Studio portrait lighting with minimal kit ~ feature article

Jun 12, 2010 | Continuous Lighting, Flash, Studio | 18 comments

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.

100m lens at f/2.8 Here is the same technique but used against my patch of yellow wall in my studio. It looks sunny and I like that.

Shot 1. Canon 5D Mk2 with a 100m lens at f/2.8 This shot is completely lit from one Bowens Gemini flash unit rigged above and behind Chloe. It was fitted with a 7" reflector and a fine honeycomb grid. I’m really happy to let thing go in my shots. I’m never one to worry about a bit of detail loss in the highlights if the shot is great. In fact I positively go out of my way to blow out highlights in frames like this taken against my patch of yellow wall in my studio. It looks sunny and I like that.

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.

100mm lens at f/16. Lit using a 40cm beauty dish with a 1/4 inch honecomb grid to provide a pool of relatively hard light. No other lights were used and that gave me some really clean deep shadows without the need for additional contrast control. Notice the ‘Holywood’ style lighting. Chloe’s nose shadow just touches her cheek shadow to leave an enclosed triangle of light that just catches her left eye. Even when using one simple light, the placement of it is critical to achieve the vintage look.

Shot 2. 100mm lens at f/16. Lit using a 40cm beauty dish with a 1/4 inch honecomb grid to provide a pool of relatively hard light. No other lights were used and that gave me some really clean deep shadows without the need for additional contrast control. Notice the ‘Holywood’ style lighting. Chloe’s nose shadow just touches her cheek shadow to leave an enclosed triangle of light that just catches her left eye. Even when using one simple light, the placement of it is critical to achieve the vintage look.

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.

100mm lens at f/8. Lit with one 17cm reflector fitted with a fine 4mm honeycomb grid to simulate the look of a Fresnel lensed light on half spot. I keyed Chloe right down her nose line and although her false eyelashes shadow her eyes to prevent highlights, they are far from dead. The intensity of our rapport at the moment of capture draws the viewer into her eyes.

Shot 3. 100mm lens at f/8. Lit with one 17cm reflector fitted with a fine 4mm honeycomb grid to simulate the look of a Fresnel lensed light on half spot. I keyed Chloe right down her nose line and although her false eyelashes shadow her eyes to prevent highlights, they are far from dead. The intensity of our rapport at the moment of capture draws the viewer into her eyes.

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.

100mm lens at f/11 I used a simple two light set up for this shot. The keylight was slightly broader (nearer the camera) than is usual for my style but I kept the shadow under the cheekbone to give definition. This is a very classical over the shoulder look and the light has produced wonderful catch lights in Chloe’s eyes. I added a second light from the right to provide some rim separation. This is most clearly visible on her arm and her hair.

Shot 4. 100mm lens at f/11 I used a simple two light set up for this shot. The keylight was slightly broader (nearer the camera) than is usual for my style but I kept the shadow under the cheekbone to give definition. This is a very classical over the shoulder look and the light has produced wonderful catch lights in Chloe’s eyes. I added a second light from the right to provide some rim separation. This is most clearly visible on her arm and her hair.

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.

100mm lens at f/2.8 For this shot I used the same lighting set up as in the shot above but I opened the lens up to f/2.8 and used the modeling light to create a true vintage look from before the days of flash when tungsten Fresnel lighting was used.

Shot 5. 100mm lens at f/2.8 For this shot I used the same lighting set up as in the shot above but I opened the lens up to f/2.8 and used the modeling light to create a true vintage look from before the days of flash when tungsten Fresnel lighting was used.

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.

Controlling contrast

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.

100mm lens at f/11 Back to using flash I changed the key to a beauty dish and added a third light from behind and to the left. Although this feature is about using up to two lights I could easily have used a silver reflector to create the subtle separation on the right. This is just visible on Chloe’s arm and hair.

Shot 6. 100mm lens at f/11 Back to using flash I changed the key to a beauty dish and added a third light from behind and to the left. Although this feature is about using minimal lights I could easily have used a silver reflector to create the subtle separation on the right. This is just visible on Chloe’s arm and hair.

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.

100mm lens at f/11 Next we were on to using single soft boxes to create pools of light. The technique used here is to set the light up horizontally hanging from the overhead rails as if it is over a snooker table. The light is not directly above Chloe it is in front of her. It is at 90 degrees to the wall and this helps to keep the tonal separation effortless. This is one of my favorite shots of the set. I asked Luke, one of our picture editors to come up with a vintage post production look that used a lift in the shadows together with a non linear tint. The next two pictures use the same Photoshop action.

Shot 7. 100mm lens at f/11 Next we were on to using single soft boxes to create pools of light. The technique used here is to set the light up horizontally hanging from the overhead rails as if it is over a snooker table. The light is not directly above Chloe it is in front of her. It is at 90 degrees to the wall and this helps to keep the tonal separation effortless. This is one of my favorite shots of the set. I asked Luke, one of our picture editors to come up with a vintage post production look that used a lift in the shadows together with a non linear tint. The next two pictures use the same Photoshop action.

100mm lens at f/11 The same soft box from above only this time Chloe is on a bean bag. Notice the shadow under Chloe’s cheek bone. It is vitally important to set soft boxes well so the you concentrate on creating the definition that is so easy to loose with flat lighting.

Shot 8. 100mm lens at f/11 The same soft box from above only this time Chloe is on a bean bag. Notice the shadow under Chloe’s cheek bone. It is vitally important to set soft boxes well so the you concentrate on creating the definition that is so easy to loose with flat lighting.

