David Saffir: Tips For Portrait Photography Part 2: Planning and Executing Lighting Setups
Dec 2012 13

In my opinion, the old rule about “building your lighting setup one light at a time” still holds true. I generally build them up piece by piece, metering as I go for each light, and for the aggregate. I’ll use a simple high-key portrait setup as an example.

It’s important to note here that digital exposure is even more demanding that shooting transparencies. In fact, some people hold the opinion that 1/10 of a stop can be important in controlling a number of factors, ranging from highlight or shadow detail to color.

I suggest that you use a SpyderCUBE on-set to help you set in-camera white balance and to provide a gray “source” for color balance/correction. More on this later.

A simplified high-key setup can use four lights – two to light the background, and two to light the subject. The setup might look like this:

Unlike some photographers, I start with the background lighting (others may start by lighting the subject). I set up a light at each corner of the backdrop, about 2-3 feet away, aimed diagonally to the opposite side. Generally, these are set up with only reflectors, with a moderate diffusion gel added to distribute light across the backdrop. In this case, the backdrop is white roll paper.

In a high-key portrait, I want the backdrop to meter at least one stop brighter than the subject. So, if I intend to use f/8 for the subject (reasonable depth of field and image sharpness), I would meter the backdrop at f/11. Many photographers use f/11 for the subject, so the background would go to f/16 (in a large space, you may increase background lighting even more.)

It is important to meter the backdrop completely, from side to side, and as far as I can reach, top to bottom. I want to avoid hot and cool spots, as these become problematic during image editing – I want a smooth, bright backdrop that doesn’t call attention to itself, providing a nice “frame” for the subject.

Looking at the backdrop from the camera position, if you see or meter a hot or cool spot on the left, go to the light located at camera right and adjust that first. Do the opposite if your problem is on the left.

(Here’s a tip: a radio trigger/control for your meter will quickly pay for itself in terms of convenience, efficiency, and on-set safety. It’s no fun dragging a PC cord attached to meter and light around a set – they pull loose, create a tripping hazard, and increase risk of pulling over lights mounted on stands. Many meters, like the workhorse Sekonic 358, allow one to insert a Pocketwizard radio chip – and others, like the Sekonic 458DR, have the chip built in.)

Put a flag between the backdrop lights and the camera position (or use a barn door). If you can, make these light barriers large enough to prevent “spill” onto your subject. (see photo)

Once the first two lights are set up, stabilize them with a sandbag on the light stand, and mark their position on the floor with a piece of tape. That way, if they are jostled during shooting you can restore their position and keep working. Ensure that cables are properly positioned and taped down when necessary.

Now that you’ve got your foundation setup, move on to lighting your main subject. I’m assuming at this point that you’re setting up for one person.

Have your model stand roughly in the center of the set, at least 6 feet from the backdrop, maybe more. You’re placing them at this distance to help avoid the front lights casting shadows on the backdrop.

Step back to your planned camera position, and look at the set. Is the model centered on the floor, and against the backdrop? If not, make adjustments as needed. Mark that spot on the floor.

Now mark your planned camera position with a piece of tape on the floor, and start to set up your front lights. These will flank the camera on either side. In this scenario, we will use a large softbox as a light modifier – include an internal light diffuser panel. For this setup, I would use a softbox which is at least four feet high, perhaps larger.

Set up and meter these lights individually. Turn off the background lights, turn on the right hand front light, set the power output to a level that will get you close to f/8. Walk out to the pre-positioned chair, and aim the meter toward the spot where the camera will be. Meter and adjust this light as needed.

Turn off the right hand light, activate the left hand light, and set that up to approx f/5/6. This variation will still give you that bright, smooth high key look with a little bit of modeling of the features and hair.

Now, activate both front lights – you should get a combined meter reading of f/11. This will yield a completely smooth white background, with minimal or no shadows in the image.

Next, we’ll discuss color management – in terms of camera profiling, and overall color balance on-set.

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.