Studio tip

In a studio setup, we usually use strobes – big, outlet-powered lights. Like the two main lights here, with softbox and umbrella:

Studio (Photo: Michael Willems)

Fired by a pocketwizrds: you can see one on the left.

But if you look carefully, you will also see two speedlights there.

Speedlights? Yes, but fired manually, also via pocketwizards. For which you need a pocketwizard and a cable from for each one.

Why do I small flashes for hairlight and background light?

  • Smaller
  • Lighter
  • Less cabling, since they are battery-powered
  • And not least, the ability to use Honl Photo small flash modifiers such as grids, snoots, and gels.

All of which I use here, and the resulting photos look like this (shot on a 1Ds MkIII with a 70-200mm lens):

Studio shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

(PS if you are buying those modifiers, and I recommend you do, as a reader of this site you are entitled to use the Honl Photo web order discount code which Dave just made available for you: enter code mvw2011 which gives you 10% off the price!)


Building a portrait

In my “quickly building a…” series, here is another one: building a traditional standard studio portrait.

Set your camera to manual, 100 ISO, 1/125th second, f/8.

Start with one light, the main, or “key” light. 45 degrees off to the side, and 45 degrees up. Using a diffuser like a softbox or shoot-through umbrella. Use a flash meter to do this and you get:

Portrait (Photo: Michael Willems)

Good light, good catch lights in the eyes.

OK, so now add a fill light, say, two stops below the key light. Use a bounce umbrella or some other diffuser.

Portrait (Photo: Michael Willems)

Oh, that is a little too bright. Turn it down a little, and then add the next step: a hair light. From behind, to give the hair that look of flowing shampoo awesomeness. Use a snoot or grid, so the light only goes where you want it to.

Portrait (Photo: Michael Willems)

Good. Almost done. Now add a background light, aimed at the background. Consider using a gel, and again, perhaps a grid.

Portrait (Photo: Michael Willems)

I like to have a bit of a pattern to it, a dropoff, as you see.

And that’s all – simple, if you take it methodically. If you start with all four lights, you will get muddled.

And thanks to the pro “chick that clicks” student who volunteered for this the other day during a light coaching session.




Sometimes, light can be simple.

Like here: One TTL flash, bounced to my right (in order to ensure that light goes onto the subject’s face, not onto the back of her head):

But sometime, for creative reasons you want more lights.Look at the following studio setup from a course the other day:

  1. Backdrop from
  2. Main light is a speedlight with a softbox
  3. Right fill is a reflector
  4. Back fill, a flash bounced off the ceiling
  5. Edge light, two strobes
  6. Tow background lights: one white, one yellow (flagged with  Honl gobo)

Camera on typical “mixed light indoor flash” settings: 1/30th second at f/5.6, ISO 400.

Like this, demonstrated by my student, photographer Laura Wichman, the other day:

Camera on typical “Studio flash” settings: 1/125th second at f/8, ISO 100.

Because all that gets you light like this:

Both good, but both very different. And as a shooter you need to know how to handle both types of setup. Which is why I strongly recommend training. Because the good news: this is simple, once you know how.


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.


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.