45 degree Portrait Lighting Setup

There are many portrait lighting setups, and beginners can be confused about how to start - I certainly was. Now after a few years, I can point out one good starting point answer, one Easy Standard General Purpose 45 degree lighting starting point. A formula about basics, which may be all you ever need.

This is standard stuff, and this standard setup always works well for me. Having a flash meter makes setup be very easy and repeatable. That can include TTL (Commander TTL meters its flash too), but at least the background and hair light need to be manual lights, these are extremely difficult for TTL.

This case shown uses four lights, Main and Fill, and the background and hair lights which can be optional. The article is about Main and Fill light. These are studio lights, but speedlights in umbrellas can do this too.

It is a classic setup. Basically, and traditionally, the main light is placed about 45 degrees high and 45 degrees wide, as viewed from the subject.

The concept of fill light is that the fill is located very near the camera lens axis. For that purpose, the fill light is often placed behind the camera, centered just higher looking over it - the idea is the fill light sees the same view that the lens sees, so that it lights the exact same shadows that the lens sees - specifically to prevent making another set of shadows. Behind the camera does require more length in the room, and more fill flash power (more distance). There are a couple of ways to do this... one way is the fill light behind the camera, as shown at right.

Or the fill light can be close in front of camera. It must be well back near the camera so the camera can see around its umbrella. The fill light used below has its fabric edge nearly touching the lens barrel, the point is for it to be frontal, literally about as close as possible to the lens axis. Frontal means the fill will fill those shadows that the lens sees, without making its own second set of shadows. This front method works well in a cramped space, and is closer than if behind the camera, which helps the flash distance and power. Do use a lens hood, and check that your fill is not shining in the lens (and that the hair light is not either). It's hard for me to see much practical difference between these two ways.

The furniture is all moved just enough to fit this in. I always need an absolute minimum of at least 15 feet for this setup, which will be Extremely Cramped. 20 feet will be Very Greatly Better (it need not be very wide at the camera end). Subject and photographer each consume a couple of feet and probably the background stand does too. You need at least 4 or 5 feet behind subject to background, so you can light its area - or if unlighted, at least 2 or 3 feet to keep subject shadows off of it. More important, you need at least 6 feet to camera for proper perspective (to NOT make a close nose look larger). You might get by with 5 feet, but some say the subject needs 8 or 10 feet.

Add up the space necessary. These are all minimums: and it will still be cramped. Every additional foot is an advantage, however it need not be very wide back at the camera. In some tight cases, the photographer and camera might stand in next room, shooting through an open door. My case shown has the furniture moved to make the space longer. Then it leaves over 21 feet of space here, with ten foot ceiling, and it is roomy (relatively). But if seeking a full length portrait, then you need a much larger clear area at the sides than here, and sufficient background height will be very important then too.

The camera here is at about ten feet. Perspective is about the distance, where the camera stands. Perspective IS NOT about the lens focal length. The focal length merely makes us stand back at that place, but there is only the one perspective view available to see to any lens standing there. The lens sees what it sees from there. Regardless if its a group with a shorter lens, or a head shot with telephoto, you want the camera back at least 6 or 7 feet, and 10 is better (certainly for closeups). A 105mm lens was always called a "portrait" lens in the 35mm film days, simply because it requires any head and shoulders view to stand back at this distance, forcing proper perspective (equivalent of 70mm for DX). These portrait shots are at ten feet with f/10 1/200 second ISO 200, Nikon D300, 70-200 lens, 80 mm DX (120mm FX equivalent).

This background here is about 8 feet behind subject, ample, even feels luxurious. The larger distance keeps the muslin wrinkles out of sharp focus. The spot of light on the floor is just the backlight reflector's hole for an umbrella shaft... might always notice where it is aiming (on hair light too).


The Main light (40 inch Large Alienbees softbox) is close, about 32 inches from subject's face. The rule of thumb is that if the distance is not much more than the light's size, its light will be acceptably soft. This softbox is an Alienbees B400 flash (160 watt seconds) metered to f/8, which is set halfway between 1/8 and 1/4 power level (ISO 200).

