If you walk into any professional studio, you’ll be amazed at the number of lights and the support equipment for them. Chances are there will be at least five or six lights in a typical studio and some shoots can require over a dozen. Are all these lights necessary? Do you need half a dozen lights to get a decent portrait? The answer in most cases is no. For a typical head-and-shoulder portrait shot, a maximum of three decent photographic lights are needed in a studio, and you can often get by with two. One light will do in a pinch. If you have natural light you can work with, you may need no lights at all! In this article, we’ll show you how to set up basic studio lighting for portraits, what each light does, and how to get by with fewer (or no) lights.

A portrait is usually a close-up of a person’s face and upper body, sometimes not past the shoulder line. In order to light a person’s face properly, you need enough light to eliminate shadows and bring out the details of their face, and yet not so much light that the person’s face looks bright and full of blemishes. The trick to getting the lighting just right is a delicate one and requires experimentation. Fortunately, digital photography allows us to play around with the lights and preview the results on an LCD on the camera, or on a computer monitor. That’s a much better process than using test film and running back and forth to a darkroom, or resorting to Polaroids!

Before we go too far, you should know some basic terminology. Read the sidebar “Lighting Terms” so you have a grasp of what the terms we’re going to use mean. There are two other terms you’ll need. Direct light is the light from the sun or a flash, while diffused light is light that is reduced in intensity and focus. For portraits, direct light is usually too harsh for pleasing portraits, as it brings out all the blemishes and marks on skin. Diffused light softens the lines of a face and produces a more pleasing effect, while the subject is still in tight focus.

Setting up the lights

When there’s only one light, shadows are inevitable unless you place the light directly in front of the subject (which usually results in unpleasant lighting). Most of the time, the single light will be off to one side, slightly elevated above the model’s face. When diffused properly, this produces a soft appearance on the face, although there will be shadows cast by the nose, eyes, and the side of the face away from the light. Photo <oneflash.jpg> shows a face with a single, 1000W flash bounced off an umbrella. The light was positioned to the left and above the subject’s head. You can see a single catch light in the eyes. You can also see there is a slight shadowing of the face to the right, especially beside the nose and the side of the head.

To remove the shadows and provide more even illumination, a second light is often used. This is positioned to the other side of the model’s face, often slightly lower than the first light to highlight the face from a different angle. Photo <twoflash.jpg> shows the same face but light from both sides. The shadows have gone, and the face is more evenly illuminated. There are two catch lights in the eyes.

The third light often used in portraits is a back light, positioned behind the model, and aimed to either highlight the back of the model’s head (to give some shine to long hair) or to the background to provide a halo effect around the model’s head. The back light has to be lower intensity that the front two lights, otherwise the head is silhouetted, which is not the effect we want. Even with subjects with short hair, a backlight, when kept very low in intensity, can provide a nice highlight around the head. Photo <threeflash.jpg> adds a back light, although the effect is very subtle because the intensity was low.

One of the most common cliché shots for lighting portraits is to overdue the back light, especially when the model has long, blonde hair. An overactive back light can produce a light, airy look to the hair with a halo lighting effect, but the image is so overdone it is almost scorned by the public today. Keep back lights low, and use them for subtle effects. They should be barely visible.

If you are not used to using lights in a portrait environment, find a cooperative friend to model for you while you move the lights about, change the intensities, and experiment with different effects. The experience of doing this for only an hour will be well used when you get to taking portraits. With the instant feedback most digital cameras provide, you can judge the exposure effects and light placements right away. If you’re too embarrassed to use a friend for your experiments, use a dummy head. There are many available in fashion, hobby and wig stores, often available for free or a few dollars. Photos <dummy1.jpg and dummy2.jpg> show a foam head with a plastic face attached that was bought from a clothing store for $5. The hardhat helps to judge the effect of shadows on the face from the flash units. A wig would allow you to judge the effect of the lighting on hair. The two photos show the difference between a single flash <dummy1> and a three-flash setup <dummy2>. When using a dummy head, you can experiment as long as you like, whenever you like.

One light wonders

If you only have a single light, such as a flash attached to your camera, you can still produce excellent portraits. The trick is to provide a balanced light, illuminating the entire face with even, natural light. A reflector is an inexpensive tool for helping. Commercial reflectors are hoop-shaped or square frames with a light colored foil or fabric stretched over them. The fabric reflects light back on the subject. Commercial reflectors are available in a variety of sizes and colors, with silver and gold the most popular. Gold gives a nice, warm color to the reflected light, especially good for portraits. A typical commercial reflector costs around $50 for a quality unit. Photo <reflector.jpg> shows a large reflector held by an assistant to reflect natural sunlight on a model. This big reflector collapses to an eight-inch hoop!

