Post image for Portrait Lighting Technique No. 359: Dramatic Headshots

Building on the previous post about portrait lighting, I wanted to include something on a more dramatic lighting setup I used for a set of high school theatre headshots.

For this shoot, the goal was to have a series of senior student headshots to hang on the “senior wall” in the lobby during the run of the show. While each person is certainly unique, I usually like to have series headshots like these following the same style. In this case, I decided to use a piece of the existing set for the photos. The set relied heavily on scaffolding and industrial-style elements, and the show had a steampunk theme throughout. I thought that a bit of scaffolding with the stairs would provide a good place to set up some dramatic lighting while also providing some interesting scenery elements and a place for the subjects to sit (always an important detail!). For the past few years, I had done headshots on white seamless for this group, and they worked quite well. This show was a little more edgy, though, and I really wanted some of that to show in the photos.

For the lighting setup, I used three Nikon SB900′s, fired with the Nikon Creative Lighting System in TTL mode. I used two Manfrotto Super Clamps to hang two supporting flashes where I wanted them, and my friend the little Manfrotto collapsible stand I mentioned in the previous post for the key light. I had one super clamp with an SB900 with diffusion dome and a “rock and roll pink” (Rosco R346) hanging behind the seating position on the stairs, aimed at the back of the subject’s head. This was to provide a pop of colorful rim lighting in the subject’s hair. From up and to camera right, I hung another SB900 with diffusion dome and a deep blue (also Rosco, but I’m not sure which one I used–I think it was R83). The key light had my standard warming gel (R03), and was firing into a LumiQuest SoftBox III, which is an awesome little mini-softbox diffusion modifier. Using the SoftBox III allowed me to get the light more focused on the subject, without having a lot of spill. The shoot-through umbrella is an awesome light diffuser, but it throws light everywhere. Using a small softbox gave me a lot more control. Using such a small diffuser meant that I had to get it fairly close to the subject to avoid having it become a hard light source, which would have created some nasty shadows. Since these were headshots, that was easy to do, especially with the small light stand.

The lights were test-fired until I got the balance I wanted. The hair/rim light was firing with no power change. The blue light was firing at about -2, and the key was firing about about -0.3. With a fixed scene and TTL control of lighting, I could shoot with everything pretty locked-down, and the flash exposure would follow. The whole session was shot at ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/125s. When I got home, I realized I could (and probably should) have shot at around f/4 or f/5.6 to give me a little more depth of field. That still would have thrown the background elements out, without sacrificing subject focus. There were a couple of shots where I wasn’t pleased with how some extremities would go out of focus because they were just a little out of that plane. I’m always learning!

Here is the original shot from the post heading, and a second shot from the same session for an example of how this worked with other subjects.

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Post image for Portrait Lighting Technique No. 253.1: Off-Camera and on the Move

Yes, this is technique number 253.1. Well, not really. There are so many techniques that it really doesn’t make sense to try to name or number all of them. In this post, though, I’ll be talking a little bit about a fairly standard (and easy) technique for getting off-camera lighting when taking portraits “on the go.” The method I used here works great for outings where one might have a second person to help out as the crew (or, as some people call them, voice-activated light stands), but I’ve also done it when it is just me.

Jenny with light standI prefer to have off-camera light when I’m shooting a portrait and using lights. That means that the flash has to come off of the camera, which in turn means it needs to go somewhere! That somewhere for me is usually a portable light stand that folds into a fairly compact form. At the top is a swivel fitting with a mounting slot for an umbrella and a cold shoe for a portable flash (a.k.a. speedlight). I use the Frio cold shoes, a super-portable collapsible light stand and umbrella fitting by Manfrotto, and a shoot-through umbrella from Paul C. Buff. To fire the flash, I use either PocketWizards or my camera’s remote flash control system (I shoot Nikon and use Nikon SB900 speedlights, so I can use the Nikon Creative Lighting System for wireless TTL control of my lights). When it is all put together, the whole system (including my wife playing the part of the voice-activated light stand) looks kinda like the photo on the right. The stand in use in that photo is a slightly different stand. It is a Paul C. Buff stand that is a little larger, but is more stable and can go a good bit higher than the little Manfrotto stand. I knew we were going to be shooting in Oakland for the session where this photo was taken, and I knew it was going to be a little windy and I might want some extra height for some shots. In fact, I shot another photo to the camera right of this shot, with the subject sitting on the wall of the Mellon Institute where there are no steps. That’s probably a seven-foot drop. I shot from the ground, and this particular stand had enough reach to get my light in line with his head for the shot.

When I’m setting up for a shoot, one of the first shots I make with either an assistant or a willing subject is a shot with the color check card. I use the X-Rite Passport system, but there are many that do the same thing. A long while ago, I got frustrated trying to get my monitor calibrated to reality, and decided I needed to adopt a more formal color workflow. It is perfectly possible to get great results without going this far down the rabbit hole, but I found that this makes my work more consistent and therefore makes my life easier. The way this system works is that I take the photo with the color chart in it, and send it to a plug-in in Lightroom that creates a color profile for the camera. I can then apply this color calibration to all of the photos from the shoot. This assures some amount of consistency. I also use an X-Rite monitor calibration tool to calibrate my monitor every month, so I know that what I see should be what I get!