A white umbrella works fine as main light too. There is no difference in the light (softbox vs umbrella - both are "big"). The umbrella just has the light stand in front of it, keeping it back a bit farther, maybe up to 48 inches to apex of fabric (but close as possible, so the light stand is barely out of the camera view). I prefer a reflected umbrella (vs shoot-through), and white is best for people (Silver is more specular, white is more diffused. Silver is good to make furry pets sparkle more). A shoot-through umbrella has a terrible rear spill, which can be relatively minimized if it is very close to the subject (subject very close relative to rear wall reflection path, so that reflections become insignificant). Also shoot-through has a central hot spot, so feather it a bit (aimed at a point a foot out in front of nose, to avoid hot spot on subject). There is absolutely nothing wrong with umbrellas. The light on the actual subject is the same from both (it depends on size of the light, and of course the position). Softboxes are simply convenient to use (but not to assemble or transport), but the light is the same - spill and shape of catch light in the eye are the major differences (shape of the umbrella vs the rectangular panel).

The Fill light (45 inch white umbrella) light stand is about 7 feet from subject (because camera is back so far - back close to camera so camera can see around it). The fabric here is slightly in front of lens. Near as possible to lens axis (opposite side from main if not centered over camera) - idea is to light the same shadows that the lens sees. Do use a lens hood, and check that your fill is not shining on the lens. Hair light should not shine into lens either. Because it is relatively far, maybe use your strongest light as fill. This is a Alienbees B400 metered to f/5.6, nearly 1/2 power at this distance. (A later addition - I added an Alienbees 64 inch white PLM umbrella for fill, which is huge, but out of the way behind the camera, and it fits under a ten foot ceiling. I am not sure about it yet - It spills very much light at 180 degrees, but it is about 1/2 stop brighter than the regular smaller umbrella, good for the greater distance).

The glare in lower left corner is the background light, on a short stand, hidden behind subject. Hair light is shown above, this one on a short mini-boom (and counter-weighted, and on a heavy stand). Both of those are Alienbees B800 (320 watt seconds), only because I bought B800 first. But it turns out, I like the B400 power much better for ISO 200. Half power is one stop - so 160 watt seconds at ISO 200 is exactly the same situation as the 320 watt seconds others see at ISO 100. Both are bare reflector, but this background light has a 40 degree grid, and the hair light has a 20 degree grid, which knocks their power down, and color balance is less critical back here. Power depends on distance and effect sought. These B800 with grids (ISO 200) are Background light at 7 feet, maybe 1/8 to 1/2 power. Hair light at 5 feet, maybe 1/8 to 1/4 power. A little stepladder to aim the hair light is visible (the modeling light really helps to aim it).

Speedlights in 45 inch white umbrellas can do the same thing. Speedlights can easily do background and hair lights too. Optical slave mode (Nikon SU-4 mode, Chinese S1 mode) is extremely handy for manual flash, and the Nikon Commander can do TTL, however, the Commander can only individually control two or maybe three remote lights.

When in the same umbrella, the Nikon SB-800 at 24mm zoom meters a full one stop less power than the B400 (a SB-600 might be about 1.4 stop less than a B400). The SB-800 flash as Main light, zoomed 24mm, ISO 200, meters f/8 at 1/4 power + 1/3 stop at 24 inches to stand pole and 50+ inches to umbrella apex fabric. SB-800 Fill light behind camera, meters f/5.6 at Full power at ten feet to fabric apex. That would be a distance limit, and closer seems better, since speedlight full power is a slow recycle, but it does the job. Focused speedlights seem better in umbrellas than in softboxes (studio lights are bare bulb inside softboxes, but speedlights cannot be bare bulb). There is absolutely nothing wrong with umbrellas, they work like magic. Soft light is only about large and close.

If using speedlights at their maximum power level, you probably have to back off slightly on maximum shutter sync speed, because they are slow enough at maximum power level that the fastest shutter probably cuts them off. I lose a little exposure on SB-800 at maximum power with 1/250 second shutter speed. Test this, but there is no problem except at maximum power, and 1/160 second still works well for me at maximum power.

Power Summary: It depends on your setup and light placement of course. Regular size full powered speedlights will work for umbrella portraits, but are a stop or two less power than normal studio monolights. If in umbrellas, speedlights will be near maximum power, which means slow recycle, which can be a problem when you want to go faster. We have to wait on our slowest light. Better studio lights at 1/4 power can have immediate recycle (and are fan cooled to make use of it). The recent numbers below are a little different than above, due to different setups. But for example, numbers for my previous session December 2015 are below, for single portraits but some doubles in same setup.

Shooting real fast, click, click, click, is no issue, but I only do that at the instance when the subject is really sizzling. These still have more power available for tougher situations. Bigger lights just have to be turned down more, and they don't turn down a whole lot more, and I think stability and color are better if not at minimum. Operating at midrange or higher power is best. 2x power rating adds one stop of exposure possibility. These lights are ten years old, and one was repaired ($40 at Alienbees), but still going strong.

