Summary of a Standard Portrait Lighting Setup
This is just a short brief summary of a standard portrait lighting. You can see the full two page article here.
- An incident light meter will be extremely useful to set each light to a known result, to know what each light is doing to implement your desired lighting ratio.
- One main light, in a large umbrella or softbox, around 40 or 45 inches size is good. Position it close to the seated subject, fabric about 32 to 36 inches (0.8 to 0.9 meter) from subject to a softbox. For a reflected umbrella, pretty much as close as possible to still keep it out of sight of the lens. The subject should almost be able to reach out and touch that pole. Mounted about 45 degrees high and wide from the subject, meaning from the subjects face at 12 o’clock to the camera, the main light is toward 10:30 or 1:30 o’clock. And as much as about 45 degrees higher than the nose, to make a little shadow beside and under the nose. The fill light will fix it.
- Camera at least 6 or 7 feet (2 meters) from subject is best for portrait perspective. Don’t get too close, the perspective worsens. Then zoom in with a longer lens to frame subject as desired. I’m usually at 8 or 10 feet.
- Fill light very frontal on the subject, perhaps raised above the camera (to be very frontal). Or slightly in front of the camera. It must be back near the camera for the lens to see around it out of sight. Maybe the fabric edge nearly touching the lens to be as frontal as possible. Use a lens hood and don’t let a reflected umbrella flash aim into the lens. The fill light’s job is to lighten the main light facial shadows the lens sees without adding a second set of shadows itself. Less fill intensity is more contrast (the gradient tones are darker), or more fill intensity is flatter light. Did I mention the fill should be frontal?
- To set a good general-purpose portrait lighting ratio, meter the lights individually (only one turned on at a time), by holding the meter under the subject's chin, aimed at the light. For example, set the main light power to meter f/5.6 + 7/10 EV. Set the fill light to be f/4 + 7/10 EV to f/4 + 4/10 EV, specifically to be 1 to 1.3 EV less than the main for a known and good lighting ratio. You can simply subtract if metering tenths, very easily in your head. Then aimed at the camera, meter the main and fill lights together for the camera exposure, which will be around f/8. If you don't want to use f/8, start with the main light different, with fill still 1 to 1.3 EV lower. But f/8 is a good depth of field, and ISO 100 and f/8 and 1/200 second (maximum sync speed) will keep out all the ambient room light (because incandescents or fluorescents are typically off-color). Meaning, a test picture in the ambient light should be near solid black if the flashes are not triggered.
- If a background light is used (mounted down behind the subject’s back to hide it), and meter at the background’s surface. If it is colored, normally set it to near the metered main light level. If it’s white, maybe 0.5 to 1 EV brighter can intentionally clip it to make it very white 255 (which should be back a few feet from the subject). Otherwise, white with no background light will come out gray (further from the lights). Medium Gray is good, you can make it be any tonal shade of gray with the light power, lighter or darker.
- For the three lights above, you can set their level by meter before the subject arrives, and already know what you’ll get every time. But a hair light is an exception which depends on the hair color. Meter it near the hair (remember inverse square law) at more or less about the main light level, EXCEPT light blond hair must be substantially less light, and very dark hair has to be substantially brighter than main. Maybe 1 EV or more different. Take a couple of test shots making power adjustments judged by eye, then remember what you learn about hair color and hair light. After you’ve worked with a few hair colors, you’ll just about already know next time.
That’s about it. There are other choices, but this is a very adequate general-purpose portrait setup. The mistake you should NOT make is two lights simply placed either side of the camera, which is NOT a main and frontal fill concept. And if they are equal intensity, that’s flat lighting and normally worse. The presence of fill’s dim shadow gradients is intentional to show shapes and curves, to add 3D.
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