David Saffir: Tips For Portrait Photography Part 1: Lighting Equipment
Dec 2012 11

Portrait photography can be as simple, or elaborate, as you want to make it. There are photographers who limit themselves to head shots or small group portraits, and others whose range includes on-location lifestyle sessions that involve complex lighting setups, mixing ambient with controlled artificial lighting, and more.

At the start, they all have at least one thing in common: lighting and color controls.

This article will be written in three parts: Part One will include information and tips about lighting equipment and selected fundamentals of exposure management, Part Two will deal with planning and executing lighting setups, and Part Three will discuss use of color management tools from Datacolor, including the SpyderCUBE and SpyderCHECKR.

Lighting Equipment

This section deals with photographic strobe lighting. Not all lighting equipment is created equal. Some lighting companies have a reputation for producing strobes that are very consistent in both power output and color temperature – while others are not so “fortunate”. So the first tip is: set up all your lights and test them – and use a hand-held meter.

Set up the lights in your studio or other indoor location. Set them up “bare bulb”, and don’t use diffusers, scrims, or light modifiers. Using your meter, retract the dome, and aim it toward the light from a distance of approximately two meters.

Set the meter to flash mode, connect it to the light via PC cord or wireless trigger, set ISO 100, and the shutter speed to 1/100. Fire the light once, and measure the light output.

Adjust the light again until it gives an aperture reading of f/8 to f/11 on the meter – what one might consider typical setup. Now fire the light every 3-5 seconds, and take note of the light output. It should stay consistent throughout – although you may find that some lights change in output as they “warm up”.

Repeat this test for each light. Watch for changes in performance as each light is cycled several times. After the first cycle, let the light rest for 5 minutes or more, and re-test for consistency.

Let the lights cool to the touch, unplug them, and inspect each strobe bulb. How old is it? Does it show darkening inside the bulb? (bulbs do this as they age – metal vaporized from the filament is deposited on the inside of the glass). The darker the bulb is, the closer it is to needing a replacement.

Keep a replacement strobe bulb in your gear bag – they generally go bad at the worst moment.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where we’ll discuss planning and executing lighting setups.

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.