Quick portrait

Prior to a class the other day, I decided to do a very quick self portrait or two. Let me share, and explain how.

How? This is how:

  1. A 1D camera with a 580EX flash on it – with that flash used as a master, and disabled otherwise, so it only drives additional flashes.
  2. The camera set to manual, 1/125th sec, f/5.6, 400 ISO.
  3. An additional flash A on our left: a 430EX on a light stand, with a HonlPhoto grid to avoid the light spilling onto the wall.
  4. An additional flash B on our left: a 430EX on its little foot, equipped with a HonlPhoto gel.
  5. A 1:1 ratio of A:B flashes.
  6. The camera set to choose its own focus point for once, since I am holding it myself!
  7. The camera in my outstretched arm, tilted for diagonal line effect.

Not bad eh?

Finally, one more with a different gel on the background flash: egg yolk yellow, my favourite colour.

Total time taken: Maybe two, three minutes.

 

Studio light note

Welcome, all, including new students and reader.

Continuing in the studio lighting technique series of posts, today, let’s look at the effect of a background light.

A simple portrait (yes, as you see, I am my most patient model):

That was lit with one strobe in a softbox on our left. Simple, nice, soft light.

But wait. Perhaps a little more light on the background would help offset the model from the background a little better. For this, we use a speedlight, with a grid (so as to avoid the light going everywhere).

Like this, using a 430EX (similar to a Nikon SB600) fired with a Pocketwizard, and fitted with a Honl grid:

And that gives us very different light.

Now we could turn that background up, or down; or change the direction.

The point is that this allows us to play with “foreground versus background” a little. Offsetting your subject from the background is always good – dark background and light subject or light subject and dark background are both good. There’s no one way – it’s more that there are a number of ways of doing things. And by controlling liught, you control those ways.

 

Designing a one-light self portrait

Here is a self portrait, and the process that went through my head making it. I thought that would be good to share. Here’s how to make a dramatic self-portrait in ten steps.

  1. First, I thought “let’s do a quick self portrait, indoors, lit by simple TTL flash”.
  2. I then thought “But let’s make it off-camera flash”.
  3. I went on to think “I want a dramatic image, so let’s use only flash light: available light should play no role”.
  4. To achieve that, I set my camera to manual exposure,  1/125th second, f/5.6, ISO 100. I took a test shot: black. Good, just what I wanted.
  5. Next, I aimed a single 430EX flash in slave mode at the wall diagonally from the side.
  6. Next, I attached a 1/4″ Honl Photo grid to the flash to avoid lighting up the whole wall; instead, I cast a nice parabola. That grid is my most used accessory, I think.
  7. I added a projected image of a set of lenses, only just visible.
  8. Now I put myself into that parabola: light straight into my face. Diagonal to the camera.
  9. I selected an almost-standard lens length (28mm on a Canon 7D, meaning a “real” 45mm) and off-centre composition, with a heavy shadow dramatically cast by me onto the wall.
  10. Finally, to take the shot I would have used a tripod, but since I had a student available, I asked her to shoot for me (Kayleigh, you know who you are).

And the result? Here it is.

Photographer Michael Willems

Photographer and educator Michael Willems, Oakville, 16 May 2011

(For best results, click and  view at original size)

What do you think? Me to a T, eh? This entire shot took just a few minutes to set up. You can do this too!

 

Let there be light.

When you shoot a studio portrait, you can use big studio lights – or small speedlights.

Because they are smaller and lighter, I tend to use small speedlights whenever I can.

And that does not mean compromising quality. Take this example. I took this shot of a very nice model and student during a course the other day, using TTL speedlights:

How is this done?

  • One flash on a light stand into an umbrella (the “A”-flash), on our left. High enough to give us nice catch lights in the eyes, but no reflections in the glasses.
  • The hairlight is one snooted speedlight (the “B”-flash) on the right (using a Honl photo snoot). I made sure this hairlight only lit of the hair, not the cheeks. That is what the snoot is for.
  • I used a Canon 7D with a 50mm lens.
  • I set the camera to manual, f/8, 1/200th second, 200 ISO. Normal settings for studio light. I made sure auto ISO was disabled.
  • The flash was set to its normal TTL mode.
  • I used flash compensation of, if I recall right, +1/3 stop.
  • The “A:B ratio” was set to 3:1, meaning A was three times stronger than B.

I could have metered and used Pocketwizards and the flashes set to manual, and if I had done many portraits, I would have. But for a quick shot like this, I think TTL is a better way, since it is very quick. Indoors, wireless TTL is a no brainer, and it works:  the on-camera flash, which is only used to direct the slave flashes, can be seen by any flash in the room. On a Nikon, or a Canon 7D or 60D, I need only the camera and its pop-up flash. On any other Canon, I would also need a 580EX flash on the camera, to direct the slaves.

But the portrait above is missing something, no? The background is a bit, well, bland.

So we add one more light, using a grid. And a gel. For the gel, I choose a complimentary colour: complimentary to the hair colour. So for brownish-reddish hair I use a beautiful blue-ish gel.

Now we get:

Better, no? Nice portrait, and it took only one light stand, one umbrella, three flashes, one grid, one gel, one 5″ snoot.  All this is affordable, small, light.Professional portraits are now within reach of everyone.

Grid and bear it

When you are shooting with multiple lights in a studio-like setting, one of the most important things is to shape the light; to control where it goes. And the problem with a bare flash is that its light goes, well, pretty much everywhere.

And one of the most annoying of the “everywheres” is the background. If you want a darker background in a small basement studio, say, you have the following problem: your flash, even if it is a side flash, lights of the background, so you just cannot get a dark background. You get something like this:

Darn, but you wanted a dark background!

In that case, you have three options:

  1. Move everything away from the background.
  2. Paint the background black.
  3. Direct the light more specifically.

Since options (1) and (2) are not always easy, I recommend you learn option (3). Use barn doors, or snoots, or gobos: anything to direct your lights more.

For small flashes, the grid is a fabulous option. A 1/4″ Honl Photo grid stuck onto the speed strap on the speedlight makes that picture into this:

That was easy! The grid stops the light from going everywhere – now we have a much darker background, since light no longer falls onto it.

The Honl grid is affordable (I have several), small, and looks like this:

Honl Photo 1/4" Grid

Indispensable for users of off-camera flashes.

(As you may have read here by now, David Honl, the inventor of that range of Honl small flash modifiers, will be my Guest Star in Toronto on Saturday. Don’t miss it if you want to learn Advanced Flash from the pros.)