5 Quick and Easy Portrait Setups

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There comes a time in every photographer’s life, usually after some consistently good shots with an on-camera flash, that he or she says, "Hey, I want to make my own light on demand. I can do this." Thus begins a seemingly never-ending journey—first mastering the basics and then trying to put some feeling and expression into your photos. Since most photographers start with portraits, this involves formalizing the arrangement to some extent. With this in mind, let's look at a few simple portrait techniques.

"Basic lighting demands that the light (flash) be taken off of the camera. "

Basic lighting demands that the light (flash) be taken off of the camera, to avoid the red-eye effect from direct on-camera flash, for one thing, and also to give the face more shape and dimension than a flat-lit pancake. This is probably a good time to say that these setups can be done with constant light sources (hot lights), as well, which present you with the advantage of being able to see how the light strikes your subject and pre-visualize your portrait before you trip the shutter. In any case, since we're using flash, let's quickly address TTL (through-the-lens) metering. During these exercises, TTL will make your life a lot easier, especially since the majority of these techniques are done with a single light. TTL will ensure a consistent, correct or near correct exposure, leaving you with one less thing to worry about. You may be wondering, why not use the Program setting on your camera or Aperture Priority? Well, I think it's important to be involved in the process. Working with f-stops and shutter speeds in manual mode allows just that. Note that the flash is set to TTL and the camera to manual. You'll have to select a shutter speed.  I'd recommend 1/125th second to avoid camera shake without breaching the camera’s maximum sync speed. Next, you'll choose an aperture. Which one? I recommend starting with f5.6 for some decent depth of field so that more than just the eyes or nose of your subject will be in focus. You see what's happening here? You're making photographic choices based on interrelated building blocks—you’re part of the process.

Your flash is off of your camera. How? While there are wireless solutions, let's try the inexpensive way to transmit the camera's TTL evaluation of your subject to the flash.    

Vello makes some attractively priced TTL cords like the coiled 6.5" cord  but for this purpose I like the 33' straight cord which gives you lots of latitude without the danger of tipping over your light stand. Oh, did I mention you need a light stand? You do, at least 6' tall and, while we're at it, you need a 32-36" medium-sized umbrella, preferably with a removable black backing. If that's unavailable, a white translucent one will do. Your last investment should be an inexpensive tilting umbrella mount for the flash and umbrella.

Setup 1: 45/45

 

That's what I call it, anyway. Throughout this article, I'll give the setups names that work for me mixed with traditional names.

Anyway, 45/45 means 45 degrees off-axis and 45 degree vertical tilt with the flash pointed into the umbrella in bounce mode. The light stand can go 45 degrees left or right of your subject and if they're seated on a stool, the stand should be extended about 5'. The umbrella shaft should be pointed down toward your subject. This gives you a nice ratio of light between the light and dark sides of the face—probably two to three times brighter. It's also a good setup to use a 2x3’ reflector card aimed at the dark side of the face, pulled closer or pushed further away depending on the light level you prefer. Try the refinements below to sample the effects of a reflector. Note the quality of light as you change from one surface to the next.

Refinement 1: Add a light stand with a white card to fill in. Change to a silver card, then a gold card. Note the filled in shadow on the dark side of the face.

Refinement 2: Place the umbrella closer and at a 30 degree angle pointed down. Place the card (2x3') in the subject's lap at the optimal angle reflective angle to illuminate the face as observed from the camera position. Note the fill light from underneath.

Setup 2: Beauty Lighting


 

While this is normally done with a beauty dish, our convertible umbrella with its black backing removed will give a usable approximation. After you get the black backing off we're going to point the convex curve of the umbrella toward the subject. Think of it as the opposite of the traditional bounce mode. Position the umbrella fairly close and at a somewhat extreme angle pointed down with the center shaft aimed at the center of the subjects face. The interesting thing about the translucent umbrella is that it does provide a somewhat crisp rendering of details akin to the Beauty Dish but with its open back there's a lot of light bouncing around the room that has the effect of lowering the overall contrast. For this reason you'll probably want to use light-colored backgrounds or chroma keying. This setup is also a good candidate for fill light from a card placed in your subject's lap.

