flash with the 20° grid was gelled purple and used as a spotlight for the background. The background was a large Westcott silver reflector. A silver reflector was also used under the subject to brighten the eyes. 

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Setup Three

I want to share with you an image from a collection of personal work I’m currently producing. The boys in the following examples are all in a football league. They are tough. I thought it would be great to show them in a different light, if you get my drift. 

This lighting diagram works beautifully for that Hallmark look. It’s a good high-key portrait approach for photographing children.

Note: I photographed these boys over white marble floors and white surrounding walls. I say this because light travels and bounces off surrounding objects, which will affect your exposure. By controlling the light falling onto the background, you can actually make a white wall appear darker.

I began by placing my key light, a large 24×36″ softbox with a thin scrim, which has a quality similar to tracing paper. This will give you more specular highlights on the face and body. (Iridescent makeup was used on the boys, which added to the highlights.) I placed this light 2′ from the top, almost enclosing the boys. I also flaged the bottom portion to control light falloff. It metered at f/11.5. 


My fill was a combination of two lights. One was a large silver umbrella placed over the camera. Because of its silver lining, this umbrella gives more of an iridescent quality. It metered at f/5.6. An on-camera ring flash powered to f/4.5 was my second fill. I vary this light in power, depending on the distance. One strip light to camera left with a grid was powered to register a half stop brighter than my key light. This was used as accent. I used Rosco Pale Bastard Amber gels on my accents to warm up the highlights.

I also used a Dynalite flash head with a 20° grid from the same direction, powered to f/16.5 as a hair light. Both were placed 5′ behind the subject. A similar strip light was placed on the opposite side for the same quality of accent. This one I vary in power from a half to one stop brighter than my key. On my background, I sometimes place a 22″ beauty dish with a diffuser from a high angle to add a streak of light, as if shining from the skies. My final exposure was 1/125 at f/11.5, ISO 100.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Natural Lighting

I had the privilege of photographing Evander Holyfield and his boys. The picture of Evan against a wood wall was shot in complete open shade with the sun slightly behind the wall. This portrait was lit with one silver reflector, one gold reflector, and a white board. You can essentially create a studio outdoors.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Place the gold reflector close to your subject, as it’s less reflective than the silver. This will be your fill. It will also warm up the skin tones nicely. I placed this to Evan’s left and added another tall white flat on this same side, which opened the shadows in the overall scene approximately another quarter stop without conflicting with the gold. To camera left, at a 45° angle, place a round silver reflector, which will be your key light. Play around with the distance until you see the face well lit without canceling out the shadows under the chin. With this approach, you can actually see the face take form and depth right in front of your eyes. Because I was in open shade, I began at ISO 200. Final exposure was 1/125 at f/4.


Mixed Lighting

When shooting outdoors with portable flash or strobes, you have a few options to take into consideration when it comes to the sun: 

• The sun will be your key light.

• The sun will be your fill light.

• The sun doesn’t matter; you will overpower it completely with the strobe.


Time of day matters unless you have lots of money to build an outdoor set or a minimum of 2,000 watts of flash power to get you in the ballpark. An overhead scrim works at times, but the scene behind the subject may be completely blown out. When sycronizing the sun with flash, your shutter speed is an important option in allowing more light into the scene, or cutting your ambient way back by shooting at your maximum sync speed. In the example of the children dressed in black and white, I balanced the strobe to the sun.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

The sun was directly in front of the children, but setting low. This was my key light. You can see this in the shadow cast from the girl’s nose. To shoot at an aperture of f/5.6, I draged the shutter speed to 1/30. To open up the shadows cast by the sun, I placed a Dynalite 18″ Beauty Dish with silk diffuser to camera left 4′ from the kids. This fill matched the quality of light from the sun. I metered my fill at f/4, ISO 100. 

Another example is the image of Kaleb in the wicker chair. An extra flash head with a gold umbrella was added 3′ behind the chair to camera left for a warm accent. 

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Advanced Lighting Approach

I’d like to share a project that’s been ongoing for the past two years. In my years of photographing children, my biggest obstacle is getting the kids to get past a big camera and tons of lights in front of them. How do you tell a child to pose, smile, and look natural doing it? Then something clicked. Kids love candy, I thought. The larger the better, and all the bright colors add to the joy. So I bought a dozen large lollipops from the Disney store and began to explore. The results were amazing. Posing is no longer a concern, as these kids just smile, jump, and tell me stories, while I just sit back and record the moments.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

As a background, you can see how a seamless paper roll can be used effectively. I add a spotlight in the center, one stop over the key, and also use bright Rosco color filters to add extra punch. From behind my subjects, I place a collapsed white satin umbrella to camera left, and one Dynalite 7″ flash head with a 30° grid to camera right. These accent lights vary between one half to one stop more than the key. Both are gelled with warming filters from Rosco, including tobaccos and ambers. My fill is a combination of two large parabolic umbrellas placed behind me on each side. One more small softbox is placed under camera 3′ from the floor. These three combined have a reading of one and a half stops less than the key. For my key light, I use a Dynalite 18″ Beauty Dish with a silk diffuser. I add a series of gels ranging from Rosco Pale Bastard Amber to Pink.
My final exposure is 1/125 at f/11.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Lighting the future takes plenty of practice. Exploring, or even combining some of these techniques, may help you get a jumpstart on your next session. Once you can make it your own, you can spend part of the session enjoying a sucker.

child photography portraits Credit: Hernan Rodriguez

Credit: Hernan Rodriguez