My opinion is that 150 watt seconds is obviously very adequate power for home portrait situations. The only reason I have a couple of 320 watt second lights because in the beginning I was told they were a good choice. They do work, but I soon bought a couple of smaller ones, and wish I had four. If working outside in bright sun, or if lighting up the basketball court, then you need much bigger, but that is a second set, as the bigger ones will be a struggle with home portraits.

The Individual Lights

Main light only (also called Key light). About 45 degrees high and 45 degrees wide. Metered at the subject to set it to f/8 (exposed at final f/10 here). A large softbox should be positioned "close", 30 or 36 inches from subjects face. Large and Close is what creates Soft.
Or - a reflected umbrella main light should be "close as possible" (subject should be able to reach out and touch the light stand pole - maybe two feet to the light stand pole, maybe four feet to the fabric - just out of sight of camera).

The angle of the light makes intentional shadows, natural shadows, still strong and dramatic here, but which the fill light will subsequently greatly lighten, but will still leave mild tonal gradients - tonal sculpting which shows shape of the subjects curves. Natural lighting, not flat frontal light.

Basically the main light is about 45 degrees high, and 45 degrees wide, viewed from the subject. Maybe not quite 45 degrees, especially high (30 to 45 degrees high). Main is high (nose shadow should point somewhat downward), but not so high to cause shadows in eye sockets. The eyes should be well lighted. Watch the catch lights in eyes too. You definitely want catch lights (sparkle, liveliness), in both eyes, and positioned well (upper left or right). I do tend to put the main light too low, but at least the center line of light is above the head.

Subject's shoulders angled 45 degrees (or more) into the main light (narrows the body), but her face almost towards camera, and eyes at camera (no strict rules, there are other choices too). Subject turning their head will change things, not necessarily bad, but not optimum 45 degree lighting then. Ideally, main light should always be 45 degrees to the nose. If you are going to work with head at another angle, the idea is to move the main light so it is 45 from the nose. You'd do that if seeking one specific shot, but I don't move it when the subject is trying all sorts of poses.

See the far cheek? It is important that some light hit it. The nose shadow is the root of many lighting styles - which roughly are:

Rotating the head away from the main light can change open loop to Rembrandt. Rotating the head into the main light shifts towards butterfly. When setting up, and when analyzing your results later, remember to think about where is the nose in relation to the light? This is a key element, and 45 degrees is a good answer. We might choose to worry more with the nose shadow, but I don't. "Some light on far cheek" works well for me. The session may be dozens of images, and the subject is turning, so it is not static anyway (but a few of the frames ought to include this setup).

See the dark side of face? The fill light will have that covered. The point of 45 degree lighting is to create natural shadows (frontal light does not, is "flat"). Shadows are intentionally added, to "sculpt" or show the curves and shape of the face, subtle gradient tones to be interesting and natural (the fill light makes them be subtle). This shadow shown is called Narrow Lighting, near side of face is dark, which makes a face look more narrow, thinner. Subject facing away from main light is Broad Lighting (dark far side hidden then, only near bright side seen - a fully lighted face, looks wider). However, the body can still face that opposite direction, with face back at camera, enough to be Narrow.

Simply metering the lights is the easy way to setup, repeatable from last time. If doing this without a light meter: Start with only the main light on, and tweak manual power level and exposure. The result will show the dark side shadow, which you want, in some degree. The purpose of the fill light is to lighten that shadow, so add frontal fill light and adjust its power level with that final criteria, for the fill ratio. Not too much fill - half intensity of the main light, or slightly less, leaving some obvious slight trace of that side shadow. This added fill will correct the underexposure too, another criteria. Make it look like you want it to look of course, but avoid a flat look.

Reflectors: Using a reflector instead (for fill - an inexpensive white foam board is very good) would be another way to add light to fill that dark side, and can work very well. Closer is brighter, and a reflector naturally works more efficiently from the side opposite the light, but fill is better from the front. It can still work great, but maybe compromise more toward the front all you can. A second flash will be more versatile, since flash can be placed anywhere you want it, and power level can be set to about any intensity you want. Where you want the fill is very near lens axis (frontal), and the power level lower to create the ratio you want.

But single light portraits are standard lesson assignments when starting to learn lighting, and will be very good experience for everyone. Maybe not the easiest way, but results can be stunning, and it causes us to think about the basics. Perhaps a reflector could free up your second light for the background or hair. That is another story, but some Reflector Ideas.

