Portrait Lighting: Three Situations and their Solutions

Whether You Have Man Lights or One, the Right Illumination Really Makes a Portrait

By Steven H. Begleiter Back to

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“ Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work.” – Chuck Close, painter, photographer, and printmaker

As a professional portrait photographer for more than 25 years, I can attest that my career would have been short-lived if I would have waited for the right light or inspiration to create portraits. As a professional on assignments I have had to create on demand with a limited amount of time with my subjects and poor natural lighting conditions.

Starting out my career with a Vivitar flash to create a usable light was a great lesson in simple and low-budget lighting. As I became more critical of my work and wanted more creative options, I started to invest in more expensive strobe lighting and light modifiers. Over the years I have gone through many stylistic transformations, and the more I learned about lighting, the greater the control I achieved over my art.

Over time, I have discovered that a great portrait is not determined by the amount of lighting or light modifiers you use, but by how you thoughtfully apply the light, whether it is one dedicated flash or multiple strobe packs and flash heads.

The following three examples are an excerpt from my recent portrait book 50 Lighting Setups for the Portrait Photographer (Amherst Media). I wrote this book with the objective of revealing my lighting challenges and solutions from past assignments in an easy to understand “paint by numbers” format.

In each case study I have broken down the process by describing the technical (equipment, film, and settings used); the reason for the portrait (who the client was); the story behind the shoot; my thought process for using a particular lighting set up and tips (what I learned).

My first case study (#1) demonstrates how applying one artificial light to a natural-light situation can with simple means transcend being a mere portrait. This application of light is great to use for weddings, events, and other situations where you need a fast easy to use portable light. The second case study (#15) is a good example of using artificial light to transform a drab hotel room into a visually intriguing place. The third case study (#23) demonstrates a more complicated lighting situation—photographing a large group of people in a dimly lit room.

Case study #1: Brideshead Revisited

Camera: Canon D30
Lens: Canon 24–105mm L series at 45mm Exposure: ƒ/9.5 at 1/30 second
ISO: 400

Lighting: Canon 580EX on hot shoe with a f lash diffuser. Flash set on normal.

Assignment

This photograph was taken during the preparation for the wedding. I like to photograph weddings in a photojournalistic style, so I begin my wedding-day coverage by being present to document all the preparations the bride and groom go through to get ready for the ceremony.

My visual objective

I like to capture what I call the “quiet moments” of wedding preparation. Here, the bride, Shelby, was entering the cabin to greet her family. In my mind’s eye, I had noted the frame of the door and thought it would make a nice framing element for my subject.

Posing technique

No direction was used in this photo since I was trying to capture a real moment. I simply watched and waited for the right moment. When Shelby lifted her train with her left arm I knew that was the shot. The pose reminded me of the goddesses depicted on the sides of ancient Greek vases.

Story behind the photograph

I met Shelby at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. She told me that she was getting married and asked if I knew any wedding photographers. You never know when you may find your next client. I met with her and her fiancé, Hal, and a couple of weeks later they called me back to let me know they wanted to hire me for their wedding.

The day of the wedding, my assistant (and second shooter) arrived at the site around 1 pm to scout the location and begin shooting the wedding preparations. My assistant covered the groom getting ready, while I covered the bride.

Tips

I try to use natural light whenever I can, then supplement it as needed with flash. Here, I knew there was about a four-stop difference between the inside of the cabin and the outside. I set my camera on shutter- priority, slowing my shutter down to 1/30 second to “blow out” the background. This added to dreamy quality of the image.

Case Study #15: An Acerbic Wit

Camera: Hasselblad 503c Lens: 120mm macro
Film: Fuji RTP 100 Exposure: ƒ/5.6 at 1/15 second
Lighting: Luz 800ws with spun glass over the grid; 20° grid with black foil affixed to the ref lector to create a triangular shadow on the background

Assignment

Channel 4 of London was doing a documentary with the author, journalist, and literary critic Christopher Hitchens. They needed a promotional image of Christopher to promote the program.

Visual objective

Hitchens is a controversial writer. I wanted to illustrate this by creating a somewhat mysterious environment and using a slight tilt of the camera.

The story

The image was photographed in a typically small, nondescript New York City apartment—not the type you see on television. When I arrived, Hitchens was working on a deadline and didn’t have much time. After looking around the apartment for a location, I decided the best location was right where he was sitting. I told him to continue working at his laptop and when we were ready I would let him know.

After we set up, I asked Christopher to give me f ive minutes, which he did. I snapped away, and after about three rolls I was f inished. He said thanks and went back to work on his laptop.

Posing

There was not much prompting on my end. When I asked him to turn and face the camera, he clasped his hands and looked up at me. That was it.

Tips

This was a situation where I had to alter the environment to create a more intriguing portrait. As I mentioned, the apartment was pretty plain, and Hitchens was busy with a deadline. To spice it up, I decided to shoot tungsten film—even though there was daylight streaming in from the windows. The trick is to convert your daylight strobe on the subject to a tungsten color balance with a CTO (color temperature orange) gel. This keeps the light-color balanced on the subject while allowing the daylight to go blue.

Case Study #23: The Gun Club

Camera: Hasselblad 503c
Lens: 120mm macro
Film: 120 Fuji RDP
Exposure: ƒ/11 at 1/125 second

Lighting: three Luz 800ws power packs with four strobe heads; two softboxes

Assignment

I was looking for distinctive families when the publisher of my Fathers and Sons book referred me to the Wilson clan. Larry Wilson (a.k.a., R. L. Wilson), who is shown standing on the left, had published a book with them titled Colt: An American Legend.

Visual objective

Since Wilson is one of the most published authors in arms collecting, it only made sense to photograph him, with his father and sons, bearing arms.

The story

When I arrived at the Wilson’s home in Connecticut I saw the amazing collection of arms, racecars (he had a Formula-1 car in his living room), and hunting trophies scattered throughout the home. There was so much to take in that it was difficult to frame a portrait at first. It was only when I met his father, a noted bookbinder, that I finally got centered and realized what my frame would be.

I realized that he needed to be the center of group, so my assistant and I moved the furniture—elephant-foot ottomans, Formula-1 racecars, the usual stuff—and set up the lights… many lights. (Note: The balcony was a real asset in setting up the background lights.) Once we were all set up, we brought the family in, set them in their places, and began the photo session.

Posing

This was a very challenging setup. I was dealing with strong vertical lines (the white columns) and all kinds of background distractions. The first thing I did was anchored the grandfather in a chair, then surround him with his son and grandsons. I (very!) carefully positioned the rifles to avoid any of them seeming to protrude from the heads or bodies. Finally, I shot from above the family looking down to create separation from the back column and Larry’s head.

Tips

Environmental portraiture is always challenging, so take some time to process the surroundings and visualize how it relates to your subject.


About the Author

Steven H. Begleiter
Contributor
Steven H. Begleiter is an award-winning freelance photographer and studio owner based in Missoula, MT, who began his career as a photo assistant to Annie Leibovitz and Mary Ellen Mark. He is the author of Fathers and Sons, The Art of Color Infrared Photography, and The Portrait Book, and currently teaches at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. You can see more of his work at www.begleiter.com