I use lights in all sorts of conditions, from bright sun to night, but how I use them changes. This particular post is going to look at a shot where I used powerful light during the day to overcome ambient lighting for a more dramatic and controlled shot. So let’s take a look at the shot again:

Meredith with violin ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/250s

This is a photo from a senior session I did in Allegheny Cemetery. The lighting for this shoot was pretty simple, but it helped to make what could have been a pretty drab photo into something with a lot of depth. Here’s an example of a shot with existing light (and no serious post-processing, just for the record):

ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/200s

By itself, this isn’t a bad shot. However, we can make things a little more dramatic by stopping-down about three stops to drop out some of the ambient light. That helps to lessen the impact of the background, and also makes the flash more prominent in the overall lighting effect in the shot. For this particular shoot, I was using the shoot-through umbrella with the flash on a stand, just as in the example photo. The flash was a Nikon SB900, with the diffuser dome in place and a cut of Rosco R03 color gel on the flash head (R03 is called “bastard amber,” and adds a little warmth to the flash). I used a PocketWizard to fire the flash remotely, and controlled flash power manually. For the featured shot, flash power was at 1/4 to get the desired exposure. The end result utilized just one light through an umbrella, but we also had the ambient daylight still somewhat present in the shot, so shadows didn’t go completely dark. The umbrella helps to seriously diffuse the light, softening the shadows and facial features and adding an overall pleasing glow to the subject’s hair. I don’t have a shot where I pulled back on the scene, but the umbrella was just out of frame and up to camera left. The quality of ambient light was diffused open shadow, as there was consistent cloud cover over the area.

After the shoot, the photos were edited and processed. This particular photo had the contrast bumped-up a bit, lens correction applied, some skin softening and spot removal, and a little sharpening in the eyes.

I try to look at my work with a critical eye, and noticed later that there was a light shadow over her right eye (camera left), due to her hair coming across her face in front of the light. With the extra-diffused nature of light from a shoot-through umbrella, I could live with the shadow, since her eye on that side didn’t go completely dark. In fact, one can still see the catchlight in that eye. If the shadow had been too dramatic, this photo likely would have found itself on the cutting room floor.

I hope that maybe this inspires some ideas. Go make some portraits!

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Building an “Artistic Rendition” Cover Image

July 4, 2012
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Over the past few years, I’ve read several tutorials on how to build artistic renditions of photographs. I have used several techniques that I picked-up through other tutorials and experimentation to develop the cover image at the top of this post. In this entry, I’ll walk you through the steps that I took to build […]

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Pittsburgh Senior Meredith

December 8, 2011
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I know that things have been quiet here lately, and I’m trying to remedy that. I’m a little behind in posting some good stuff! In late October, as Autumn was in full-force in the Pittsburgh area, I had the opportunity to take some senior portraits of the lovely Meredith. I met Meredith a few years […]

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The Scene and the Snapshot: Episode Three

August 19, 2011
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After a little hiatus due in part to sixteen million other things happening at the same time, I’m pleased to release the next episode in my odd little series called, “The Scene and the Snapshot.” Here in the third episode, we take a look at one of our favorite Lake Huron public beaches on the […]

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Some recent black and white work: My first 120-format film!

July 14, 2011
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I have been shooting some 120-format film recently, and finally had the chance to develop some of it a couple of weeks ago. My Dad and I had a big film developing party in my parents’ basement. I brought out my new “film processing kit in a box” to run it through its paces. My […]

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Light Meter Experiments

June 13, 2011

It has been a really, really long time since I used a fully analog light meter. I recently picked up a Sekonic L-398m: No batteries. No real maintenance. It works like a slide rule for photographers. The light sensor (under the dome) generates a small current across its terminals. The current is measured and displayed […]

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New Joys, Old Joys, and Surprises

June 9, 2011
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New Joy: Film Seems strange, doesn’t it? Why on earth is film a new joy? With the support of my wonderful wife, I recently went crazy and bought a Mamiya RZ67 camera: This is a medium-format camera that shoots 120-size roll film (or 220-size, if one gets a 220 magazine) with a 6×7 frame size […]

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Congratulations Katie and Brendan!

May 15, 2011
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You’re now wedded! And we have the photos (and video!!!) to prove it! I’m still busy importing video and starting to cull photos, but here is a quick sampler from today’s festivities.

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Katie and Brendan’s Rehearsal

May 14, 2011
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Jenny and I are out in Philadelphia for her sister Katie’s wedding. Katie and her fiance asked us to take their engagement photos over Thanksgiving. They later asked us to also take their wedding photos, and we were thrilled! Tonight was the rehearsal and dinner. Here are just a few images from tonight. First, a […]

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