Fill light only. Fill light should be located close to the lens axis, to fill the shadows the lens sees - did I mention that? :). Frontal light, to NOT add another set of shadows. So to be frontal, it must be back with camera, to allow camera to see around it. We can see this side fill here is not quite centered over the lens. The near side is well illuminated, but the far side is in shadow (in some degree). This fill is not quite lighting same as what the lens sees, not quite pure flat frontal fill. It could be better to center the fill behind and above the camera. If you have the room and the flash power, why not try behind camera? But really - this time is mighty close, and it is the opposite side from main light - the main will also be "fill" in this case. It works out OK, but still, fill as close to lens axis as possible.

Fill light is metered here (at the subject) to set it to f/5.6 (exposed at f/10), which is one stop less than the Main light at f/8 - a one stop ratio of the two lights. With an incident meter, both main and fill are metered individually at the subject, basically from subject's face, in a consistent way every time. You can do this setup on yourself, before the subject arrives (a remote shutter button is handy). You simply meter the lights to set their power level to give the results you want to have ... and to give the ratio you want to use.

For beginners to flash metering, the incident meter measures the instantaneous flash actually at the subject's position, and reports brightness as an aperture value needed to match its exposure at that distance. Metering at f/8 is a brighter light, and metering at f/5.6 measures a dimmer light half as strong, meaning that the camera aperture must be opened to f/5.6 to match the dimmer light. This would be correct for either light alone, but with two lights, the two together always "add" (brighter than the brightest one), so that the camera likely needs to be set to 1/3 stop (f/9) or 2/3 stop (f/10) brighter than the main light f/8 (depending on ratio) - but simply just meter it with both lights on.

Normally the first rule is to always put the large lights "as close as possible" to be as soft as possible. The main light is close, but the fill light is far back. How can it be soft? Well, it surely does cast a shadow we wouldn't like. However, we have placed it as close to the lens axis as possible, both are on the same angle, so the lens cannot see any shadow cast by it (any shadow is directly behind the subject, out of sight). The lens sees a very flat frontal fill. However, if the fill light is not on axis, it certainly ought to be very close too. Side lighting causes shadows which show detail, but which emphasize skin imperfections. Flat frontal light fills everything evenly... anything the lens can see, which reduces the shadows that delineate detail (less shadows in the wrinkles). So we are compromising, a nice interesting soft side light, and flat frontal fill to tone it down in degree. Ratio is the degree of that compromise.

Lighting Ratio: A one stop ratio is often excellent in the general case (Main light metered to be one stop stronger than the Fill light, at the subject). You should experiment with ratio to learn your choices (1.5 stops is good too). Ratio increases image contrast. If the fill light is weaker (greater ratio), the final shadows will be darker and more dramatic contrast. If the fill light is brighter (more equal), the lighting is more flat and nearly shadowless (the flat frontal fill fills and hides wrinkles better too). A one stop ratio is a good general compromise for color photography. Experiment plus or minus on fill power, and when you find a result you prefer, metering it measures the ratio so you can easily set it up next time. You will soon learn to think in terms of the appearance of that final shadow (ratio).

Complication: Spill light weakens the ratio. If considerable spill (for example, shoot-through umbrellas are terrible about spill, 2/3 of the light goes out the back), which is reflected back at other angles from near walls, we will need a higher ratio number to actually achieve ratio. Less spill, and from closer lights and farther walls, produce more accurate ratio numbers.

This example above is a f/8 main and f/5.6 fill, which is is a one stop ratio, which is called 3:1 "lighting" (but 2:1 power), which is general purpose, good for general color work. It is mild, there is no obvious dark shadow left in the final picture, yet sufficient gradient tonal shading does remain, far from a "flat" light.

Note that there are two different schemes used to state lighting ratio. The same one stop ratio can be, and is, called 2:1 power or 3:1 lighting, and different sources may say it either way, so we always have to read more words to know which ratio is being discussed.

However, usage of the terms is all jumbled up. The point is, there are two systems of nomenclature, perhaps the technical (lighting), and the more practical (f/stops of power). The popular photo books you read may use either system. You will have no clue which they mean, or what their 3:1 means, unless they also define which way they mean it. But if is said as "stops", the meaning is understood, and f/stops is what we must use anyway to implement it. And of course, we can quickly learn to just look at the ratio in their pictures, so we know that way. This will soon interfere with your watching television. Instead of wondering who the murderer is, you will be watching lighting ratios. Esp in the older movies, the close-ups of the big stars were extremely controlled.

