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

  • 2
    It's hard to light something without lights. If you could borrow, rent, or buy at least a flash and a cable to use it off camera, that'd help, but you'll also want to practice using it before your big moment.
    – Caleb
    Feb 18, 2016 at 20:53
  • I know :( I'll try to get hold of a flash
    – user48996
    Feb 18, 2016 at 20:57
  • If you don't have a flash you can always use a lamp with or without the shade depending if you need defused to harsh light. Feb 18, 2016 at 21:08
  • 1
    Could you turn your title into a description of the core question? Imagine how many other millions of questions completely unrelated to this one could have the same title.
    – mattdm
    Feb 19, 2016 at 0:17
  • 3
    Hi, you say I was thinking of a head shot of her playing her instrument but here's a suggestion: since you're already gonna have a photo session don't limit yourself to that specific pose. Have her pose while not playing her violin (figure out ways to have the violin appear in frame without her playing it). Take pictures that are not in low light. Go crazy. Have fun. Experiment. Play. Learn.
    – Roflo
    Feb 19, 2016 at 15:30

3 Answers 3


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:



  • 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!
    – user48996
    Feb 19, 2016 at 0:06
  • 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.
    – 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
    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.
    – user48996
    Feb 18, 2016 at 21:40
  • 1
    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.
    – Michael C
    Feb 19, 2016 at 9:24
  • @MichaelClark I see... I hadn't taken that in mind and it's quite important. Thank you for that!
    – 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.

  • 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.
    – user48996
    Feb 19, 2016 at 13:21

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