Using Off Camera Lighting in Portrait Photography
I absolutely love creating dynamic environmental portraits! Understanding how to control and modify off-camera lighting is the single most important skill a portrait photographer can learn.
Whether natural or artificial, well placed lighting is what separates mediocre portrait photographers from exceptional ones. In today’s competitive market, it’s increasingly difficult to stand out. Exceptionally lit portraits will take your photography to the next level.
In this guide, I share several lighting techniques that are guaranteed to make your portraits look amazing. The best part is you don’t need to spend lots of money to get beautiful results!
Choose Your Gear Carefully
High school senior portraits are a big part of my photography business. Most seniors aren’t interested in canned studio pictures preferring dynamic environmental portraits instead. This means that I am meeting clients on location in a variety of unique places. Since I work alone and manage every aspect of my client’s experience, I have to travel light. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t bring backup gear or leave behind the tools necessary to get the job done. I carry two camera bodies, three lenses, four flash heads, light stands, radio triggers and an assortment of other odds and ends to every session.
I use Canon flash heads fired remotely with Elinchrom Skyport triggers and receivers to light my portraits. You can use Pocket Wizards, Radio Poppers or virtually any other brand of radio triggers to achieve the same results. You can also substitute flash heads for Elinchrom Ranger lights. It’s totally up to you. I use older Canon 580EX flash heads because they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to repair when they burn out.
Depending on the situation, I fire my lights into an umbrella, portable softbox or a homemade snoot – more on this further along!
Here’s the specific lighting gear I am using:
With the exception of the softbox, everything fits neatly in the Hakuba bag. The portable softbox collapses flat and is stored in small bag much like a reflector.
Metering and Exposure
Imagine that you have just met your client and you’re ready to get to work. One of the first things you need to do is meter the ambient light and determine your base exposure. The key is striking a balance between a nicely blurred background and an acceptable shutter speed.
Start by switching your camera into Manual mode. Jumping into Manual mode might sound intimidating if you are a new photographer, but I promise it will be worthwhile! By going into Manual mode, you will be able to control every aspect of the exposure and lighting.
Setting your aperture to f/5.6 and your shutter speed to 1/125 of a second is usually a good starting point in average daylight conditions. Depending on how bright the outdoor light is, you can raise your ISO and/or adjust your shutter speed to fine-tune the exposure.
Note: I love working at or near f/5.6. This is the sweet spot for producing beautiful Bokeh without having to worry about the depth of field being so shallow that you lose detail between the tip of the nose and the back of the ears.
It is a three way balancing act! The good news is that once you nail down the exposure on your camera, you can relax and focus on composition and working with your client. You’re good to go as long as the ambient light doesn’t change. Anytime you move to a different location, you should re-meter and calibrate your shutter speed/aperture/ISO settings.
Balancing Ambient and Strobe Lighting
Now that you have dialed in the settings on your camera, let’s talk about the relationship between natural and off-camera strobe lighting and how each one is controlled. Don’t worry! It’s actually pretty easy.
Here’s why you need to be in Manual mode on your camera:
- The shutter speed on your camera modifies ambient (non flash) light. If the outside light is too dark (or under exposed), lower the shutter speed and it will brightening up the scene. An increase in the shutter speed will darken the scene.
- The aperture on your camera modifies the intensity of the flash. If the flash is too bright, you can stop down the aperture to help control it. You can also physically move the light farther away from your client to achieve similar results.
- Changes in the ISO adjust the overall exposure in either direction. For example, if you are having trouble hitting the right shutter speed at 200 ISO, you can jump up to 400 ISO to gain an extra stop of light, which in turn allows you to bump up your shutter speed.
Remember not to increase your shutter speed beyond your camera’s sync speed. This is typically right around 1/200 or 1/250 of a second.
You just learned the secret to creating beautifully lit environmental portraits! Commit this to memory and you’ll be way ahead of the average portrait photographer in your area.
There are a variety of studio lighting techniques including Butterfly Lighting, Loop Lighting, Rembrandt Lighting and others. We are mainly going to discuss Rembrandt Lighting because it’s very easy to employ and does a beautiful job of filling in shadows around the face.
Rembrandt Lighting is characterized by light striking one side of the face and gradually falling away. This type of lighting adds depth while making facial features appear thinner. To achieve Rembrandt Lighting you place your main light source at a 45-degree angle in front of your client.
You can set the light on the left or right side of your client – the choice is yours. If I am working in direct sunlight, I usually place the light opposite the sun. For example, if sun is to the left and behind my client, I place the main light on the right side.
Pay close attention to where the hair parts as this can factor into your decision too. If your client’s hair parts on the left side, it may make sense to place the main light on the right to avoid odd shadows.
Note: Rembrandt Lighting is named after Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn who used similar lighting techniques in his paintings.
Setting Up Your Main Light
Start by setting your main flash to Manual mode. This allows you to adjust the intensity of the light by dialing the power down.