Setup 3: Rembrandt Lighting

 
 

Named after the painter, this sort of light is a more extreme version of our first setup, "45/45."  The umbrella now has its black backing on so as to contain spill light. Rembrandt lighting is nearly always done in a darkened or darkish room or studio. The umbrella height for a seated subject is about 6' with the umbrella pointed down 45 degrees. You want to move the light about 55 to 60 degrees off-axis in relation to the camera. What you're looking for is a small triangle of light on the darker, further away side of the face. An FYI for purists: a perfect triangle is joined at its bottom but don't worry if yours is not. It just has to look good. If you'd like a lighter ratio of light for the dark side of the face you can employ the bounce card refinement.

Setup 4: Split Lighting


 

Split lighting takes Rembrandt light a step further in locating the light 90 degrees off access to the camera. The technique gets its name from the "splitting "of the face into light and dark halves for dramatic purposes. Ideally only the dark side's eye picks up a tiny sliver of light but the shape of some faces just makes this impossible. This is another instance where the refinement might be a reflective card on the dark side to reveal detail in the face or positioned further back to light the hair, to separate the subject from the background.

Setup 5: Broad Lighting and Short Lighting

Broad Lighting Short Lighting

These setups often occur naturally during an active portrait session. Position the light and umbrella as we did in the 45/45 setup. Broad lighting happens when the subject's face is turned in such a way the light is on the largest (broadest) part of the face that the camera sees. Short lighting is the exact opposite. The broadest part of the face is in shadow, while the part of the face that's furthest away is in the light.

Probably the best part of breaking down a process is that it calls your attention to its elements. Where is the light falling? How is it reflected?  What is its mood? How can I recreate it? We're usually moving too fast, but the truth is that we're walking right past hundreds of portraits every day, each with its own special lighting. You just have to train yourself to look. And when you do that naturally, you'll find that you've actually learned to see.

 

9 Comments

Wonderful to see clear informative setups and images aswell. this will help lots of photographers to get their hands on right technique.

I'm confused by the first set up and the Rembrandt one. You say the black layer should be on the umbrella but you show the umbrella pointing towards the subject with the light behind it. Won't the black fabric block out light except what spills around the umbrella or bounces off walls? Is that the intention?  

My understanding of how umbrellas work is that you shoot light through a white umbrella pointed at the subject OR you put the black fabric on and turn the umbrella/flash around so that it's pointing away from the subject, and the light bounces off the white inside of the umbrella and back toward the subject. The point of the black fabric is to keep light from going through.

Am I misunderstanding something in this?

Hi. Thanks for reposting this on Twitter. I like the simplicity of the instructions but also the amount of detail given. I have found that most lighting setups focus on where to position lights aroudn the subject but leave out the height. That extra little piece of information is much appreciated and helps me understand the set ups more.

Thanks for sharing helpful information about lighting setup.

Very helpful overview.  Thanks for sharing!

The two cords are referenced as 'products mentioned' but what about the stand, flash, and umbrella w removable backing?  Thx. -MR

A few examples of the other items mentioned in the article:
 

Impact Convertible Umbrella - White Satin with Removable Black Backing - 32"  --   B&H # IMU32BW

Impact Umbrella - White Translucent (33")  --  B&H # IMU33T

Impact Umbrella Bracket with Adjustable Shoe  --  B&H # IMUB

Impact Light Stand, Black (6')  --  B&H # IMLS6B

Raya 5-in-1 Collapsible Reflector Disc (42")  --  B&H # RAR5142

 

We did not have all of the reflector boards that were mentioned, so the Raya 5-in-1 reflectors may be used in the place of reflector boards.

Thank you for all this great information. Much appreciated.

It would sure be nice to see actual image results with these lighting set ups.