If you want to shoot indoor studio portraits but have never done it before, one of the major challenges you’ll face is creating and controlling your lighting. When working with strobes, you need to understand how to adjust your power levels, and even then, you won’t know how the light is going to look until after you’ve taken the shot.
Continuous lighting is easier in this respect, as it allows you to see the quality of light falling on your subject before you take the shot. But the problems with many continuous light systems is that you can’t easily make adjustments to power levels the way you can with strobes, and if you’re using Tungsten lamps (bulbs), you can’t shoot in mixed lighting situations where there is daylight without experiencing color imbalance.
With the Photoflex Constellation3 Kits, however, both of these limitations have been eliminated. The Constellation3 head accommodates three separate lamps that can be turned on and off separately to give you flexibility with power levels, and now you can use daylight-balanced fluorescent lamps in the heads to color balance with daylight.
- The Wrong Way
- Positioning a Single Soft Box
- From Main to Rim
- Bouncing the Rim Light
- The Front Fill
- Adjusting Power Levels
- Keeping the Light Directional with Grids
- Lay the Groundwork, then Get Creative
The Wrong Way
When shooting studio portraits, lighting is everything. Sometimes, the best way to show how to do something right is by doing it wrong.
In this situation, I decided to show the “wrong way” by taking an auto-mode snapshot of my assistant, James, with just the built-in flash of a digital SLR activated.
This result shows the pitfalls of built-in flash lighting. Since the light from the flash is very small and travels in the same direction as the lens, it tends to flatten out the dimensions of your subject. It's also very good at casting distracting shadows directly behind your subject.
Positioning a Single Soft Box
After my fun with the built-in flash, I promptly disabled it and set the exposure mode to Manual so that I could fine-tune my exposure levels and control my depth of field.
Next, I set up a Photoflex Medium Constellation3 Kit, installed three CoolStar 150-watt daylight fluorescent lamps into the head, attached casters to the LiteStand to be able to move it easily, and positioned it to the right of James. I positioned the soft box about 6 feet high, and angled it downward to illuminate James.
Because the light is always on with these units, it’s easy to see how the light is affecting your subject. When I had the light where I wanted it, I took my first shot.
Already I saw a dramatic difference. Because the light was off to the side of the camera and because it was relatively large and diffused, it created a much more natural-looking light. The shadows now naturally fell to the ground, and James’ face -- half lit, half in shadow -- made for a very dramatic look.
From Main to Rim
Although this was an interesting look, I noticed that the soft box was also lighting up the steel door in the background a little more than I wanted it to. I also wanted to try using the soft box as a rim light instead of a main light for a more dynamic look.
So I rolled the Constellation3 Kit toward the back of the set and angled it back toward James. When the lighting looked good from the point of view of the camera, I took another shot.
At this point, the lighting had a very different look. James’ face was almost entirely in shadow, but the soft box helped to create an outline along the right side of his body and separated him more against the metal door background, which was now much lower in tone.
Bouncing the Rim Light
Next, I decided to bounce some of this rim light into the left side of his body, so I set up a Photoflex 39x72” LitePanel frame, mounted it to a LiteStand with casters by way of a GripJaw and Heavy Duty Swivel, and attached a Silver panel fabric to it. Once it was set up, I rolled it into position.
Thanks to the continuous light of the Constellation3 Kit, I could see when the light was hitting James directly while angling the LitePanel. You can even see the effects of the LitePanel in the setup shots below.
From this angle, you can see how the light from the Constellation3 Kit bounces off the LitePanel and into the left side of James.
Once the LitePanel was where I wanted it, I took another shot.
While the light illuminating James' left side was not as strong as it was on the right, it nevertheless helped to create separation from the background and did not compete with the overall direction of light.
Had I placed another Constellation3 on the other side to match the intensity of light, the shot would have had a very different feel and you would have seen contradictory shadows on the floor.
Below is a side-by-side look at the Constellation3 result shots taken.
The Front Fill
In reviewing my most recent result, I realized I wanted to add some light into the front area of James. I wanted this light to act more like a fill light, rather than a main light, and have the amount of light be relatively minimal in order to maintain the overall dramatic feel of the shot.
So, I set up another Constellation3 Kit, this time with a large SilverDome soft box, and placed only two daylight lamps into the head. I positioned this box back about eight feet and turned on both lamps.
Although the light seemed to brighten up the shot considerably, I decided to take a test shot and see how the exposure would be.
Adjusting Power Levels
As you can see from the result, this second Constellation3 Kit added considerably more light. While the light levels were perfectly acceptable, it wasn’t the look I was after. Instead, I wanted to maintain a somewhat more moody look for this portrait.
This meant that I needed to tone down the light from the second Constellation3 Kit. But rather than repositioning the large Constellation3 Kit back away from the set, I simply turned off one of the lamps from the head and took another shot.
In reviewing the result, I saw that the light levels on James were better (although still somewhat bright), but that it was the background that was giving me some trouble. Specifically, I realized that the metal doors were now reflecting both soft boxes, which ended up flattening them out dimensionally, as well as brightening them more than I wanted.
Keeping the Light Directional with Grids
To cut down the light from the large Constellation3 Kit, as well as to keep it from reflecting into the metal doors, I attached a set of Grids to the face of the soft box. While Grids still allow a soft box to maintain its soft quality of light, it keeps the light directional and prevents it from spilling off to the sides.
With the Grids in place, the lighting in person looked exactly how I wanted it for this shot. Without changing the exposure settings on the camera, I then took a series of shots from various angles. This one, taken only inches from the floor, ended up being one of my favorites.
Here’s a side-by-side look at the results taken with the Large Constellation3 added to the mix.
It’s important to remember that none of these lighting options are “right” or “wrong”. Depending upon the look you’re after, you may choose one lighting style over another.
That being said, let’s now take a comparative look at the very first shot taken with the built-in flash next to my final result. I’ll let the differences speak for themselves.
Lay the Groundwork, then Get Creative
Once you’ve dialed in the lighting strategy for your shot, you can then focus on the other elements of the shot: perspective, composition, posing, etc… Here’s another favorite, in which the camera is tilted to break up the symmetry somewhat, and James appears to be caught in a candid moment.
While the pose and camera angle here are interesting, it’s the dramatic lighting that brings this shot to the next level.
Written and photographed by Ben Clay.