Note a ratio only has significance on one face. You do not want to create a ratio across a group of people. One person on the end would have to be closer to the main light there. A more distant light minimizes this somewhat, but groups need an attempt to light all of their area evenly. Even for couples (a tiny group), a large light slightly more distant can be more even, but if faces are turned toward each other, a ratio likely means the near face gets broad lighting, and the farther one gets narrow lighting. The big need is to us to learn to recognize what we see, and then to do what we want to see. But larger areas need more even lighting. Lights on each side of camera lighting the two sides of an area is NOT a main/fill concept... it is two lights (not necessarily bad if the plan is to evenly light the area). But even for a large group, lights near each edge, aimed in toward center, may be very even, but the lens (in the center) sees terrible shadows, shadows of the front row on second row. Faces that "can see" the camera" may still be in shadow. But both lights at center near camera, aimed outward, is lighting the same faces the camera lens sees, which can be of advantage.

TTL:   Speedlights work, especially in Manual flash mode, but the TTL commander may not have enough groups to individually control background and hair lights too. The Nikon Commander only offers 2 or 3 groups of individual control - a problem for controlling background and hair. So, the first TTL question is always "How do I use additional manual lights with TTL?". Quick answer: Most cases are not going to work with the Commander. See more detail about the Nikon Commander system (there are two exceptions possible, with the right gear). Bottom line, we must choose to use either the Commander system, or a manual system, one or the other - we cannot mix both. Frankly, with more than a couple of lights (Main/Fill), multiple lights just work better as manual lights, easier to control (with a hand-held flash meter).

But if you have enough groups for individual control (if not using the background and/or hair lights), TTL lights should work very well too, certainly for Main and Fill. TTL is virtually an instant setup, very convenient for a couple of lights. I am not suggesting there is no advantage of learning some lighting basics, but just place the lights out there, and the camera TTL meters them in real time, and sets each power level appropriately at the subject. Set the ratio by simply setting the Fill group to be -1 EV compensation (in Nikon Commander menu). The Commander may suffer some limitations, and FV Lock is likely needed to prevent pictures of the subject blinking, but the Commander works well for two umbrellas in the living room. It is extremely convenient, extremely fast to set up, for a couple of lights. As always, the best TTL tip is to realize that Flash Compensation is the necessary tool to get the TTL exposure perfect. If it is not quite right, simply fix it so it is.

Trying to cover too many high spots here, but camera TTL is reflective metering, and the hand held flash meter is incident metering. If photographing a white dress or a black dress, reflective gives very different readings, and tries to make both come out middle gray. Which is just how it works. But incident metering does not see the subject, and it instead meters the actual light source, so that any subject comes out about right in that light. However, incident must be metered at the subject's position, not at the camera position.

Background light only. The background was black in the main and fill pictures above (8 feet back), so this light (placed behind and hidden by the subject) illuminates the background, and the subject is in silhouette.

This pattern only confuses TTL metering, which will want to illuminate the center subject. Which might be compensated drastically, but you simply need a manual light here. Notice that the background light and the hair light do not influence the exposure. So to be sure they don't, do meter the exposure (Main and Fill lights together) with these two lights turned off (power switch off). This is same f/10.

The background is the subject of this one light, so you meter at the background surface (all the other lights are metered at the human subject surface). Generally, this is one light behind the subject, hidden by their body, aimed back at background. A flat background only needs a bare reflector (or maybe a grid or snoot to make a narrow pattern). No point of an umbrella or softbox on a flat background with no detail, there are no shadows to soften. A bare speedlight works well (except for waiting on recycle time).

A colored background is usually set to be about same level as the main light (might be set to meter the same f/8) - which is a good starting point, but more or less light can change the same background drastically.

White backgrounds must be brighter, lighted to be a half stop to one stop more than main (Speaking of incident metering. Reflected might be three stops). I favor less instead of more, but enough to burn it out (and hide all the wrinkles), and clips them to be clinical WHITE 255, evenly everywhere. But don't let a strong glare from a strongly lighted background reach the subject. Background distance is your friend in many ways, but an unlighted white background probably comes out gray (because it is more distant from the other lights).

Black backgrounds - to appear black, you try to keep the light off of them. No background light of course. You place the subject more forward, with the background farther back, to keep it in the dark. Moving the subject closer to the lights, means you turn the lights down, which means less reaches the background. Or both, a distant background and a near subject. Any black cloth or paper will reflect light and be visible as such. If you want it invisibly black, you have to keep the light off of it. Black velvet is the exception - virtually no reflection. If photographing jewelry laying directly on jet black cloth, you definitely need a yard of good dress-quality black velvet.

