Portrait lighting can vary from the very simple to the incredibly complex. It will vary from subject to subject. One thing that I have been taught, however, is that every portrait photographer should have one or two stand-by lighting setups that can be used in almost any situation and which will almost always yield good results. The key to these stand-by set ups is that they must be simple and repeatable.
This article is going to discuss one particular setup that your might want to consider adding to your bag of tricks if it isn’t in there already.
I like to work with a simple two light setup that can be balanced around my subject. It consists of a main, or key light, set up in a soft box or an umbrella, and a second hair light to help separate the subject from the background. I usually use this setup in conjunction with a black backdrop, though it can be equally effective with any colour or pattern of backdrop.
In my particular case I use Nikon speed lights for my lighting, but any suitable light source can be used. The main consideration should be that this source is positioned at about 45 degrees off axis from the camera (pointing at the subject, of course) and raised to a height that places it above the subject by around 45 degrees. I call this the 45×45 position. I like to make this a soft light, so I will use a soft box or an umbrella. The soft box gives a more directionally controlled light source and can be more easily directed to prevent unwanted illumination of the background for a low key look. I will usually place this source to within 5 ft of my subject, or closer in order to make it as soft as possible.
For the separation, or hair light, I place a gridded speed light on a light stand behind the subject, opposite of the main light. I try to make sure that the light is carefully aimed at the back of my subject’s head. I use a grid on the light in order to make this source more directional with a minimal amount of light spillage onto the background or any other part of the scene. Play around with the distance of this source as you may need to adjust it to cover more or less of your subject. A snoot can also be employed, rather than a grid. The idea is to make this a controlled spotlight.
I do not usually work with specific lighting ratios. I usually make a few test shots and adjust the Nikon CLS settings for each light until I like what I see. Usually the main light will be set on iTTL at around +1ev. The hair light I will run at a manual setting of around 1/8 or so.
I try to keep my camera to within a basic range of settings. Usually ISO 200 or 400, shutter speed at 1/250 and aperture around f/ 5.6 to f/8 for starters. Depending upon the focal length of my lens I will adjust the f stop for depth of field and exposure control for the speed lights so they don’t have to work too hard. I like to maintain a reasonable depth of field for most of my portraits and these apertures are a nice territory for the effect I am looking for.
So there you have an example of a simple two light setup. It really sounds much more complicated than it really is. The idea is to softly light your subject from the front and use another light from behind to separate them from the background. Play around with it. I think you might come to like using it from time to time.
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