How I Light My Studio Portraits

How I Light My Studio Portraits

Last month I had a really great time doing a shoot with a local skater here in Victoria named Aaron.  Aaron is hands down the best skateboarder I know, and we had a great time making portraits in my studio together.  I've done a fair amount of studio portrait shoots over the last couple of years, and I thought it would be fun to share a little bit about my lighting technique, and the tools that I use to get the look you see below.  

   Ilford Pan F Plus 50 in 120 format  , shot on  Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii  w/ 140mm macro lens.

Ilford Pan F Plus 50 in 120 format, shot on Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii w/ 140mm macro lens.

Every image in this post was shot with two lights, a key light (or main light) and a fill light to keep the shadows from going completely dark.  I've always found the fill light to cause me the most stress, because for a long time I didn't fully understand how to incorporate a fill light that actually looked natural.  After a lot of trial and error, I finally settled on a three stop difference between the key light and the fill light.  That's my ideal lighting ratio, as it gives just enough contrast to shape the light, but doesn't get so dark that you don't have any options during post production.

At this point in time, I'm of the belief that the brand of studio strobe or flash that you use doesn't make a massive difference in the end result, but I currently use two Einstein E640 flash units from Paul C Buff and have no complaints at all.  There's a lot to like about these strobes, especially considering how affordable they are compared to premium brands such as Profoto or Broncolor.  One of my favourite features is the Action mode which prioritizes a short flash duration that makes sport or action shots look perfectly sharp without any motion blur.  Here's an example:

  Kodak Portra 160 in 120 format , shot on   Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii   w/ 65mm f4 lens.

Kodak Portra 160 in 120 format, shot on Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii w/ 65mm f4 lens.

Now, the thing that I find the most essential when making studio portraits is the lighting modifier that you choose.  For me, that modifier is the 60 inch Photek Softlighter ii.  The softlighter is a large silver umbrella that also includes an optional diffusion layer that can turn the modifier into a poor man's octabank.  I always use it as an octabank for my fill light, and I tend to only take off the diffusion for my key light when shooting black and white images.  I believe you can also take the backing off to turn it into a shoot through umbrella, so that gives you three different modifiers in one.  Not to mention it couldn't be easier to set up and takedown.  If my budget allows, one day I might go for an Elinchrom 69 inch Octabank, but I'm pretty happy with the Photek for now.

I think the most important thing to consider with studio portraits, aside from the choice of lighting modifier, is the positioning and placement of the lights.  I've realized that placing both key and fill lights as close to the model as possible is essential to getting a beautiful quality of light.  Equally important, is keeping the bottom of the lighting modifiers (for large modifiers at least) just above the model's shoulders to have the light fall in a way that looks both natural and flattering.  I do love using octabanks for both the main light and the fill light, but I think it's worth mentioning just how under appreciated a simple silver reflective umbrella can be.  Every black and white image in this post was shot with a 60 inch silver reflective umbrella as the main light.  I love that a silver umbrella gives a harder edge and contrast to the shadows than an octabank, but still looks soft enough to be used for glamour or beauty portraiture.  

   Kodak Tri X 400 in 120 format   ,shot on   Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii   w/ 140mm macro lens.

Other than using a handheld light meter to help me determine the correct exposure for the film, that's really all there is to my lighting technique. If you're looking for a used light meter or a great film camera, I'd suggest checking out KEH Camera. I've dealt with them a few times, and have always received quality equipment without any issues. If you have any questions feel free to drop me a line in the comments below and we can geek out on lighting techniques together :)

Bali Part 1: Kodak Ektar 100 35mm Film Review

Bali Part 1: Kodak Ektar 100 35mm Film Review

Cinestill 800T & Ilford HP5 400 At Night

Cinestill 800T & Ilford HP5 400 At Night