Hair light only. TTL cannot meter this patch of light - it needs to be a manual light. It varies anyway, dark hair needs maybe a stop more than main light, light hair needs maybe a stop less than main light. Don't overdo it. An incident meter can meter it (at the hair itself) to know what you have and where to start (or how to repeat it), but it is trial and error with different hair, so you have to look at its result (a test picture). The other three lights can simply be metered, to be how you know they ought to be.

(Nebulous description) The Hair light is sort of 45 degrees high and maybe 45 degrees to one side. Back toward the top of one background stand is usually a good place.

Some say the hair light should be on same side as main, and about as many say on the opposite side from main (which I perceive as sort of a side fill, lighting side of long hair maybe down to neck, more than a top spot). Others put it directly above (a top spot). I use same side, it seems more natural, to try for a small accent. Too much is Not a natural look. Start "looking" at every picture you see, magazines, TV ads, etc, and notice what the careful setups do, and what you like.

There is an 20 degree grid on this hair light, to keep its beam narrow. Computes less than two feet wide at five feet. A studio modeling light sure helps to aim it. For a speedlight, wrap a letter size sheet of paper (or a 9x12 inch fun-foamy will be more durable) around the head, long way around, with tape or rubber band, to make a nozzle on it. We can debate a white or black paper, but it really doesn't matter which. Just a simple straight nozzle will work fine, maybe 6 inches beyond the flash head. Then zoom the speedlight long. Without modeling lights, this nozzle helps to check your aim too - by sighting back up from just over the subjects head, to see if the speedlight lens is centered in the nozzle there.

Hair light adds sparkle, which always helps, if not overdone. Highlights and subtle tonal gradients to add interest. Certainly it helps separate dark hair from a dark background too. After posing positions, the hair light is the hardest part for me, probably because it is arbitrary, but a little clearly helps. It seems better if it does not highlight the ears or shoulders or cheeks or nose (aim higher to skim over the top of head in those cases, from the rear, instead of directly above).

All lights on, f/10.

f/10 because fill light adds a little, sum is brighter than the brightest. From f/8 main, fill with 1.5 stop ratio probably adds 1/3 stop to f/9. A 1.0 stop ratio probably adds 2/3 stop to f/10. Equal lights at f/8 each add to f/11 (two equal lights are double light, one stop maximum). Just meter the sum (both main and fill on, for the camera aperture setting), but if you prefer it to end up a little less, then start at less than f/8 at your main. The background is slightly lighter too, both other lights are on it now too.

With a one stop ratio on subject, there is still some intentional mild shadow left, to show contour (shading, considered interesting light), and to prevent face from being so abysmally flat. Idea is to look natural. You may prefer less fill and darker shadow for more contrast (for us rugged men typically). Or more fill to be more flat and gently even overall - the softest shots of women and children. Very flat frontal fill is better for hiding skin wrinkles too - shadows will detail and emphasize surface differences, but filling them does not show them so well (and maybe we should not zoom in so close either).

I went through the first phase where I imagined flat lighting was better, until I finally realized a bit of ratio was in fact day and night better. The skill that we learn is called "seeing", to be able to realize the significance of what we look at. I am very aware of how much more I have learned to see now, that I never did notice before (seeing is to actually look at, and realize what we see). No doubt there is more I don't see yet. But saying, we must learn to actually "see" these mild tonal gradients, otherwise we don't know what we are creating (or how to do it again next time). B&W can use greater contrast, but one stop is a good general purpose ratio value for color work. It is your choice, whatever you want to create, but do realize that ratio is a tool to be used.

Yes, there are two catch lights here, which is usually no big deal to me if both are high on the eye. Which is certainly not unique to this setup - there are two lights after all. One catch light could be spotted out if desired, with the Clone Tool, it's easy. But no one looks this close, and it is a very nice sparkle, almost a twinkle. Purists may argue for only one catchlight, but sparkle is what we want. We should start looking in all the pictures we see. One catchlight is common in old movie closeups, but watch the TV studio news anchor's eyes at Fox News, CNN, ABC, etc, which is careful intentional lighting by professionals. You may never have noticed before, but multiples are certainly Not in disfavor. And not bad either, there is much sparkle and vitality, which is good, which is the entire idea, and one of the most important things.

