Here are a few ideas for creating striking portraits using one or two studio lights and minimal props. All the pictures in this article were shot during one Studio Lighting workshop at my studio in May.
Keeping it Simple
My lighting workshop delegates often expect to dive in to complicated multi light set-ups right from the off when the simple techniques using just one light need refining first. Using just one light sounds easy – switch it on and shoot, and it is, if you are careful and know what you are doing. It is often the simple single light images we start with on a workshop day that bring out the creativity in all of us.
My studio lighting concept is simple, I start
with my subject in a big dark box without light, I add light under completely controlled conditions until I have created the look I want. What could possibly go wrong?
Just one light
I start my shoot knowing the look I want to achieve in the picture. I use tear sheets from magazines or screen grabs from the web as inspiration, often picking elements from many sources to integrate into a single image. I also call upon my experience of what works and what doesn’t, some looks will work with some customers and not others. It depends upon their face shape, body shape and the rapport I can generate. I think you can learn a lot from the experiences of others but practice will always be a factor of success in the studio.
The hardness of a light relates to its relative size. I say relative size because a large light source a long way from the subject becomes a hard source because of its distance. The sun is a good example of this. I use my softbox from the other side of the studio at times to produce more clearly defined shadows. The reverse is also true. I use a beauty dish light in close as a soft key. By using the light closer I get more intimacy with the light shown by the rapid fall off on more distant parts of my subject.
Hard light is my favourite and if I had to work with just one light it would have to be a Fresnel lensed soft edge spot light like the Arri 300 or my daylight balanced Kobold DF400. If I need the power of flash I use my Broncolor Mobil with its Fresnel adapter.
With a lensed light on full flood the barn doors can be used to create slashes of light but when it is used on full spot the light is concentrated into a tight beam.
Soft light is tricky to use well because it goes everywhere. Soft boxes are the biggest light sources I use and because their light emission is less controllable, extra care and skills are required when I’m using them. Just a simple pan of the light by 10 degrees or so can result in a massive improvement in a picture.
Hard & soft light in one unit! Yes it is possible, it’s called a strip light and is tall and narrow or wide and shallow depending upon what way round you rig it. I use a strip light for fashion work where I want to light the entire body either as a key or rim light.
Learning to cheat is part of the process. Filling shadows to the correct level is as important as setting the exposure of highlights. It is always easier to add light to the shadows using reflectors or a fill light but it is really difficult to take light away. I love to be able to create a true black in my pictures and it is for this reason I have avoided painting the walls a light colour. Having said that, I have got one white corner though. I often use this together with a warm neutral shade of paint up in the ceiling for contrast control options. Reducing contrast by firing a random flash into the top corner of the studio behind the camera is just one method I use to get some light to rattle around the studio and fill the shadows.
Fill lights often create shadows themselves and therefore need careful placement. It’s really easy to make a simple shot over complicated by using lights to control contrast and when the effect of the fill lights become obvious the shot looses it’s magic.
Reflectors need something to reflect and rarely is my subject light spilling off into an area out of shot ready to be reflected back in. So unless I am shooting beauty shots I avoid using reflectors all together. Reflectors get in the way, they need careful placement and often require dedicated lights.
Flags are often called negative reflectors, they are black panels that stop reflected light from reaching the subject and simply remove light from the shadows. Flags are usually made from black Bolton twill fabric stretched over a steel wire frame. These are the best flags and are used extensively in product shots.
When I’m working in bigger studios, I use polystyrene boards as both reflectors and flags, the sort of polystyrene that you can buy from builders merchants that go under floors for insulation. These can be painted a matt black on one side and left bright white on the other. I always use high-density fire retardant polystyrene sheets and fire retardant paint. Stage Electrics sell the paint and holders for the poly boards.
Certain looks I create involve blocking the shadows in the shoot process only to lift them in post production, not to recover data, but to set the maximum density in a print to be a shade of grey with deliberate shadow clipping. This gives a completely different look to an ‘S’ curve process that has high contrast mid tones with flat contrast in the shadows and highlights
Adding a second light to increase depth
When I studied lighting some 20 years ago, I regularly heard the term ‘hair light’ and I wondered why the hair get should get singled out for it’s own light. It doesn’t really need to unless your sitters hair is your subject. The job most often done by a ‘hair light’ is to separate the tones of the subject to those of the background. This in turn creates more depth and reveals the three dimensional properties of the sitter. This can also be achieved by lighting the background or a combination of the two. I usually consider an upstage light a must for my portrait work but I just can’t always get one in.
Working in zones
The simplest shots I take have just one zone where the subject and the background are together and lit with the same light. Simple can be extremely effective, it can be naff too. It’s really easy to make a simple shot look dull, flat and lifeless, so to avoid such results I usually work with soft key lights rigged at 60 – 90 degrees to the camera and feather the light to carefully control the fall off.
For multi zone set-ups I often use a beauty dish in close to the subject to help separate the zones leaving the background to be lit by a second light. Just by moving my subject away from the background greatly adds to the separation I can achieve. My grey wall can be black in my pictures with just 2 metres of subject to background distance.
Practice makes perfect
Once you know what you are trying to achieve and how to make it happen, there really is no substitute for practice. I like to shoot at least three days a week, using lights and pushing myself to understand light just that bit more. I’m still learning, perhaps faster than ever.
All the pictures in this article were shot during one Studio Lighting workshop at my studio in May. They cover the use of simple lighting set ups and make up a fraction of the days work. By the afternoon our lighting workshop had moved on to multi light advanced setups. I don’t have a lot of space in my studio, as its dimensions are just 7m by 5m so I limit each workshop to just 3 delegates. We get to shoot all the set ups, one at a time from the perfect position and with one to one attention from our model. My next Studio Lighting Workshop in July is booking right now. When this is full, I’ll add another date ;)
I’d love to read your comments.
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