A simple lighting setup?

What one person finds complicated, another finds simple.

And vice versa. A friend who visited the other night reminded me of this, when I talked about the simple four-flash light setup I was using for a headshot:

And as he said that, I realized that perhaps it’s not simple.

But if you want to take portraits, then it should be. In other words, without knowing how to do a “traditional” portrait setup, it is hard to do creative portraits. No, that does not mean you need to make all portraits traditional – you can do great stuff with one off-camera speedlight and a grid.

But you need to know how a traditional portrait is made. Which is with:

  1. A backdrop (paper roll, here).
  2. A main, or “key” light, in this case a Bowens strobe with a softbox.
  3. A fill light (Bowens strobe with umbrella, in this case).
  4. A hair light (speedlight with Honl Photo grid and egg yolk yellow gel).
  5. A background light (speedlight with Honl Photo blue-green gel).
  6. A way to drive them: Here, I used one strobe and two speedlights fired by pocketwizards; one strobe by the light-sensitive cell.
  7. Metering: I used light meter to arrive at f/9.0 at 100 ISO and 1/200th second.
  8. Ratios: I set the fill two stops darker than the key. And the hair and background light by trial and error (I got them right first time – done it before).

A note about those gels: colour makes a difference. I love the blue-green gel on the background, to contrast with the red hair – contrast is good. That’s why the butcher uses green plastic between the red meat – to make it look redder. (Oh wait – butcher? We buy meat at the supermarket now, in neat little packages. Dumb me.)

Anyhow – parsing makes things simpler. If you are faced with a complex situation, parse it, i.e. take it apart, one thing at a time. Analyse each layer until you understand it, then go on to the next layer. And before you know it, you will be saying “that’s simple”.

That’s what you learn when I teach you: how to make complex situations simple by understanding the elements, then building on those. Deductive learning, if you will.

And what does the setup above produce? Portraits like this:

Headshot (Photo: Michael Willems)

(Canon 7D at f/9.0, 1/200th sec, 100 ISO)

A plug, if I may: if you, too, need an updated headshot, and live in the Greater Toronto Area, do call me. For Facebook, your resume, LinkedIn, or your web site: a good headshot helps, and Headshots Specials are on during the month of September!










Fashion flashin’

Sunday morning, around mid-day, in downtown Oakville I shot a fashion shot for a magazine front cover.

Outdoors fashion is, as always, a matter of many things coming together at once. One of those is light. Without light, even on a wonderful overcast day (wonderful in photo terms), the image lacks something. The mother and daughter models lack a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.

Actually I do know – they lack light:

Models in Oakville (Photo: Michael Willems)

So we add a flash. I used a Bowens 400 Ws strobe, although I could have used speedlights. The sequence is as follows:

  1. I set my camera to manual.
  2. I select 1/200th second and 100 ISO.
  3. That gave me, on this particular day, an aperture of f/5.6 for a nice saturated background. (To arrive at this, I can use my in-camera meter or my light meter set to ambient.)
  4. I now add the strobe, set it to 80% power about 6ft away, and test this with the meter (now set to flash mode). Well have you ever:  the meter immediately indicates f/5.6! (This is just experience. If you are less experienced, no worries – just turn the light up and down until you do read f/5.6).

That gives me:

Models in Oakville (Photo: Michael Willems)

If I want the background a little darker I change the speed to 1/250th (still in my flash sync range):

Models in Oakville (Photo: Michael Willems)

Okay, we are set. If the sun comes out a little more,  I go to 1/250th, and if it gets a tad darker I go to 1/160th.

The idea of this shot is autumn – so we now bring out the props. Autumn flowers and fruits and vegetables now gives us this:

Models in Oakville (Photo: Michael Willems)

Notice the speedlight with a blue-green gel as accent/hair light on our right? The speedlight was held by Kurt, who assisted on this shoot, and was set to 1/4 power (again – experience tells me that setting will probably work – and it did).

The final step is to make that an egg-yolk yellow gel instead of a blue-green gel – yellow accentuates the late day setting sun feeling that is synonymous with autumn. (I use Honl Photo gels).

Models in Oakville (Photo: Michael Willems)

And there we have the image. (In fact this is not quite the image – that one went to the client, and I do not like to publish images in this open forum before the customer has used them!). Also – note that these are shot a little wide since this is for a magazine front page, so there needs to be space for text.


  • Umbrellas and softboxes outdoors will be blown away, so hold on tight.
  • If the models move, use AF-C/AI Servo focus mode.
  • With two models, be very aware of the danger of blinking – one of them will blink in very many images, so check, and take many images.

The setup was as follows:

Fun shoot.

(And perhaps also, a shoot that explains why photography costs money: A car full of equipment, props that get used just once, two sets of clothing, and five people taking several hours. All this costs money!)


A little known fact

When you shoot Nikon and use the CLS/iTTL systen, you can fire remote flashes and set them to manual instead of TTL. This is well known since you set the options through the on camera menu.

In the Canon world, this is not possible: remote flashes operated by light control must use TTL. Right?

Wrong. Canon too supports this functionality.

Here’s a TTL flash set to slave mode (a 430 EX in this case). The display looks like this: (And note that the “M” here refers to the flash’s zoom setting – nothing to do with flash mode):

So it’s a TTL flash set to slave mode.

Now press and hold the MODE button. After a few seconds, you see this:

Now your cannon flash is still in slave mode, but it is now in manual power mode – TTL will not meter: the flash will just fire at whatever level you set it to (1/8th power, in this case). Note that the “M” to the left of the “1/8” now flashes, to remind you. One press and it goes back to TTL mode.

I bet there are some here who did not know this! Yes, you can use light-operated remote slaves that you set to manual, even in the Canon world.

PS: what’s that on the front of the flash? A Honl Photo speed strap plus a Honl 1/4″ grid.


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!