Here are the settings I use as a starting point when setting up the main light:
- In direct sun, set the flash to full power (i.e. no changes).
- In overcast conditions (bright conditions), set the flash to 1/2 power.
- In cloudy conditions (moderately bright conditions), set the flash to 1/4 power.
- In full shade, set the flash between 1/2 and 1/8 power (depending on the available light).
- In extremely dark environments, you can drop down to 1/16 power or even lower.
Remember that you may have to fine tune your settings once you get started. The goal is to balance your off-camera lighting with the natural daylight.
Using One Light: Example #1
Let’s examine how this looks in practice. We’ll start with one light and then add others further along. The portrait below was taken under a very bright, mid-day sun. I positioned my client so that she was facing away from the sun. I used a Canon 580EX set to full power to balance with the strong ambient light. My camera was set to f/5.6, 1/200 of a second at 100 ISO.
I am using very simple Rembrandt Lighting in this example. The flash is being bounced into an umbrella and back onto my client’s face. The light stand is positioned several feet in front and to the right of my client at a 45-degree angle. This produces flattering, three dimensional light.
Note: In this example, I bounced the main light into the umbrella rather than shooting through it; however both techniques work very similarly.
Using One Light: Example #2
Let’s look at another portrait using one light. In this image, my client is standing in shade with a low setting sun back-lighting her hair. As before, the main light is positioned several feet away and at a 45-degree angle. Since we were in shade, the flash was set to 1/4 power. My camera was set to f/5.6, 1/125 of a second at 400 ISO. How can you not love these images!
In both of these examples, the sun was acting as a second light accenting my clients’ hair. In overcast or cloudy conditions the sun won’t be available to you as a second light source. Let’s take a look at how to setup two lights: one main light and a second accent or hair light.
Using Two Lights: Example #1
Once you have mastered setting up one light, adding a second accent light is easy! An accent light creates separation between the client and the background. For example, if your client has dark hair and you are photographing her against a dark background, an accent light ensures that she stands out. As before, position the main light 3-4 feet away at a 45-degree angle. Next, setup your second light several feet next to or behind your client so that it’s striking her hair.
This portrait session took place at Pike Place Market in Post Alley in front of the world famous Gum Wall. My camera was set to f/6.3, 1/160 of a second at 200 ISO.
In this case, a Canon 430EX is positioned opposite the main light firing through a snoot at 1/8 power. This second light accents my client’s hair while adding depth to the image. The snoot keeps the light tightly focused and allows me to place it exactly where I wish. I placed a Color Temperature Orange (CTO) gel over the flash head to warm up the temperature of the light. A CTO gel works great on red heads because it naturally accentuates their hair color.
Note: I cut narrow strips of CTO filter gels that just cover my flash heads and use Velcro to stick them in place.
The main light is Canon 580EX set to 1/4 power and bounced into an umbrella (with no gel). As before, I positioned the light about 45 degrees to my client. Take a look at the final images.
Using Two Lights: Example #2
This is virtually the same setup. My camera was set to f/6.3, 1/160 of a second at 200 ISO. Don’t you just love how the second light makes her hair pop!
Using Two Lights: Example #3
Now let’s move from a dark alley to a beautiful, outdoor garden. This portrait session was taken on a bright, overcast day. We are still using basic Rembrandt Lighting with the main light set to 1/2 power. The second light is being pushed through a portable softbox with a CTO gel attached to warm up the hair.
You may be wondering why I used a softbox instead of a snoot with the hair light. That’s a great question! I wanted the second light to accent my client’s hair, right arm and shoulder. A snoot forces light to travel outward in a narrow beam and would only back light a portion of her hair. Light travels out of a softbox more broadly; this allows me back light all of her hair and upper body.
Using Two Lights and the Sun
You have learned how to create dynamic portraits in a variety of settings using one or two lights. Now let’s punch it up a level by adding a third light source – the sun!
These next series of shots were taken mid-day with a very bright overhead sun. After scouting the location, I positioned my client facing away from the sun. Next I setup a main and second accent light just as you have seen in the previous examples. In this case, my camera was set to f/5.6, 1/200 of a second at 100 ISO.
The first image (below) shows how the portrait looks without any off-camera lighting. Pretty flat and dull! I fired off just the accent light in the second image. The main light brings it all together in the final shot. Both lights were set to full power to keep up with the bright sun.
Note: The secondary flash is setup without any modifiers so that the full power of the light can reach my client.
Can you see how just adding the hair light really finishes off this shot? Nobody but you would probably ever know the difference, but it’s this kind of detailed lighting that will separate you from your peers.
You Can Do This!
For some, the thought of taking the flash off the camera can be intimidating. Don’t be afraid to take the next step! Start by practicing on friends using one off-camera light. As time goes on, your pictures will get better and your confidence will grow. I know you can do this!
Still have questions? Leave a comment below or discuss this in the forum.
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About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.
Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Prints and Paxton Portraits.