Preferred portrait lighting

Discussion in 'Lighting' started by HuwEvans, Sep 27, 2002.

  1. HuwEvans

    HuwEvans Member

    Messages:
    36
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    Location:
    Dorset, UK
    Wow - a new forum! Okay, I'll start things off: what sort of lighting do people prefer for indoor portraiture? Flash/strobe? Hot lights? Natural? High-key? Low-key? One light? Several lights?

    I confess to a distinct preference for natural daylight portraits, but of course it wouldn't do all the time. The recent passing of Yousuf Karsh made me feel like having a go with his classic set-up, but I haven't got around to it yet. I can't say I've ever used hot lights, and I wonder how well his distinctive 'look' could be replicated with flash.
     
  2. Prime

    Prime Member

    Messages:
    158
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    As far as my interest in editorial (magazine) photography is concerned, I prefer natural-light portraits. Very rarely do I see an artificially-lit portrait in which the photographer has come close to creating the appearance of natural light. Also in the editorial realm, I prefer high-key and overexposed (they may push the film). I prefer seeing rectangular catchlights, too - no umbrellas.
     
  3. William Levitt

    William Levitt Member

    Messages:
    214
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    Location:
    Nuernberg, G
    jdef, I'm not sure what you said, but you said it quite beautifully.

    There are a handful of lighting schemes for portrait photography, though I must confess, although I've done my share of studio portraits, I'm not a full time portrait photographer.

    And while going into deep thought about the lighting of ones subject sounds quite interesting, the REAL portrait, IMO, is made not from lighting (although the lighting will affect the mood of the shot), but from the attitiude of the subject and their relationship to the photographer.

    There are many great portrait photographers that, like all photographers, have a preference for a certain type of lighting, and they more or less stick to it, with of course subtle modificationds depending on the subject. And sure, every now and then, those same photographers will get a hankering to try something different, but for the most part, they stick to what they know and do best. After all, it defines their style as a photographer as we know it.

    OK, enough of the esoteric mush...

    When I'm shooting in a studio, I like one large semi-soft light from the camera left, a reflector from the right, NO hair lights or back lights, and the background at least 3 meters from the subject to allow for individual control. Depending on the final use of the shot, The side lighting will be adjusted to either exsenuate or soften particular features, also depending on wether the subject is male or female.
     
  4. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

    Messages:
    17,919
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    Location:
    Honolulu, Ha
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    That's pretty much my favorite setup, too. I started doing portraits with only one light on the subject and maybe a reflector and a background light, because that's what I could afford, but I've come to realize, looking at the work of other one-light portraitists like Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, that that's what I really like. Natural light portraiture depends on a single light source, so I suppose that is why it feels the most natural in the studio. Which is not to say I haven't been completely blown away by the shimmering quality of a Hurrell print, but it's just not the way I work. The Hollywood style says "theatre" to me, while the one-light approach seems more objective, more honest, illusory though that sense of objectivity may be.
     
  5. bmac

    bmac Member

    Messages:
    2,156
    Joined:
    Sep 30, 2002
    Location:
    San Jose, CA
    For my portrait work, I usually use two monolight strobes and one or two reflectors. Main / Fill ratio depends on the subject, but is usually about 1.5 stops. You can see examples of this setup in the portrait section on my site. http://bmacphoto.com
     
  6. benjiboy

    benjiboy Subscriber

    Messages:
    8,320
    Joined:
    Apr 18, 2005
    Location:
    U.K.
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    What a good posting jdef, I have been shooting studio portraits for nearly fifty years, and think your advice to a photographer starting up in studio portraiture absolutely excellent, anyone can learn how to position lights, and take readings off a flash meter, the hard thing is to say something about the character of the sitter.
     
  7. Charles Webb

    Charles Webb Member

    Messages:
    1,723
    Joined:
    Nov 7, 2004
    Location:
    Colorfull, C
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I like and subscribe to most of what JDeF said, I coulden't ever say it as well as he did.

