From sunlight to strobe lights, there are many ways to light a portrait image. However, the light source itself is only one side of the story, as it is how this light is distributed that defines a portrait.

There is a huge range of products to help angle, diffuse, reflect, filter or otherwise modify the light to suit a photographer’s taste. However, sometimes the best results can be achieved by using inexpensive and simple items.

Even with a small budget, more specific portrait accessories can be obtained that can be used to manipulate light, trigger a flashgun, or simply act as a third hand to hold a reflector.

Black and white card/Tracing paper

A sheet of A2 or A1 black and white card should be an absolute essential for any portrait photographer, and best of all it is one of the cheapest accessories you can buy.

White card can be used to reflect light onto the subject’s face to fill in unflattering shadows and brighten their face. Conversely, replacing the white card with black card will reduce the amount of light reflected from other surfaces in the room, or outside. The black sheet blocks out this reflected light and will cause any shadows to be darker. This is particularly useful when creating moody, low-key portraits.

Tracing paper is also useful for diffusing harsh light. Turn to page 58 to see how it can be used
to soften sunlight from a window.

Tape and Bulldog Clips

A roll of cloth or masking tape must surely be among the most useful items known to mankind. When taking portraits, this tape can be used to hold reflectors, diffusers, card, backgrounds or even small flashlights in position. Importantly, cloth tape is useful for taping cables to hard floors so people do not trip over them.

Bulldog clips may not at first seem like obvious items to keep in your camera bag, but they can be very useful when taking portraits. Bulldog clips can be used to hold lighting gels in place, grip card reflectors in position, pin back a loose or stray item of clothing or act as a substitute hair clip. Along with a roll of cloth or tape, bulldog clips should be in every photographer’s kit bag.


A small mirror can be used to help the subject check their hair and make-up, whilst a full-length mirror allows them to check their clothing and posture. This can be very reassuring as it gives them confidence in their own appearance, which should help them relax.

Hotshoe Slave Trigger, £10-15

While many modern flashguns have built-in slave cells or can be triggered wirelessly, a cheap hotshoe trigger allows any flashgun to be fired wirelessly. This makes it easy to build up a small studio lighting setup using inexpensive and second-hand flashguns.

Kenro 42in 5-in-1 Reflector, £68.44

Available from:

A 5-in-1 reflector is one of the items every photographer should own, especially if you take a lot of portraits. It has three reflective surfaces, each creating a different effect. The silver and gold surfaces are highly reflective, with the gold also adding a warming tint that is particularly useful
for late-afternoon outdoor portraits. However, it is the basic white surface that will be used as a reflector most often. The black surface can be used to prevent light being reflected, which makes shadows darker.

The final element is a diffuser. Positioned near to the subject’s face, this can diffuse light, whether it is from a window or a lamp. Please note, though, that the diffuser must be placed near the subject and not over a hot studio light, which could create a fire hazard or cause the light to overheat.

Viewfinder Photography Double-Sided Collapsible Black/White Background, £82

Available from:

Paper background rolls are great, but they are not very convenient to leave set up in a home studio, or to carry to different locations. A far better option is a collapsible background. These work like collapsible reflectors and consist of a cloth background in a sprung metal frame, which can be folded down to something around a quarter of the size.

Viewfinder Photography’s collapsible backgrounds measure 200x235cm and have black and white sides. They can be easily transported and used in other locations, even outside, and don’t take up a lot of storage space.

Honl Photo Sampler Filter Kit, £13.50

Available from:
Portrait photographers often overlook lighting gels, but they have a number of different uses. To start with, they can be placed over a flash to alter the colour temperature. An appropriate coloured gel can, for example, make a flash warmer so that it matches tungsten light.

However, lighting gels can also be used for effects. For example, a white background can be given a red tint by placing a red gel over a background flash. Having a selection of coloured lighting gels allows a range of colours to be added to backgrounds. A blue gel used over a backlight can add atmosphere to a portrait. You can even combine primary-coloured gels to create new colours, such as blue and red to make purple.

Lastolite Triflip Deluxe Kit, £159.99

Available from:

Perfect for head-and-shoulders portraits, the Triflip Deluxe kit features a Trigrip Diffuser as well as a range of reflective covers. The diffuser can be used to soften harsh light falling on the subject, while the two reversible covers can act as white, silver, soft silver, gold and sunlight reflectors. A final black surface can be used to stop light being reflected.

To hold the Triflip, the kit comes complete with an air-cushioned stand and bracket, as well as a carry case. For more on using the Triflip kit, see AP explains… window-light portraits in AP 9 October.

Kenro Camera Flash Diffuser, £8.17

Available from:

This simple diffuser helps soften the harsh direct light from a pop-up or hotshoe-mounted flashgun. This is useful when using fill-in flash, or for softening the flash caused by using the pop-up flash to trigger other flashguns.

Interfit Strobies Portrait Kit, around £100

Available from:

The Interfit Strobies Portrait Kit is a great way to replicate studio lighting effects using a humble flashgun. Consisting of a beauty dish, softbox, globe diffuser, barndoors, a snoot and a honeycomb grid, the kit makes it easy to achieve a number f lighting effects.

Each of the accessories is mounted to a flashgun via a Flexmount adapter. If you have a number of flashguns you can purchase more Flexmounts (around £7 each) and create your very own portable lighting setup.

Creativity International Black Velour Background, £63.45

Available from:

Most studio portraits use simple white or black backgrounds so as not to distract too much from the subject. While most people will have a suitable white wall in their house, black backgrounds are harder to come by.

Black paper roll backgrounds are a solution, although they can be difficult to get absolutely black. A better option is to use a velvet or velour background. These absorb far more light than black paper can, and as such it is easier to light the subject and still keep the black background. Creativity International’s black velour background is 1.5m wide and 7.3m long. Best of all, the backgrounds have vinyl backing, which makes them hard-wearing when walked on and easy to roll back up for storage.