Basic Strobe Lighting

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Strobes offer many benefits for the studio photographer. Their low heat yet high light output creates a more comfortable environment for both model and photographer. This also allows the soft box to placed closer to the subject, increasing the size of the light source and the quality of the light.

In this lesson we will look at some basic portrait lighting adjustments using two Photoflex® StarFlash® 150 watt strobes, each with a medium LiteDome. We will also demonstrate how the adjustable power function makes it possible to attain beautiful lighting ratios without having to reduce the quality or size of your light.

Topics Covered:

  • Basic Strobe use
  • Portrait Lighting
  • Positioning and Power Ratios

Before Beginning

To make your setup more convenient and versatile, we have now included the Photoflex® FlashFire™ Wireless Trigger & Receiver. Using this equipment allows you to move more freely with your camera instead of limiting yourself to within a few feet of your lights.

Even adding just one trigger and one receiver you can set your secondary lights to slave so that they fire through the infrared sensor. Either way you choose to use the FlashFire, you cannot ignore its ability to provide your “tool bag” with a great amount flexibility.

Positioning The Lights for Maximum Effect

We began by attaching a Medium LiteDome to each StarFlash 150 watt strobe and positioning them on each side of the model, as close in to the camera as possible without entering the image. We positioned the lights just below the model’s face and took our first picture.

The resulting portrait exemplifies what is often known as “monster lighting”, called this because of its frequent use in horror movies. You might recognize this kind of lighting style from nights spent around a campfire, when someone would turn their flashlight up at their face while telling scary stories.

The direction of light in this shot is very unnatural and it is usually not very pleasing to the eye.

Next, we raised the lights so that the center of each LiteDome was even with the model’s face. The resulting image looked somewhat like a movie star’s backstage mirror. There were very few shadows, and everything was lit evenly. Although this looked more natural than the lighting from below, there was a kind of flat look to the shot.

Using the same set up, we raised the lights above the model’s head so that the center of each LiteDome was pointing at the background. Since the light in this shot was from the more common overhead position, the result seemed to be the most “natural”.

There were slight shadows under her nose and eyes and a little bit more dimension to her face. However, this portrait was still fairly flat due to the lights being almost parallel with the direction of the lens.

Here is a comparison of our results so far, with the position of the two LiteDomes changing from low, to middle, to high (shown here from left to right). Notice the placement of highlights on the subject and the background exposures.

We chose our favorite position, with the lights in the middle, and began to manipulate this setup further. Our aim was to add some dimension to the face by spacing the lights out away from the camera. First, we moved the lights out 45 degrees off the axis of the camera lens.

The result shows how when we moved the lights away from the camera, we were able to produce much better delineation of the facial features. One thing we wanted to improve, though, was the appearance of shadow lines along the model’s nose. Notice how her eyes seem to have lost their full, captivating size.

To help illustrate these issues, we took it another step, moving the lights to a more obtuse angle — about 90 degrees off the axis of the lens.

The result was even less pleasing and the problems we had pointed out earlier were noticeably more evident. Because the lights are at such a steep angle, a deep shadow resulted directly down the middle of the model’s face, also creating noticeably dark rings on the inside of her eyes.

Below is a comparison of the last three shots. The first (left) was taken with the lights positioned close to the camera. In the second shot (middle), the lights were at a 45-degree angle to the axis of the camera lens. The third image was taken with the lights moved out even further, positioned at roughly 90 degrees to the camera.

At this point, the middle shot was our favorite version since it had the most natural look. While we were not entirely satisfied with it, we used it as a base from which to build. We decided to use this setup in conjunction with various power ratios settings on the strobes to see if we could improve the overall depth and contrast.

Working With Power Ratios

Now that we have explored some light positioning options, we wanted to work on a nice ratio for the portrait. The power ratio refers to the amount of light that one light puts out in relation to the other light. Up until now, each of our shots have been taken with a 1:1 power ratio. This means that the power levels of both lights were identical. And since we had kept the distances of the lights to the model the same for both lights, this power ratio produced the same amount of light on each side of the model’s face.

In order to achieve this 1:1 balance, we began by metering each strobe individually with the other strobe turned off. We set our flash meter to ‘flash’ mode and the shutter speed in the meter to 1/125th of a second matching the sync speed in our camera. Our reading showed 1/125th of a second at f/16 for each strobe. This meant that the intensity of light coming from each strobe was identical.

Next, we changed the proportional power setting on the right strobe to half power and metered it by itself once more. The reading was 1/125th of a second at f/11. This produced a lighting ratio of 1:2.

As you can see in the result, our 1:2 lighting ratio has caused the right side of the face to be slightly darker than the left. We now had a shot that we were happy with. We were still getting good detail on the right side of her face, but have also added layers of contrast that made our model appear more life-like in the picture.

Next, we turned the strobe on the right down even further, increasing the ratio to 1:3. The details of the skin texture were starting to get lost, but there was just enough fill light to round out the face, and not leave us with half a person. Plus, there are still nice catch lights in her eyes giving the darker side of the face more “life”.

Beow is a comparison of all three shots using different power ratios. From left to right, these are 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3.

The Final Image

Now that we have explored our lighting positions and power options to create depth and dimension in our portrait, lets compose a head and shoulders shot that will really show off our model. We chose 1:2 as the ideal ratio for our final shot.

First, we tried our white background since it was already set up. We positioned the model about six feet in front of the background. Doing this ensured that the light from our two LiteDomes would not blow out the background, keeping it a couple of stops darker than white. This worked fine and, indeed, the white background appears a charcoal gray.

Nevertheless, we felt the result was a little flat, which didn’t do justice to our model. We decided to try a black background to reduce distractions and bring more attention to her face.

The result is nice, but again, we felt it was not dynamic enough. The top of her head and hair appear lost in the dark background and the whole image feels a bit subdued.

Finally, we decided to add a different background to try and add more life to the portrait. We pulled out a 77×77 inch LitePanel Frame, attached a Gold/White Fabric, and positioned it with the Gold side facing the camera.

The result packed a good “Wow Factor”. The look created in this version was unexpected and took the image from being a normal portrait to something more akin to a fashion shot. Also, the reflective background does a better job at revealing the form and outline of our model.

Still, we decided to go a little further to try and improve the shot. We decided to adjust the background slightly. First, we tilted it back a little, angling it slightly up from the model. This gave us a great highlight that seemed to be a glow emanating around our model. We also turned her shoulders and face slightly farther away from the camera. This created a modified “Rembrandt” lighting theme, with a nice gradation of light across her face, still using our 1:2 ratio.

We felt that it was important that our final result was breathtaking not only to us, but to the model as well. Once we showed her the shots, we all agreed that this last shot was our favorite.

Remember, lighting is more than simple positioning. It’s a combination of positioning and lighting ratios. Have fun, experiment, and don’t stop the shoot until you find the shot you love!

Basic Lighting,

Indoor Portraits,


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