If you don’t want to buy a reflector you can make them out of aluminum foil stretched over cardboard. Aluminum foil tends to be too bright, so it’s a good trick to dull the surface with a spray coating. Creases in the foil don’t matter, as the light disperses upon reflection. Reflectors work when there’s a good strong long source, such as the sun or a flash, but on darker days they tend to be ineffective.

A single flash unit on your camera can serve as a light source for portraits, but shooting directly at the model’s face tends to cause a number of problems (not to mention red-eye). The best way to handle a single flash is to bounce the light from the flash off the ceiling or wall. This can be especially handy when the surface you’re bouncing off is white, as it provides even illumination. When bouncing light, though, you will find shadows appearing on the model’s face on the side (or bottom) away from the bounce surface. Many on-camera flashes are not powerful enough to provide bounce flash, so you may want to resort to external flashes.

Another technique to diffuse light is to use a deflector hood over your flash. These can be bought for a few dollars from most camera stores, and they act like a miniature softbox over the flash output. The deflectors reduce the chances of redeye and diffuse the flash light to a pleasing intensity, but the drop in overall output may render the flash too weak.

Once you’ve mastered the art of taking full face, diffuse light portraits, you can start experimenting with different effects like side lighting and silhouetting, but that’s a subject for another article.

Take the time to experiment with your camera and your flash units, and take some full-face portraits. They offer the warmest sense of achievement when well done, and delight the subjects! Investing in a few studio electronic flash units may seem expensive, but when you consider that they last for decades, the costs are easier to manage. A few good photos, complements from your audience, and it will be well worth the effort.

Sidebar: Lighting Terms

Barn doors: an attachment for flashes that uses four panels to control the light output

Catch light: an image of a flash unit in the subject’s eyes

Diffuser: same as reflector

Fish fryer: a small softbox

Modeling light: a low-power light that shows the photographer where the flash will fall

Reflector: a panel coated to reflect light back at the subject

Softbox: a flash attachment with an opaque white front panel that softens the light

Snoot: a tube attachment for a flash that narrows the light beam to a small spot

Umbrella: a white-coated umbrella that attaches to the flash, pointed away from the subject, to diffuse and soften the light

Sidebar: Studio Lights

Studio lights are usually composed of two parts: a modeling light and an electronic flash. The modeling light is designed to allow the photographer to see how the light will fall on the model and provide a rough idea of the overall effect. The electronic flash is part of the same unit and outputs a bright, short-duration color-balanced flash of light. In high-power studio lights the modeling light can range up to 250W. The flash of a pro unit can put out 1000W. Most of today’s flash units are variable, allowing the photographer to adjust the intensity of the modeling and flash output using a back panel (or a computer, in the case of some current lights).

Several years ago, all the lights in a studio would be connected to a battery controller, which was a heavy capacitor discharge unit that sat on the floor. Expensive cables would run to each light from the controller. Modern flash units put all the electronics in one small unit: all that’s required is a power cord. The modern units weigh much less than the older controller systems, and tend to cost less too. A high-power modern flash unit like the Photogenic 2500DR (the same as the units used in this article) cost about $700 each, while lower-power units can cost as little as $300.

Studio lights often put out so much power and are too harsh for portrait work, so the light is softened. There are two ways to soften the light: a softbox or an umbrella. A softbox is a hood that fits over the flash and diffuses the light through an opaque white material. Softboxes give a soft, wide light but with a light intensity loss. Umbrellas are like your rain umbrella, except coated with a white interior. The umbrella is opened and the inside pointed at the subject, the flash facing away from the subject. The light from the flash strikes the umbrella and bounces back at the subject, diffused and softened. Like a softbox, umbrellas reduce the intensity of the flash. Softboxes can give a more natural, softer light than umbrellas, but umbrellas are easier to handle and carry, and can be brighter than softboxes. Figure <studioflash.jpg> shows a Photogenic 2500DR flash with an umbrella, mounted to reflect the light down on the subject. The back panel of the Photogenic 2500DR (and all the models in the Photogenic series) have controls to allow the intensity of the light to be varied over many f-stops. (photoback.jpg).

Finally, there are devices that attach to the front of the flash unit to provide a tighter, more focused or directional light. A snoot is a cone that produces a sharp, spot-like effect of fairly small diameter. It is usually used for highlighting and special effects. Barn doors use four hinged panels on the top, bottom, left and right of the light to allow the photographer to control the exact spill of light from the flash. Filters and diffuses are also fit over the head of a flash to alter the color or intensity of the light.