Dramatic Studio Light from a Portable Flash

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Studio lights are essential for many types of product and fashion shots, and I’ve used them for decades. Sometimes I like to keep things simple, though, and it’s fun to challenge myself to create lighting that evokes a mood and an emotion with just a single portable flash. I recently photographed a beautiful young model, Ellecie White of Hillsboro, Tennessee, and I thought this would be the perfect time to minimize my equipment. I felt it would be less intimidating to a five-year-old, and I was sure I could create the type of lighting I wanted.



I limited myself to two Canon 580EX units, and a Pocket Wizard to trigger them wirelessly. The secret to using light is to control its direction, color, and diffusion.  For the portrait above, I had a friend hold one of the flash units 90° to the lens axis, and I asked Ellecie to face the light. I chose a black background (velvet is my fabric of choice because it absorbs light so well) so our attention would not be diverted by other elements. To make the harsh light from the portable light soft, I used (don’t laugh) four pieces of white computer paper taped together. I wanted to demonstrate how something as common and cheap as paper could provide the same exquisite lighting as soft boxes, diffusion panels, and white umbrellas. It did.

For the outdoor portrait below, I waited until the sun had gone down, and it was about 45 minutes before dark. I didn't want the interference of direct sunlight, because that would introduce contrast and shadows—neither of which I wanted. I placed one flash in the hotshoe of my Canon 5D Mark II and turned the exposure down to minus 1 2/3 f/stops. My friend held the second flash behind Ellecie and to the left, and this created a wonderful highlight on her red hair. I decreased the exposure for the hair light by one full f/stop. I used the flash exposure compensation feature on the Speedlite to make these adjustments. 

For the full-length portrait below, I used the same type of lighting with the same settings. To help direct all of the attention on Ellecie, I used Photoshop to darken the grass about one f/stop. I find that by darkening the periphery of an image, the subject stands out more, and it is a subtle way to make the shot more visually compelling.

When lighting Ellecie seated in the red chair, I had to be mindful of shadows on her face created by her long hair. It took some careful adjustment of those curls, and strategic placement of the hair light, before unwanted shadows were eliminated. I also darkened the peripheral grass in this image for added drama.

If you don't have two flash units, get together with a friend who has the same brand of gear as you do, and experiment with light.  If you use one flash on the camera and one unit off-camera, turn the on-camera flash to 'master' and the other flash to 'slave'. Both flash units will fire simultaneously when the infrared beam from the master triggers the slave. This works as long as the beam isn't blocked or interrupted in any way. The reason I like to use the Pocket Wizard system for wireless triggering is because they work on the principle of radio waves, not an infrared beam. The difference is huge. When you trigger one or more flash units with a radio signal, it doesn't matter if people, buildings, trees, etc. block the transmitter from the receiver. The flash units will still fire.

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There so much to learn and explore in photography that you really need in order to have those pretty cool pixtures in no time. Photoshop really helps somehow on this.

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