    I believe in the one light theory but at times will use as use many as 15 lights (read: or reflectors) in an attempt to create the "One Light" look or effect. When a viewer can see exactly how many sources of light has been used in a portrait, that portrait in my eyes is a failure. To me it means he does not have the knowledge of controlling light, or is in too much of a hurry to spend the necessary time/energy to do it right. Most studio "gunners" today are scheduled a sitting every 15 minutes. I can hardly meet any one in 15 minutes, let alone set up and do several poses in that short period of time. The short period of time to do a portrait has forced a camera person
    to give up on changing the lights for each different pose. This gave birth to the single large light directly above the lens axis so that what ever appeared in the frame had a descent amount of exposure. This type of lighting will not creat the modeling that is necessary. Meaning focused specular highlights and near full scale rendering. The "One light" today is generally used as a flood rather than a modeling light. The photo/portrait done this way I guess is a portrait, but somehow I don't see it as such. Even a house hold bulb, can be focused, as can be a large umbrella or soft box. Today many simply turned on and aimed at the subject, take a meter reading and shoot. little thought seems to be given to actual modeling of light as Karsh,
    Leon Kanamer and a few others did or do. I am certain that my favorite kind of light, is simply any light at all. Then trying to get it to work for me
    and my vision.
     
  8. CharlieM

    CharlieM Member

    Messages:
    37
    Joined:
    Sep 9, 2005
    Location:
    U.K.
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I'm very interested in this thread as I was going to ask a similar question.

    I do occasional portraits for people, and very much favour natural light especially for children, although I am thinking of investing in some studio lighting.

    Choice of film speed obviously affects the lighting setup you choose (or not) to work with. What I would like to know is, sticking with natural light for now, what fast b&w film do people like using for portraits? In the past I have used, as well as slower films, Ilford XP2 (400), Fuji Neopan 1600 and even Kodak Tmax 3200. What are your views on using very fast film for portraits? Too grainy or is there a place for these films?? If so, how do you make best use of them?
     
  9. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,987
    Joined:
    Nov 6, 2002
    Location:
    Wine country, N. Cal.
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Since the initial question is about what kind of lighting, I let him decide what his subject needs.

    There are mainly two questions tno be answered in lighting, The QUANTITY and the QUALITY.

    The quantity is obviously how much light, and the quality is what the light looks like. The quality of light with a softbox is obviously different than that of a parabolic reflector. The size of the parabolic reflector will also affect the quality. The quality of hot lights is again different from strobe.

    Since hot lights are bitch to work with, they are HOT, they can blow circuit breakers, etc, most people use strobe. Strobe can be manipulated to have many qualities of light as I mentioned, depending on how you diffuse the light. It comes as close to window or natural light if it is softened and diffused accordingly.

    As people mentioned one light one reflector is a great way to learn and probably all one may need. Althought accent lights and background lights are also useful depending on what you are attempting.

    Also on quality of light, the closer it is the softer it is. Also the closer it is the less depth of field it has. In other words it falls off into shadow faster. The Hollywood glamour portraits used almost exclusively hot lights with fast falloff. Hence big highlights and deep shadows right next to them. This type of lighting needs a good face, good make up and usually good retouching.

    If you were to try to copy Karsh's work with strobes probably you would need four or five lights and small reflectors, less than 6 inch, to get the specular highlights that he achieved. He also manipulated the highlights in the darkroom/retouching.

    MIchael
     
  10. eumenius

    eumenius Member

    Messages:
    768
    Joined:
    Jan 6, 2005
    Location:
    Moscow, Russ
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Hello!

    For my portrait work I always preferred hot lights (though I don't fancy strobes at all :smile: ). I find the tungsten-balanced film (especially Fuji, NPL and 64T) to have more precise and clear colours, more details in shadows etc. compared to daylight films. I think also that hot lights are easier to manipulate. For me it's really important to see the whole lighting situation directly, not like with strobes. I think that the incandescent light is more correct for human skin, because it's not as blue and penetrating as strobe light - also nothing can fluoresce from it, too. Hot lights are hot, right - but the overall control on light is better in their case, I think.

    For a typical portrait I use one source - 1000W hot light and a silver umbrella in front of model, with a white reflector on her knees or side to fill the shadows. If I use two sources, they are 1000W hot light and 90 cm reflective white umbrella as a fill light, and a key light - 600W in a deep wide reflector with honeycomb on it. Might be needed a silver reflector, too - just to introduce some modulations. This set is quite universal - a hair light might be added, and the background light... but that's not so essential, I think.