No touchup was done for this exercise, but Adobe Healing Brush is a big time tool that you should know (in Elements and Photoshop). Just drag it over skin imperfections, lines under eyes, and wrinkles and spots. They simply disappear, and the ladies always like that. Healing is like the Clone Tool, but it blends automatically. Both tools have their uses.

Other hair lights... a little adds a sparkle.

Adjusting background level is a different look which can make big differences. One background is a few backgrounds if you light it. This is one and two stops in either direction from what the main light meters.

You can put color filters on the background light to change its color, to make the background appear red or green, etc. Middle gray backgrounds are best for that, white or black are harder. White needs little filter power, but is only pastel color (more power burns out to be white), and other lights can wash it out. Black gives very saturated colors, but requires much power to light it. Middle tone gray is best and easiest. Keep the background distance well back (6 or 8 feet), no colored reflection on your subject.

You can make various shadow patterns too, to add interest. Just focus a smaller spot in the center (grid or snoot), maybe to halo the head, or to let the corners fall off (slight effect of this next below). Or put the light closer aimed across the background for a gradient, light to dark. You can place a intentional pattern of obstacles in front of light (a row of vertical bars maybe) to make interesting shadows.

Standard Flash White Balance, 5500K

White Card White Balance, corrected to 6200K -10 Tint

This part is a Big Deal

All lights change their own color slightly with power level, whereas Flash White Balance is a simple constant, as if somehow one size fits all. Using the Raw White Balance Tool to click on a test shot White Card, which neutralizes the white card color, which changes Flash White Balance to a Custom value that is actually correct this time. This Porta Brace White Balance card is $5, plastic, durable and washable, accurate, inexpensive, and all we need, good enough. The WhiBal brand card is very good too, more expensive, but not much is more important than this job. I have a couple of WhiBal cards, but I tend to use the Porta Brace cards - either is fine. My notion is that most of the other schemes are too complicated and too costly. This card method is direct to the point, simple and easy, is pretty much the definition of White Balance, and it works great. Just add the card to your first setup test shot (in the same light). Then you click it to tell the computer "This spot is white, make it be white" (qualified to "color neutral" below). Then anything in the same light will work out too, with the same correction. And we can easily apply this correction to all images in the session, with one click. More about that.

Get the dang camera out of Vivid or Landscape color profile. The ladies are always concerned that their hair comes out the right color.

The historical concept of White Balance was to manually shift the individual White Points of the three RGB histogram channels so that all three right ends of the data channels balanced, or all lined up, which forced pure white there, to match the presumed white content there. Photoshop Auto Levels does that. Today, the eyedropper WB tool causes the computer to shift the three RGB channels so all three have the same numeric value at this clicked spot - to remove any color cast there, on this known color-neutral value. So the card can be any neutral gray, including white (the definition of neutral gray is equal RGB components, with no color cast). In a pinch, we could use a piece of white printer paper, or it could be a white T-shirt or a white picket fence in the picture, perhaps a better try than nothing, but including an accurate known neutral-color source is the best way.

This time, the card is a bit blue in the first picture. All flash tubes vary their color with power level (just how life is), and White Balance adjustment is a major concern. This way makes it very easy, if you remember to do it (every session setup, it is NOT a one time thing). Don't place the white card close, where the bright light burns it out to 255, which would lose all it has to offer. An 18% gray card is pretty dark (close and more exposure is good for it), but there are newer light gray "digital" cards better suited for White Balance. But portraits should never be that glaringly bright anyway, and white bypasses trying to control printed gray ink colors. It is called White Balance, and a white card works great, but just don't overexpose it. It will be good to calibrate your monitor too - I use an old Sypder2Express, which seems great.

Thank you very much Erin, your help is greatly appreciated.

Other stuff:

Don't overexpose portraits! If a shiny hot spot on nose or check, back off a bit. Skin tones are happy to back away from 255. Not dark, but not excessively bright. Brightest skin tone highlight here is under 240, and that is a good limit (230 to 240, IMO). Hitting right exposure simultaneously with the right white balance is the WOW! Try it slightly less bright once (judge it after being printed on paper by a really good printer).

