I was going through my photos that I’ve taken over the last ten years and noticed that I have a large number of portraits of different people in many countries around the world. Although each photo is unique, I realized that generally follow a number of principles, especially when it comes to using my light either on my camera or off-camera.
|Jump shot with a lighting bolt in the background|
As someone who learned things from scratch, I can still remember the frustration one feels when looking for free, credible information and tutorials on strobist photography, not to mention the desperation when one finds overwhelming facts about the topic. My suggestion for serious beginners who want to learn the ropes of strobist photography, is to keep things as simple as possible.
Explaining the behavior and quality of light can be complex and technical. However, it can also be explained in a practical manner, which most people will understand. Over the years, I’ve landed on a few basics that I keep in mind when working with lights and people. In this simple guide, we’ll go through these basics and, without being technically annoying, and equip you with the essentials of lighting portraits with a single hot shoe flash. :-)
Using built-in flash
There is nothing wrong with the built-in flash in cameras, but it does have very limited capability when it comes to sculpting someone’s face with light to create texture and a three-dimensional effect.
|External Flash unit attached to camera.|
Most, if not all professional cameras don’t have built-in flashes and there is a reason for that. There are two situations, however, when a built-in flash can come in handy: for emergencies or for important images where quality of light is not as important as getting the image, and for fill-in light using controlled output of light for daytime shots where there are heavy shadows.
|Using fill in flash allowed me to soften heavy shadows caused by strong sunlight|
The main source of learning material I used was from Neil van Niekerk who has some great material for creating pleasant looking portraits with your flash on your camera. The basic technique relies on their being some surface to “bounce” your light off onto the subject - essentially creating the same look and feel as off-camera lighting. In fact now, I can’t walk into a room without looking at the walls and ceilings to see if they would be good to bounce light off of, even if I don’t have a camera with me!
After seeing the results from the on-camera lighting course from Neil van Niekerk, I eventually moved to off-camera lighting techniques, where the main light source is placed away from the camera and triggered by a cable or electronic trigger attached to the camera. In looking for education material for off-camera lighting I found a site called http://www.strobist.com run by David Hobby. Although this is the main destination now for anyone wanting to learn off-camera photography, in 2006 it was a new site and the only one I could find what had both great material and was free!
Basics of Portrait Lighting
Over the years I’ve landed on a few basics that I keep in mind when working with lights and people. I like to keep things as simple as possible and no matter what I’m doing will always start off with what I can do with my flash on camera, then what I can do with one light off-camera using some kind of light modifier. Only once I have exhausted my possibilities will I look to using more than one light.
There are six “basics” that I think about when using strobes in portrait photography:
- Light-to-subject distance
- Relative size of light source
- Quality of light
- Direction of light
- Balance of strobe light to ambient light
- Light modifiers
There is a lot of material out there on the Internet about what’s called the “inverse square law”. Whenever I see the words “inverse”, “Square” and “law” together my eyes glaze over and strait breaking out in a sweat, that was until I read David Hobby’s explanation which is real simple to understand "The closer you are to the light source, the more powerful the light. Get real close and it gets really powerful. Get far away, and it gets weaker”.
The reason this is important is because as you move your light closer to or further away from your subject you’ll need to know how to adjust the power of the light to make it stronger or weaker.
The other component that took me a while to understand (I am a very slow learner) is that light, similar to a lens, has a depth of focus. Unlike the depth of focus on a lens, which defines what is in focus in an image, the depth of focus of light relates to how much of the image will be lit, if the strobe was the only light source. The short description for depth of focus is the further the light source is away from the subject the more the surrounding objects are going to be in the lit in the picture.
Depth of focus, therefore allows you to control what you want to appear in the image. If you place the light closer to the subject it is more powerful, allows you to control more accurately what you include in the image and gives you more control of exposure. If you place the light further away the light is less powerful and allows you to light a broader area more evenly.
|Large soft box about 1 foot away from the subject|
|Large soft box about 3 feet away from the subject|
|Large soft box about 5 feet away from the subject|
Understanding the light-to-subject distance allows you to exploit the lighting depth of field to produce the images you want. This is the first piece of the puzzle related to something called the “Quality of Light”.
Relative size of light source
Understanding that the closer the light source is to the subject you’re photographing, the bigger the relative size of the light becomes, was counter intuitive to me. Not sure why, maybe I’m slow or something, but once I got it, it became clear.
As you bring the light source closer to the subject and the light gets bigger, the more the light is able to wrap around the subject. This is important, as it is the second piece of the “Quality of Light” puzzle.
|The soft wrap around shadow gives the impression of a medium to large light box|
|But the light source is a small 8x10" light box placed very close to the subject|
|Using the same small softbox gives hard shadows similar to a small light source.|
Of course some light sources will always be small compared to their subject, e.g. a normal flash compared to an elephant, but if you had a light source big enough to light an elephant, then moving it closer to the elephant would make it relatively larger and wrap around the elephant - was that too abstract?