    Zhenya
     
  11. Charles Webb

    Charles Webb Member

    Messages:
    1,723
    Joined:
    Nov 7, 2004
    Location:
    Colorfull, C
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Charlie,
    I am "old school", I do not like grain in portraits. That said, in no way is telling you what you should or should not do. Some members of this list love grain and and at times exploit it to achieve the image they feel is perfect. Grain to me is a necessary evil in some cases in others it can be pretty much avoided by selection of film and developer. I personally try to work with the slowest ASA/ISO I possibly can, when working with available light in a portrait. I also choose a fine grain developer for the film that fits my way of seeing. I do not go into the field hoping to find someone to make an image of. I am more likely to find or stumble on to a particular scene that the lighting etc. might be nice for a portrait. I will then bring my "sitter" into it after planing what film it will take and how I will process the film. then make the exposures needed for what I visualize it to be in the final print. I do very little of what you would call spontanious. For some picture makers that is important but not to me. I would only choose a 3200 speed film for sports, night football or images that were going to be reproduced with 133 or so line screen.( News Paper) Or any image that could not be made with a slower less grainey film. I prefer subject movement slght/blur to grain, it is a personal thing with me. what anyone else does is their business.

    For Artificial illumination, I prefer studio strobes. Hot light is very difficult for the "sitter" the brightness can cause squinting eyes, frowns, sweat etc.
    I want the person I am photographing to appear in my negative with as much of their personality retained as I possible can. I feel like if a viewers attention is called to notice the lighting technique I have used, the portrait is a failure. It might be a great likeness of the person, but not a successful portrait. I realize that many folks like only one light source and perhaps reflector cards etc. I have no problem with the theory, but in practice the one light is normally used as a flood to bathe the subject in light and is not focused for spectural highlights or proper modeling. May as well use a flash bulb! There are many ways to go, and I don't believe there is any "wrong"
    way. Try the high speed and the low speed films decide for your self what you like then go for it. Many of those who have really never acomplished
    using low speed film in available light generally champion the high speed stuff.
    My comments are based on nearly sixty years of successful Studio Portrait and Commercial photography.
     
  12. Quinten

    Quinten Member

    Messages:
    337
    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2005
    Location:
    Amsterdam
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Experience is something I certainly lack but I've made good use of the times I could use someones strobes.
    I started with most light on the camera side of the model but images apeared a bit flat most of the time. Most of the light moved to the back of the model wich felt strange but gives so much more dept and live to a picture. It's just like being outside: light from the side or back gives the most lively pictures. With a portrait you would like to see the face most of the time though so fill subtile but enough.

    Just place a good friend in a realxing chair play some of his/her favorite music making sure everything is relaxed and experiment. Replace your lights, reflectors defusers, sheets, whatever and look at the results. I haven't read a book on light so far but learned a lot so it's posible without knowledge.... I asume.

    best of luck,
    Quinten
     
  13. CharlieM

    CharlieM Member

    Messages:
    37
    Joined:
    Sep 9, 2005
    Location:
    U.K.
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Huw, by the way I certainly don't mean to hijack your thread, here, I am interested in all the points raised and for me film speed and lighting are both part of the same equation. This is only my second post and I'm not sure if it's acceptable to answer a thread with another question. I can always start a new thread if that's more acceptable - let me know!

    Charles, thanks for your comments. I think a lot of people would agree with you. I should explain that I use grainy film not by default but very much to go with the grain, pushing it to extreme, which I acknowledge would not be to everyone's taste. E.g. with the 3200 (which I actually rarely use) I purposefully shot, and printed and toned in a certain way, so that the image had the feel of a lead or charcoal drawing. I would be interested in other people's experience of 'grainy' film in portraits, whether to make the most of it, or to reduce it. However, I also like the more conventional look. I would be very interested to know which films (and developer) you prefer to use when you're using available light only.

    Let me just say here, as I'm new to this forum, that I'm impressed (British understatement). Seriously, the wealth of knowledge here is extremely encouraging, not to say inspiring!
     
  14. Sponsored Ad
  15. Nicole

    Nicole Member

    Messages:
    2,548
    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2004
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I don't own a flash or any other lighting setup and choose to work purely with natural lighting which is much gentler on babies and little kids. My work is mostly with young children, individuals with great character and couples and of course my favourite the environmental portraits. Again, I choose to use natural lighting. I couldn't imagine trying to photograph someone setup on a box with a backdrop.

    I love to catch people in their own environment doing what they normally do and bringing out their personalities. To freeze a moment where someone's sharing a giggle with a friend, a little soul feeling lost or sad, or anything that tugs on my heart strings - these are things I can't shoot 'set up' with artificial lighting. Also the natural light can provide the right mood.

    I believe a portrait with rich grain can work very well but not necessarily always. The film type is one of the tools I choose depending on the final result I'm looking for or the subject I'm photographing.
     