A good tool: Overexposure clips the white end at 255. In Adobe Elements or Photoshop, moving the ACR Raw Exposure slider, or lowering Levels Tool (CTRL L) White Point, adjusts exposure results. Holding the ALT key (ALT in Windows - I think Option key on a Mac) while moving these slightly makes the image display go black, but then it shows the actual pixels which have been clipped. Same at black end if holding ALT while adjusting Raw Blacks or Levels Black Point. Purpose is so you can recognize WHERE you are clipping, on the nose or cheek or wherever. Shows WHICH pixels are being clipped. Don't clip skin tones. Hard to quantify, but less exposure than that is even better... Scenic landscapes may be a different deal, a little clipping sometimes improves their contrast, but in portraits, even a true white color probably should not be right on 255 - the face in portraits certainly should not be too close to clipping. Just look at results, and this tool helps to see. Certainly it is best if the exposure comes out close in the camera, but camera Raw allows a little tweaking later.

Move the camera viewfinder focus sensor up high in the portrait frame, to be on the subjects eye. A tripod really helps, no one here is going anywhere, and a flash sync cord is no issue on a tripod. Generally, a sync cord to the fill light (nearest to camera, which is also sort of aimed at the other lights), and then all the other lights triggered by optical slave sensors. These optical triggers work great in your studio or living room. All studio lights have them built in. Compared to the Commander TTL system which uses very low power signals, the optical slaves are triggered by final working power of the flash.

I move the PC sync cord to the Sekonic flash meter, and move the other end to each light, to meter each light individually. The incident meter must meter the light from the subjects position (next to their cheek or chin). The flash meter has a mode and button to trigger that cord and the flash on it, so it is metered. Turn off the other lights, and meter each light individually, to set its power level to be what you want it to be (yes, simple as that). I aim the flash meter directly at the light then, from very close to the subject (or background), in a consistent manner. Then to meter main and fill light together for the camera lens setting, I aim that meter at the camera, from under subjects chin. Then move sync cord back to camera, and to a near light, and have at it. Here is one description of that metering process. Background and hair lights do not affect camera setting or exposure (they only affect background and hair).

If you use tenth stop metering on the meter, you can easily compute the numbers in your head. How many stops from f/4.5 to f/8? Not easy (1 + 2/3 stop), but if we use tenth stop precision, then we easily know that (f/4 + 3/10 stop) to (f/8 + 0/10 stop) is 1.7 stops. On the camera, setting f/8 + 7/10 stop is simply two (third) clicks past f/8 (camera will show it as f/10). Only trick is that when beginning with tenth stops, remember that a meter reading of f/8 + 5/10 stop is NOT the same as f/8.5 (so f/8.5 may be halfway to f/9, but f/8 + 5/10 stop is halfway to f/11).

Of course, turn Auto ISO Off with flash in studio. Needs no explanation, but we are providing the light with flash, and we need no meddling.

Leaving the modeling lights on will keep the subject's eye pupil smaller, and should have no exposure effect on the exposure - but do use maximum shutter sync speed so this is true. Shutter speed has no effect on the flash (flash is faster than the shutter speed), but a fast shutter speed really knocks down continuous light. Verify your setup once so you can trust it. Pull out the sync cord once so the flashes do not trigger - then that picture with only modeling lights and other continuous ambient lights, should be very black. This f/10 1/200 second ISO 200 should not show any effect from the continuous lights, they are dim compared to flash. However, 1/30 second at f/4 likely will - maybe don't do that. :) At least not with the modeling lights on. The incandescent modeling lights are orange.

When framing the subject, my usual mistake is to crop too tight in the camera. Learn to leave a little space around subject, so the print can THEN be cropped to be 4x6 or 8x10 or 5x7 or whatever. All are different shapes, and we need a little space to work with. The DSLR format is 3:2, which matches 4x6 (portrait orientation), but 8x10 needs either less height, or more width. A bit of extra space can go a long way for cropping at printing time, and 12 megapixels can spare a few pixels for this.

Notions about Useful Items:

This type of "studio portrait" picture may not do well at Walmart. They may refuse to print this "professional" portrait, fearing you may have copied it from professional studio work in copyright violation. This refusal happens often on this type of picture, believe me (in the store, seemingly not so about online orders). It is not about the store policing you - it simply puts them at big risk, and their in-store employees are told "no way" (PPA sued Kmart for $100,000 about inadvertently printing a copy someone brought in, and that is the law now). They do have a copyright form you can fill out to assign their liability to you. But you are looking for better anyway, Walmart quality varies too much for this.

I would highly recommend www.mpix.com for printing your good stuff like this. They are very well known (legendary), and their 8x10 and 5x7 are inexpensive as any, and certainly as good or better as any. I always say Wow!!! They sure make me look good.

I hope this looks like an easy setup, because it is. Here is an older same setup in the cramped 15 foot space:

(Short flash at left was added just for this picture)

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