Quality of Light
The quality of light is affected by the interplay of the above two elements or light-to-subject distance and the relative size of the light source. I found the easiest explanation of quality of light from David Hobby where he compares the head shot from the Department of Motor Vehicles to a professional portrait.
|Bare bulb flash - very hard shadows with a quick transition from light to shadows|
|Large Octabox - very soft shadows with a gradual transition from light to shadows|
Quality of light covers both hard and soft light, neither one is right or wrong only appropriate and inappropriate depending on the image.
|Understanding how the quality of light affects images|
Direction of light
The direction of light is easier to understand how it affects the image. Taking your strobe off-camera allows you to move the light to any angle in relation to the subject, which reveals form in a person, or any other three-dimensional object. The easiest way to see how light from your light angle will affect your subject is to move yourself to the position of the light and view the subject from that position.
|It's important to understand how the direction of light affects the portrait|
Just like there is no right or wrong quality of light, there is also not right or wrong angles of light, only appropriate and inappropriate depending on the image. For instance the low angle of the light source in the image below is great for a scary Halloween photo, but probably not appropriate for a portrait of a bride.
|A low angle of light create a distinct type of portrait|
Balance of strobe light to ambient light
Probably the most complicated part of using a strobe is understanding the relationship between the light source and the natural surrounding light, known as ambient light. When using ambient light, a camera’s exposure is affected by the aperture of the lens, the shutter speed and the sensor’s (or film’s) ISO setting, whereas a camera’s exposure when shooting only with a strobe is only affected by the aperture of the lens and the sensor’s (or film’s) ISO setting (as long as the shutter speed is below the max sync speed).
|Changing the shutter speed affects the ambient light not the flash light|
When using a strobe you are essentially created two exposures, one for the ambient light and one for the strobe. David Hobby’s article on balancing ambient and flash light clearly explains this concept in detail.
My most frequent use of balancing ambient light and flash is for night-time pictures like the common jump shot
|Jump shots are a great example for balancing Ambient and Flash lighting|
|Jump shot with a lighting bolt in the background|
|My youngest daughter - ready for New Year's dinner|
|Balancing flash with early evening light|
Another great use of balancing ambient and flash light is for using the sun as a back-light and the flash as a main light to light faces.
|Balancing the sun as a back light and the flash as the main light|
Light modifiers do exactly what it sounds like - they modify the quality of light. Some light modifiers, like umbrellas or soft boxes, make the light softer and some, like snoots and grids, make the light harder. For now I’ll focus on portraits with softer light modifiers:
The softbox I use is a 24x24 Ezybox from Lastolite, which creates a nice soft light and has the ability to add a grid on the front to control spill.
|Lastolite 24x24 Ezybox I|
|Softbox light is soft on the face with a little spill on the background|
|Softbox light creates a nice profile with little spill on the background|
The Octabox I use is a 36" Octabox from Lastolite, which creates a nice big soft light for a great quality of light.
|Lastolite 36" Octabox I|
|Octabox light is really soft on the face with a little spill on the background|
|Octabox light creates a nice profile with little spill on the background|
Octabox with fill card
One of the easiest ways to get an additional light is to add a reflector. In the images below you can see the model holding a white foam card to reflect light back up into the shadows under her chin.
|Holding a reflector under the model can creates a second fill light|
|Final image with the Octabox on top and the fill card underneath|
The strip light softbox I use is a 48x16 strip light from Lastolite, which creates a nice controlled soft light for a great quality of light.
|Lastolite 48x16 Strip Light Softbox|
|Strip light is fairly soft on the face with a little spill on the background|
|Strip light creates a nice profile with almost no spill on the background|
The great thing about umbrellas is that compared to other light modifiers they are cheap and create a fairly soft light. Most of the time I prefer softboxes as I am able to control the spill of light, whereas when using umbrellas, the light tends to bounce everywhere.
|Lastolite 20" Translucent Umbrella|
|Umbrella light is fairly soft but also has a quite a bit of spill onto the background|
|Umbrella light creates a soft side profile but also has a quite a bit of spill onto the background|
The beauty dish shown below is a 24" dish with a diffuser sock over the end. It creates a harder light than the softboxes but still has a nice quality to it.
|24" Beauty Dish|
|Beauty dishes create a harder light and control the spill on the background|
A beauty dish is also often used in conjunction with a fill card under the chin to create a nice clean look.
|Beauty dish with fill card underneath|
|Beauty dish creates a nice profile with almost no spill on the background|
The ring flash creates a fairly strong image and is often seen in fashion magazines (hint: look for the ring of light in the catch light in the eyes.) I use a ring flash from Orbis that fits over the front of the lens, which is what causes the almost ghost like shadow effect. Although the light is fairly harsh, because it is a ring of light, it creates almost no shadows on the face.
|The ring flash goes over the lens and the flash fits into the slot at the bottom|
|The ring light creates a very distinct look for fashion magazines|
The Sto-fen diffuser pops onto the top of your flash to create a fairly soft light. You do need to order the correct diffuser for your flash unit, so make sure you check that you are getting the right one. These are great at diffusing light and I keep them on nearly all the time if I am doing journalistic events.
|The Sto-fen filter sits on top of the flash and is tilted at about 60 degrees|
|You can also use Sto-fen diffusers in portrait mode.|
|Sto-fen diffusers create a large light and which creates spill on the background|
Bounce - Ceiling
Bouncing light of the ceiling is a great way to create a large light source and soft light. I shoot a lot of events and family shots using this technique. The main problems are (1) you have little control over the light as it goes everywhere and (2) the light is affected by the color of the paint on the ceiling.
|Ceiling bounce light creates a large light and large spills on the background|
Bounce - Wall
Bouncing light of a wall is a great way to create a large light source and soft light, while keeping some of the 3D form with shadows. I shoot a lot of events and family shots using this technique. The main problem is that the light is affected by the color of the paint on the ceiling.
|Wall bounce light creates a large light and large spills on the background|
A special thanks to my daughter Abby Emmett, for modeling for these photos. Abby hosts a YouTube video channel where she discusses various make up products and how to apply them effectively. You can view her videos on her YouTube Channel.
I hope you have enjoyed this article about portrait lighting with a single strobe. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org