  16. CharlieM

    CharlieM Member

    Messages:
    37
    Joined:
    Sep 9, 2005
    Location:
    U.K.
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Hi Nicole,
    Your approach sounds really interesting - it strikes a chord ('cord'? No, must be 'chord'!)
    May I ask which particular films you like to use, - or would that be divulging personal professional info?
     
  17. Quinten

    Quinten Member

    Messages:
    337
    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2005
    Location:
    Amsterdam
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Nicole, do you use reflections screens? I am certainly not at your level of photography but I started using only low sun light. Until I discovered a gentle fill flash can do miracles, even when the mood is really soft.
     
  18. Nicole

    Nicole Member

    Messages:
    2,548
    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2004
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Charlie and Quinten, I love to work with Neopan, APX and TriX. I use reflectors when necessary (but depends on the environment) and no longer own a flash unit - it didn't fit into my handbag. :D
    Thank you for asking.
    Kind regards,
    Nicole
     
  19. modafoto

    modafoto Subscriber

    Messages:
    2,102
    Joined:
    Oct 17, 2003
    Location:
    Ã…rhus, Denma
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    I normally use two strobes for portraits. One as a key light and one for the hair. I use a reflector on the other side of the key light to balance. I use black backgrounds a lot, so no light needed for that.

    Lately I have started to explore the world of window-lit portraits; often using a diffusing material to soften the light. Great thing, too.
     
  20. Keith Tapscott.

    Keith Tapscott. Member

    Messages:
    1,426
    Joined:
    Jun 11, 2005
    Location:
    Plymouth. UK
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    These films can give good results if you you don`t mind grain, infra-red film is another unusual option. Window light and a reflector gives a pleasing lighting effect. An ISO 400 film would probably a good choice.
     
  21. Nicole

    Nicole Member

    Messages:
    2,548
    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2004
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    bumpety-bump...
     
  22. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    9,301
    Joined:
    May 24, 2005
    Location:
    Washington DC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    For both my own comfort and that of my models, I use primarily studio flash units. I have a pair of 750 ws monolights. Normally, I use one light on the subject, in a softbox. Depending on how dramatic I want the lighting, I may have the face on the box, or just the diffusion baffle. If I want REALLY dramatic, it's a large reflector dish with barndoors for the main. A reflector opposite serves for fill. My second light is used to light the background, if I want to open it up or blow it out. For that purpose, actually, I could stand a third light to make sure I blow out the background evenly.

    I'm shooting almost exclusively large format film (5x7, 8x10, 11x14) and contact printing, so grain is a non-issue regardless of speed. My studio is miniscule, so I stick to slow speed films to keep my exposures under control - were I to use HP5 or Tmax 400, I wouldn't be able to power down my strobes enough to use the relatively large apertures I prefer, even when shooting 8x10. My films of preference are FP4+, shot at ISO 64, and Fomapan 200, shot at 100. I develop in Pyrocat HD at 1:1:100. I've just started experimenting with dry plate glass plates, which is an interesting challenge in itself. Now THAT'S slow... about ISO 1. I will NEED more powerful strobes for that - I'm thinking Speedotron Black Line 4803cx. Most everything else out there in that power range costs a fortune, even used.
     
  23. Nick Zentena

    Nick Zentena Member

    Messages:
    4,679
    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2004
    Location:
    Italia
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Unless you're putting 4800 ws out of one head why not get a couple of 2400 packs instead? Likely cheaper on the used market. My elderly 2401A with one 102 head was $300 I think. IIRC correct they even make a cable to plug one 4800 ws head into two packs. Or maybe I'm remembering wrong :rolleyes: But 2400ws per head is a lot of light for portraits. Mine is packed now or I'd plug it in and test the output but I think the numbers in the manual are reasonable with a reflector. You could always mount the 16" sports reflector and get even more :tongue:
     
  24. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    9,301
    Joined:
    May 24, 2005
    Location:
    Washington DC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I am thinking of putting 4800 ws through one head, for doing wet-plate and/or daguerrotypes in the future, where their ISO is somewhere around 0.05 or even less.
     
  25. Nick Zentena

    Nick Zentena Member

    Messages:
    4,679
    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2004
    Location:
    Italia
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
  26. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    9,301
    Joined:
    May 24, 2005
    Location:
    Washington DC
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    If that's the case, it would make more sense to daisy-chain 2400 packs instead.