Studio Portrait Demo

Since my husband needed a portrait for work to put on the company website, I dragged him into my studio lighting class so my students could see how my brain works in general when it comes to studio work.  While we only spent about 30 minutes from beginning to end, there were a lot of choices that were made during the photo shoot.  So I’m sharing those decisions and details here, because those choices might not be obvious to a beginner who doesn’t know what to look for.

First thing, though most of the students probably didn’t see it, I drew up a small sketch on the whiteboard of the lighting I needed so my assistants could get to work as soon as he got there.

My sketch shows the backdrop, where the model will stand, where the umbrella/brolli lights should be in relation to the model, and where the softbox will be positioned. There's also a reflector and a the camera angle. Not bad for stick figures...
My sketch shows the backdrop, where the model will stand, where the umbrella/brolli lights should be in relation to the model as well as their height, and where the softbox will be positioned. There’s also a reflector and a the camera angle. Not bad for stick figures…

It isn’t pretty, but most studio sketches aren’t: they tell you where to point the lights, where to put the subject, and where to put the camera.  It’s not anything fancy, just a diagram.  I have chicken scratch for my shorthand, but I have drawn a line for the backdrop, 2 strobes with umbrellas* pointed at the backdrop, and one main softbox strobe directed at my subject (who didn’t even get stick legs or arms, oh well.) This shows the distance between each object, and relative distance.

I wanted my students to be in the room before the assistants and I started to set up, though that didn’t happen as they shuffled in slowly, which is too bad–it’s really important to see how an efficient team works together. A group can get a lot done in a short amount of time if tasks are delegated properly and the photographer has a clear direction.  In just a few minutes, Angela and Macie had the backdrop and umbrellas going while I set up the softbox and started taking light readings so I could position it with a good light ratio.  I had already tested angles of light, so I knew where I wanted to softbox to be.

A softbox diffuses light to reduce the harshness of form shadows and the terminator edge, and the silver brollies (umbrellas with shiny foil) reflected and spread light over a larger area–our white backdrop. If you are trying to make a backdrop look totally white (which was required for his work portrait) it’s important to make sure there is more light on the backdrop than your subject.  My initial meter reading had the backdrop at F16 @125 and also my subject at f16 @125–that’s no good if I want my backdrop to have no shadows or details, so I had to drop the amount of light the softbox fired so the subject’s reading was F11 instead of F16.

Once that was done, I took a few shots and knew the reflector needed to be repositioned because it wasn’t bouncing the light back onto the face–I wanted some shadows to give dimension to his face, but not so dark we can’t see both eyes clearly. Here’s two shots, before the reflector was shifted and after–you can see a big difference in the shadowed sections of the face and torso. It’s little details like that only the photographer will be able to see, and every time the light or the model changes position, those details should be reexamined.

The left photo doesn't have the reflector doing it's job, and the shaded part of the face is too dark . I repositioned it with a better curve to bounce into his face better.
The left photo doesn’t have the reflector doing it’s job, and the form shadow on the face is too dark . I repositioned the reflector with a better curve to bounce into his face on the shot on the right.

Determining where to angle the shadows and put reflectors and other modifiers really depends on the structure of the individual. What works for one person won’t work for the next, so don’t try to memorize any set up–we all vary greatly in cheek roundness, brow bone prominence and jawline…and long hair complicates things further.  Luckily, my husband has a short haircut!

The rest is really figuring out your model.  They can be nervous, bored, distracted, or worse–eager to pose like a “real model”.  My husband knows the routine pretty well, having been my photo slave, eeeer, I mean assistant, for over a decade.  Even so, he’s used to hold lighting equipment, not standing in front of the camera, and he came in after a 12 hour day at work, so he wasn’t really energetic.  It happens, you just have to read the mood of your model and figure out how to get what you need from them.  It took a combination of gentle bullying, directing and joking to get a good variation of shots.

That’s really important; you never want to get just one mood and one pose out of the model, and usually you want to play with lots of lighting combinations.  In this case, my husband’s portrait had to match the rest of his company’s portraits, so I couldn’t play with the backdrop, distance or vantage point; I could only play with the shadows on his face and the expression.

I loved this shot, but it didn't fit the company theme. Too bad, because that's a genuine laugh.
I loved this shot, but it didn’t fit the company theme. Too bad, because that’s a genuine laugh.

It took about 10 minutes to set up the lights and position my model, and about another 15 to get a set of 30 images.  Out of those 30, 10 were good but I really liked about 5.  While I work really fast, that’s a decent average when dealing with portraits; one in five or so, with a variety of different emotions to choose from.  That’s what most photographers need to learn how to do–vary their model’s expressions…so many get focused on ONE aspect–the lighting, the composition, the pose, that they forget the photo is supposed to express personality and mood as well. I didn’t say “look sad, look angry” though that might work well with some models who can act (most can’t, even when they think they can)–instead I had a conversation with him and the other people in the studio room, only telling him when to change the angle of his head, or position of his limbs.  Ok, I did tell him to “look sexy” but that was mostly to make him laugh.

In the end, I chose a portrait that I think captured his personality, didn’t seem fake and stiff, and also used lighting that enhanced his features and pose.  You can see how the softbox created soft shadows across his features, but how the reflector kept those dark areas from being unreadable.

The final pick of the group.
The final pick of the group.

Studio lighting is often juggling a lot of different things at the same time, but the more you practice shooting and being critical of each aspect you juggle, the better you’ll be and the quicker you’ll recognize a photo’s strengths and weaknesses. Hope that was illuminating! (har, har. Get it? illuminating?)

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