I have been asked to take a portrait of a violinist with her instrument. She's from my family so I can ask her to pose as I like. The picture is actually going to be turned into a painting later, but I want to take advantage of the opportunity and do the job the best I can. I'm an amateur with zero experience on portraits but from what I know I've thought of the following: I was thinking of a head shot of her playing her instrument in such a way that the end of the violin and one of her hands appears out of focus in the foreground and her face right in the focal plane. Something pretty much like this: enter image description here

She's got curly black hair so it would blend greatly with the dark background I had in mind. Now here's where my doubts take place. Do you think that's a good pose or should I choose a different one because that one may be too boring? My camera is the sony a200 and my gear consists of an old extendible tripod, an 18-70 kit lens and an 18-200 too. The problem is that I've got no lighting gear at all (only in-camera flash), and I will only have the nightime available to take a couple of pictures of her. Maybe I could improvise something similar to a softbox or make a home made reflector to bounce the in-camera flash? What do you think? If you agree, how would you do it? In my opinion b&w would be great for the shot I'm aiming for but maybe it would draw attention away from the violin too much? What's your opinion? Could you give some ideas on how to get the shot correctly lit?

Thanks in advance

  • \$\begingroup\$ Just a note: the photograph you gave as example does not show a good perspective. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2023 at 17:41

4 Answers 4


I'd use a flash on a stand triggered by your camera's flash. Control the spread of the lighting by using a 20 degree grid.

A Yongnuo flash isn't terribly expensive and will help get the shot you are looking for. Or you can rent lighting gear from a rental house for under $75 for a 3-day rental.

Obligatory links to the Strobist blog:



  • \$\begingroup\$ The Yongnuo Speedlite YN-560 II looks great and it's compatible with my camera. Do you think it would be a good choice? For now I will experiment with the lighting I can find around the house as I'm not really looking forward to rent anything for this kind of shot. (I'm not going to gain anything from it but experience). The links have very helpful and interesting information. Thanks for sharing them! \$\endgroup\$
    – user48996
    Feb 19, 2016 at 0:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd still lean towards renting a professional strobe flash as it comes with a "modeling light" which allows you to see what the approximate results before you take a picture. Otherwise its a series of shoot, chimp, adjust flash settings with the Strobist approach to lighting using hotshoe style flashes. Besides you'll have something worthy of your portfolio and to post on the Strobist group at Flickr. \$\endgroup\$
    – dperry1973
    Feb 19, 2016 at 0:20

This is a basic low-key shot, but without the benefit of a flash you're going to need to work harder to get the big difference between subject and background.

Without a flash, a good bet for the kind of shot you're talking about is to pick an exterior doorway where whatever's outside will be good and dark, like a backyard with no lights. Open the door wide and ask the subject to stand just outside the door, so that light from the room falls on her face and on the violin, and the background behind her is good and dark. You can shoot from inside the house if you want her to be fully lit, or you can try to stand outside with her so that she's lit from the side. The key, again, is that whatever's behind her should be much darker than the light on her face and violin.

You want to set the camera so that it'll give a good exposure for her face, and at the same time really underexpose the background. If there's not enough light to do that, bring more light to the party. Get your three favorite cousins to stand inside the house and hold table lamps, work lights, whatever you've got available, near the doorway. Adjust the brightness by having them move closer or farther away. As long as you've got a big enough difference in brightness between subject and background, the background will go black.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I now think the shot is going to be rather easy to get. I think we have a bunch of spare LED lights which will surely be of great help. I will post the result so you guys can critique it. \$\endgroup\$
    – user48996
    Feb 18, 2016 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Most LED lights emit a very limited spectrum and will make getting good skin tones impossible. Incandescent lights will do much better unless the LED lights are specifically designed for camera work. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Feb 19, 2016 at 9:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark I see... I hadn't taken that in mind and it's quite important. Thank you for that! \$\endgroup\$
    – user48996
    Feb 19, 2016 at 15:52

When photographing for painting you may want to aim for a sharper/clearer version of the shot. You might also want to do one against a light background. Are you in contact with the artist? If so, take their advice.

As a portrait photograph your idea sounds good - but I'd also try some narrower aperture/longer exposure shots with your subject actually playing. The motion blur might work (it does with some instruments/musicians).

A tip on budget lighting: a spare tripod with a halogen security floodlight can help. That's a harsh light so bouncing it off a white painted board will soften it. This works better for a tripod shot than handheld as it's not very intense.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Allright! Lots of ideas to try out! Thanks a million for those tips. I agree with you as in terms of translating it to a painting. A clearer version of the picture will be better for that matter. I'll keep the low-key version for me as a practice. \$\endgroup\$
    – user48996
    Feb 19, 2016 at 13:21

I think your posing and framing idea is great and should make for a powerful photograph and painting.

You asked for how to do this without lighting gear, and I think that is an entirely reasonable approach. Many great photographers who did outstanding portraits never used flashes or lighting gear, for example Henri Cartier-Bresson. For more current examples of what can be done using only available light, take a look at Jeffrey Ascough's website. All of his photos were taken using only available light.

The advice of another poster to use doorway light is great. The same is true for posing before a largish window. If you can, have the background be as far away as possible and as dark as possible. You can also use ordinary home lamps to add light to the scene and move them to get the effects you want. It might be a good idea to experiment with a lighting setup by posing a chair with something on it--maybe a pile of clothing that is approximately the same tone as a face--and then taking some photos while rearranging the lights and placement of the chair in various locations. That will help you to know what effects you will get before the big day. It will also help you to set up your shooting situation before your subject sits down.

Avoid LED lights, for multiple reasons, unless they have a CRI rating of 95 or higher and even then your camera may have banding in the image if you shoot with LED lights.

One last thought. If the backgrounds are suitable, you could experiment with having the background appear in the image, but having it be dimly lit. That would be a different photo than you have so far envisaged, but it might be fun to experiment.

I think the way you are approaching this is great and that you will learn a lot. Just take images of some trial setups before the big day.


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