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Portraiture with One Light

When it comes to lighting, you can do a lot with a little

by John H. Siskin

Michael J. Pratt #1
Michael J. Pratt #1
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
In these examples, I will offer several different set-ups. They all feature a friend of mine, Michael J. Pratt. Mike is an actor here in Los Angeles. The idea is to be able to change between different looks in just a few moments. I want to be able to start with a strong character light and move to a soft light in the same shoot with out interrupting the flow of the shoot. I can do that with just a few simple tools and one light!

In this image, #1, I used a 42-inch ribbless umbrella and 250 watt seconds of strobe power. My aperture was set at f11.3. The light is a Norman 2400 head. The effect is somewhat harsh, even though umbrellas are known for even lighting. The light has this effect because it has a direction and because there is no light filling in the shadows. If your light source is so broad it seems to come from everywhere, like on an overcast day, it doesnít have direction. An umbrella seems to be a large light from one direction. The advantage of a light like this is that it defines character. It will give strength to the lines on the face and shape to the features.



Michael J. Pratt #2
Michael J. Pratt #2
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Of course, it is incredibly easy to set up. One light placed on a stand, above the subject and to one side. The closer the light is to the subject the less defined the character lines will be in the portrait. The more the light is angled to the side of the face the more the image is only half a face. It is easy to make changes while you are shooting!

Adding a large reflector panel to the first shot creates image #2.


Michael J. Pratt Set-Up #2
Michael J. Pratt Set-Up #2
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Please look at set-up #2. Once again, this is a very fast and easy change. This will retain the character of the first light while opening up the shadows.

It is important to have the reflector close to the image. Often I see people set up a portrait with the lights and reflectors at distances of more than 5 feet from the subject, this will greatly reduce the smoothness of the light in the finished image. The exposure will remain the same in both the first and second shots; after all you havenít any new lights. You can do this with either a silver reflector or gold reflector. The gold reflector makes images with noticeably warmer shadows, which is why I used it in this shot. I usually mount the two reflectors are mounted onto the same frame, so changing them is very easy.



Michael J. Pratt #3
Michael J. Pratt #3
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
I made image #3 by placing a diffusing material, white cotton broad cloth, on a frame in between the umbrella and the subject. This serves to create a soft light 3.5 by 6 feet in size.


Michael J. Pratt Set-Up #3
Michael J. Pratt Set-Up #3
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Check out set-up #3. Unlike a direct light into a diffuser this has no significant hot spot, but the light drops off slowly into the corners. A direct comparison of this image and the first image will show that the diffused light has softer highlight and smoother transitions. The overall look is less contrasty. Unless I need to create a particularly harsh look, I will use this light arrangement rather than just the umbrella.

Of course the amount of light will change, the diffusion panel sucked up some photons. In this case I used 500 watt/seconds and an aperture of f11.5. So I added more light to achieve a similar aperture. The result of this is that it takes a few moments longer to make this change than the first one.










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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, John H. Siskin
Photography Instructor: John H. SiskinJohn Siskin is a commercial and fine art photographer who makes architectural, portrait and macro images. He has worked for General Motors and Disney Studios. He teaches the BetterPhoto course An Introduction to Photographic Lighting and is the author of the book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers.

In addition, he teaches studio lighting black and white photography at Los Angeles Mission College. His studio is in Reseda California and more of his work can be seen at www.siskinphoto.com

His work has been part of many exhibits. His photographs have been shown at the Brand Library, 2nd City Art Gallery, Haroldís Gallery, Farmani Gallery, and The Atelier. He has been a participant in the Valley Studio Tour several times.

John has published quite a number of technical articles about photography. His articles have appeared in Photo Techniques, View Camera, Studio Photography and others. He has written about photographic lighting, building lenses, framing, photographic lab work, building cameras, as well as some more speculative photographic subjects. Since he is so well versed in photographic subjects, he is often hired as a consultant by businesses.


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