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.)

Gridlock

Why do you use a grid on a flash?

A grid softens the light somewhat, an effect I really like. But the main use for a grid is to avoid the light going everywhere.

Look at this image: lit from the side with a bare speedlight (a Canon 430EX, which is equivalent to a Nikon SB600) with a red gel.

As you see, light hits the wall.

Now look what happens when I put a 1/4″ Honl Photo grid on the flash, with a gel on top of the grid.

Ah. No more light spill onto the wall.

That’s all. As simple as that.

And here’s what a Honl grid looks like:

Portrait note

One more from Sunday’s course.

This time, a portrait of model Tara that I made to help explain multiple flash TTL. Straight out of the camera it is:

Multiple-flash TTL lighting

Multiple-flash TTL lighting

How was this made?

With a small Traveller 8 softbox on the main light, a gridded gelled flash for the background, a snooted flash for the fill light, and a gridded gelled flash for the edge light.

Four speedlights, and all using TTL.

A few things to remember in such portraits:

  • You need a catch light in the eyes.
  • Set your white balance to “flash”.
  • If you have space, longer lenses are good (in this case, though, I use a 50mm prime lens).
  • Avoid the ambient light doing any work: choose 1/125th second at f/5.6 or f/8, say; and be sure to disable “Auto ISO”.
  • Lighting is all about what you do not light: avoid bathing the room in photons. Think about what you light, and how.
  • With Canon’s e-TTL or Nikon’s CLS/iTTL, you only get two or three groups of light. So if you have four lights, some of them will have to be in the same group. My fill and edge light are thus both in group “B”.

Keep those in mind and your portraits will be well lit.