It is vital for a professional photographer to be consistent in style and we embody this at Ideal Impressions Photography. Our ability to do so is the reason that our clients return to us again and again, despite the fact that we employ seventeen photographers who shoot in different locations with varying light conditions. We are not alone in recognizing that clients value a consistent style. Many photographers prefer to shoot an entire company at one time so that their patterns don’t change. However, photographers don’t have to accept this limitation. I would like to explain how to map out a standard portrait setup so that you can attain nearly identical results at every shoot.
Over the years I have learned that mapping out an ideal setup is extremely effective. You can write down all the settings you use so that future shoots turn out exactly the way you want them to. I have also found merit in the experience and knowledge that repetition brings. For example, it becomes routine to set up a standard portrait with three lights and a backdrop. This method has kept our photographers working at the fastest pace possible, allowed them to get amazing results at every shoot, and ensured that every professional portrait we create matches from one shoot to another. Even if you want to be a little more creative with your lighting patterns, this is a great place to start and allows you to quickly change lighting as needed.
For simplicity, let’s start with the backdrop. Ours happens to be white, which is set up with one flash at torso level shooting off a 3-foot white reflector behind the translucent backdrop. This essentially creates a more feathered lighting effect behind your subject. You can also use a boom from the front with a soft box between the model and backdrop, creating slightly backlit hair and producing a similar, circular highlight pattern on the backdrop. If your backdrop does not allow light to come through, this will be your best bet. I like both setups and find myself using them regularly.
Once the backdrop is ready, place your subject five feet away. This will allow you to slightly blur out the backdrop and create depth. Set up the main light three feet from center and ten feet from the backdrop, at roughly a 45° angle above your subject’s head. Heights will vary according to your model. The second light is set up two feet off center and fifteen feet away from the backdrop. I like this setup because it gives me space between the lights to work.
Notice that I like to keep the distances even. The backdrop is considered zero feet, the subject is five feet, the main light is ten feet, and second light is fifteen feet. This works well when trying to quickly figure out how many stops of light to adjust for your subject, as one stop of light is 2x the distance from the subject.
I typically use three Canon 600 EX RT flashes with a ST-E3-RT transmitter on top of my camera. I like the Canon system because all of our team uses the same thing, and they offer several options. The built-in radio is a must. At the same time, while Canon is my system of choice, these same principles would work with almost any flash or strobe. You might want to start with a TTL setting if you don’t understand manual and light patterns very well. You won’t have as much control over the shadowing and fill, however, and will typically get a more flatly lit image.
If you want to see the same results for every shoot, it is important to shoot in manual mode. I start by setting the transmitter to manual, with each flash controlling its own exposure. I like to turn my camera to ISO 160, and 1/200 at F4. I keep the ISO low and shutter speed high for these mapped shoots, because it basically enables my flashes to be emitting more light than the ambient light present in most indoor shoots. The back light behind the backdrop or boomed above is set to 1/32 power, the key light is typically set to 1/8th power, and the fill light is set to 1/16 power. As I mentioned earlier, these settings will vary a little according to exposure. However, they will get you started with shoots that are very close to being properly lit from the get-go.
Once you have captured your first test shot, if the subject is too under- or overexposed, increase or decrease power using the key light. If you desire a bolder, shadowed look, reduce the power of the fill light. If you want a flatter, more evenly lit look, increase the power of the fill light (which I usually have set to just above head height).
I like to shoot at F4 at this distance because it usually keeps the entire head sharp, but still creates a desirable depth of field. I typically shoot with Canon 85mm/1.2 or 70-200mm/2.8 lenses. Shooting at F4 with both of these ensures a tack-sharp image. Newer photographers often make the mistake of shooting with too shallow f-stops, such as 1.2 or 1.8. Lenses are nearly always sharper stopped down by 1 stop. Shooting at F4, or even 5.6, typically creates a “sharper” image. By using these settings in most cases, you eliminate any natural light in the room, creating 100% of the exposure from your flash source. This helps give you the consistency you need at different locations regardless of what kind of ambient lighting is present: natural sunlight, tungsten, fluorescent, etc.
In most portrait scenarios, you should be able to use this map or a mapped set up of your creation. Some people like to add more power to the back light, and, if using a white backdrop, sometimes even multiple lights to create a bright, consistent white. My preference is to keep some detail in the white backdrop or the gray backdrop. In other words, I don’t want it to go completely white because I think a little bit of color blending to gray looks more professional. It’s also very easy in Photoshop to turn a backdrop totally white if needed. With this flexibility, you are able to easily make the background larger and merge people together into groups with digital software as needed.
I hope this gets you excited to find a light pattern that defines your standard portrait. In a short amount of time, you will find yourself setting up faster, shooting more confidently, and, best of all, gaining the consistency that you need to improve your product.
Ryan Bensheimer studied photography at the world renowned Art Institute in Chicago. Ryan works with a team of photographers and editors to deliver cutting edge wedding images to Wisconsin and many great destination locations around the world. He has received several awards and is one of three Album Epoca Signature Photographers in the US. His work is regularly published by the Knot and Premiere Bride and he is the leading instructor for the Ideal Art Tours. See more of his portfolio at his website: http://www.idealimpressionsphotography.com/