100mm lens at f/11 One soft box as a keylight and one standard reflector with a honeycomb grid used as a kick light was the lighting set up. I just sat Chloe in a chair and positioned her arms to create the strong diagonal composition. A very low viewpoint and Chloe’s far away gaze complete the picture.

Shot 9. 100mm lens at f/11 One soft box as a keylight and one standard reflector with a honeycomb grid used as a kick light was the lighting set up. I just sat Chloe in a chair and positioned her arms to create the strong diagonal composition. A very low viewpoint and Chloe’s far away gaze complete the picture.

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.

This wide shot shows the set up for the shot below. 100mm lens at f/2.8 I opened the lens up 5 stops on this shot that was completely lit from the rear. It’s just reflected light that is coming back onto Chloe’s face.

Shot 10. This wide shot shows the set up for the shot below. 100mm lens at f/2.8 I opened the lens up 5 stops on this shot that was completely lit from the rear. It’s just reflected light that is coming back onto Chloe’s face.

100mm lens at f/2.8 Here is the close up shot I was after. I’m really happy to let thing go in my shots. I’m never one to worry about a bit of detail loss in the highlights if the shot is great. In fact I positively go out of my way to blow out highlights.

Shot 11. 100mm lens at f/2.8 Here is the close up shot I was after. Again I've let the highlights go. There is a 6 stop exposure difference between the back of Chloe's head and her face.

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

100m lens at f/4 I used my Arri 300w Fresnel light for this simple shot. I left my white balance at 5000k to give the shot it’s warmth. A slash of light was created using the barn doors on the lamp. It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

Shot 12. 100m lens at f/4 I used my Arri 300w Fresnel light for this simple shot. I left my white balance at 5000k to give the shot it’s warmth. A slash of light was created using the barn doors on the lamp. It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

100m lens at f/4 Here is the identical set-up as above but shot with a different pose and from another angle. The key light is still down Chloe’s nose and I love the gentle roll off of the light on the camera side of Chloe’s face.

Shot 13. 100m lens at f/4 Here is the identical set-up as above but shot with a different pose and from another angle. The key light is still down Chloe’s nose and I love the gentle roll off of the light on the camera side of Chloe’s face.

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.

I lit this shot with a single Bowens Wafer softbox. Single zone, single light working is one of my favourite techniques because it is so fast to rig and shoot.

Shot 14. I lit this shot with a single Bowens Wafer softbox. Single zone, single light working is one of my favourite techniques because it is so fast to rig and shoot.

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.

By the afternoon we moved on to more advanced multi light set ups like this one involving four lights, a reflector and an orange gel.

Shot 15. By the afternoon we moved on to more advanced multi light set ups like this one involving four lights, a reflector and an orange gel.

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.

If you found this helpful, you may also like to read Studio Lighting Pictures and Techniques and Colourful studio portraits ~ Techniques and Pictures

18 Comments

  1. Michael

    Greetings Damien,
    I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised when I came across your site.
    Being a learned studio photographer I normally find sites like this dull and lacking value, but your site is top notch to say the least.
    I would have to say one of the best I’ve come across to date. Love it!
    I will definitely be recommending it to others.
    Kindest regards,
    Michael

    Reply
    • damien

      Wow, Thank you Michael. Visit again soon.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  2. posh

    Amazing, as ever! Cant wait to do the studio lighting day soon!

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Posh :))

      Reply
  3. Tino

    Hi Damien
    Very nice Master class i hope this year i will attend to one of your classes so i look foward to here from you it will be Me and My Daugther
    Tino
    over 30 year of Photography

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Tino,
      I can sort a special opportunity for you and your daughter to train with me. Email Blaise blaise@lovegroveconsulting.com (use Google translate if you need :) We can help you.

      Best wishes,

      Damien.

      Reply
  4. Jan Taylor

    Hi Damien,
    Thanks for your help! Yes, I have used soft light in the past, but it is, as you say, a little flat. I will try continuous light and some post production on the skin!
    Thanks again,
    Jan

    Reply
  5. Jan Taylor

    Hi Damien,
    Fab shots! Can you advise me on what lighting would be best utilised in the studio for a middle aged lady? Your advice would be gratefully received.
    Many thanks
    Jan

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Jan,

      It all depends on the look you are after. Super soft light can be flat and featureless but masks skin texture. I prefer continuous light from a Lupo 800 to show shape and form and I then let Marko help with the skin texture with Photoshop.

      Kindest regards, Damien.

      Reply
  6. nitin satghare

    v.v.v imp. post . thanks

    Reply
  7. nitin satghare

    I LIKE U R CLEAR CUT NOTES ON EACH PHOTO, AND LIGHTING. BECAUSE OF DISTANCE AND AFFORDABILITY I CANT JOIN U .THANKS

    Reply
  8. Rory

    Another great article Damien – just what I’ve been looking for – can’t wait for the DVD!

    Reply
  9. Studio2

    Damien
    excellent post and great advice thank you

    Martin

    Reply
  10. Jon Allen

    Hi Damien

    Just love the Arri light shots, so I’ve done it, purchased one from your site yesterday, can’t wait.

    Many thanks Damien for your continued inspiration.

    May I ask if you are on schedule to offer the Studio video later this year?

    Rgds Jon

    Reply
  11. jacqui

    This is a wonderful article. I love your work and learn so much from your blog .I can only hope to produce images such as yours one day.Thanks for being such a great educator!

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Jon,

      I think I’m on schedule. I’m due to start filming in September.

      Damien.

      Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Jacqui, Studio 2, Rory and Yorkshire Photographer :)

      Reply

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