Studio Portrait Lighting

October 27, 2013  •  1 Comment

I would like to thank Sittingbourne Photographic Society for putting up with my voice yet again! Last year I inadvertently agreed to do a talk on studio lighting – I thought after having had the lights for nearly a year and having done a few shoots I was more than qualified! I know we covered a lot during the evening and I did promise to pen some notes for people.

The first thing we covered was the kit that I use so let’s kick off with that to start with.

The first thing, obviously, is the flash head. I use Elinchrom 400-watt flash heads. I chose these because they have built in wireless receivers that can be triggered from a device that sits on the camera hot shoe, they are a strong plastic construction that makes them light compared to something like the Bowens flash heads, and finally, but importantly, a variable power output. They are not a cheap option but if you want to start out on a smaller budget Interfit do a range of studio flash heads starting at about £200 for 150-watt heads. For two flash heads, stands, an umbrella and a small softbox that is pretty good value especially when you consider a good quality flashgun will cost that.

The next important thing (although arguably not essential in the digital age) is a light meter. I use a Sekonic L-308S flash meter. These do not come cheap either; this starter model from Sekonic is about £140. However, as I mentioned, it is not essential these days – you can fire test shots with digital cameras and get a feel for the lighting. The light meter provides a more accurate and speedy method of finding out what you light is doing though.

Backgrounds are another non-essential item if you have somewhere un-cluttered you can shoot portraits. You may even want more of an environmental feel to the portrait showing furniture or the surroundings. For the demonstration I used my Lastolite HiLite. The advantage of using this is that you can light it internally to produce good high-key white backgrounds in a confined space. You can also turn it around and use the black side for low-key work. You do not need to spend a fortune though to get a background. At the end of the day you can pop down to your local fabric shop and buy a sheet – or use a spare one obviously.

Right, we are pretty much ready to shoot. For the demo I used my MacBook Pro running Lightroom 5 with a USB lead (Type A to Mini B) running from the camera to the Mac.  In Lightroom you can go to File->Tethered Capture->Start Tethered Capture and shoot straight to your laptop or computer. If you have Lightroom you should check that it supports your camera model.

Let’s get down to business and set up some lights. For the demo we used up to four flash heads but it is entirely possible to shoot great portraits with just a single flash. Each flash, no matter how many you use, should have a single job. Let’s have a look at what we used.

The Key Light

This is the light that provides the main subject lighting. If you only have one light this is what you will probably need it for. I was taught to try and use a working aperture of f-8 on the subject. Position your light meter by the models face and aim it towards the flash head.

Trigger the flash to take the reading. If necessary adjust the flash power until you get to your working aperture. f-8 is big enough to provide the depth of field to keep the subject all in focus and hopefully narrow enough to throw our background out of focus. There is no hard and fast rule about this, the style of picture you want may mean using something different. You may for example want the background in focus so use a much higher f-stop. The important thing it to set a base working point. If you are using other lights they will have settings relative to your key light. We used a large softbox as a ‘light modifier’ on our key light. The softbox, as the name implies, gives a nice soft light on the model. The closer the softbox is to the model the softer the light becomes. This is to do with the size of the light source in relation to the subject. The larger a light source is in relation to the subject the softer it becomes. If we wanted a much harsher light (maybe for a male subject) we could use a bare flash head. To start with you should have the key light at 45 degrees to the model. This will give a good level of shadow on the far side of the model’s face. Again experiment with angle.

The Background Light

The background light is important to separate your model from the background. This is especially important if you are shooting a low-key image but only if you are entering for competitions! You may want your subject to blend into the background because it can give a very artistic effect. Judges, it would seem, do not like this type of artistic effect and are likely to mark a picture down for having no separation. Remember though – it’s your (or your model's) picture take what you want! If you want that pure white background then use a white background and aim to be two f-stops higher. For our high-key shots, because my working aperture on the subject was f-8, I want to measure f-16 off the background. What this mean is reality is that the flash head(s) lighting the background need to be throwing out much more power. Unlike when taking the key light reading, face the flash meter towards the background because we want to measure the light being reflected back from it towards the camera, not what is falling onto the background. Heavy velvet backgrounds, for example, can absorb maybe three or four stops of light. If the light coming from the flash head is f-16 the actual light being reflected may only be something like f-4 so much darker than you expect.

The Hair Light

The hair light is also used to create separation between the model and the background. It should be above and behind the model. For models with dark hair you want your exposure to be the same or up to one stop lower than the key-light. For our working aperture of f-8 the hair light should be between f-8 and f-5.6. For blonde models you should aim to expose between 1 and 2 stop lower (f-5.6 or f-4). Dark hair will, like backgrounds, absorb some of the light, blonde hair can bleach out if the exposure is too high. For our hair light I used a honeycombe light modifier to direct the light onto the models head and not allow it to spill out into the picture.

The Fill Light

The final light in the demonstration was the fill light. Again, this is an optional light but it is designed to provide an overall wash of light to lift the deeper shadows. It sits at the back of the studio. Ideally if you have a white wall behind you bounce the flash off of that.  For the demonstration we used a large white brolly, which is not ideal, but works when it is set further back. The fill light should be the least evident light source in the picture. The fill light should be set to about 1.5-2 stops lower (f-4.5 or f-4)

So, in summary, a good starting base is as follows:

Key light – f-8

High Key Background – f-16

Low Key Background – No light upwards!

Hair Light for Blonde – f-5.6

Hair Light for Brunette – f-8

Fill Light – f-4.5

Remember though, this is just a starting point. Your job is to position and balance the lights you are using to create effect. My thanks to Phillipa Day for being my suffering model for the evening and who usually sits on the other side of the lens doing portraits! You can see some of Phillipa's work on her website


Phillipa Day(non-registered)
Hi Iain Just wanted to say thank you for the amazing shots you took of me. As you say I am normally the other side of the lens and it has been a few years since I did any 'posing'. I have just read through the notes you have posted and found them to be really clear and easy to understand, I even picked up a couple of tips myself. Thanks again for the fantastic photos. Thanks also for adding the link to my website.
No comments posted.

January February (4) March (2) April May (1) June July August (1) September (1) October November December
January (2) February March April (1) May June July August September October (2) November December (1)
January February March April May June July (1) August (1) September (1) October November December
January February March April May June (2) July August (2) September October November December
January February March (2) April May (1) June July August September October November December (1)
January February (1) March April May June July August September October November December
January February March (1) April May June July August September October November December