Exercise: A studio portrait

I found my experimentations with studio lighting to be a very interesting process. It took me quite a while to get my head around the physics, when I was trying to create specific effects. Definitely need regular practice and to adopt a way of being able to experiment with sitters without looking like an amateur.

Before the shoot I followed the recommended tutorial about the various ‘standard’ lighting styles for portraits and made rough sketches. Luckily, the studio had a chequered rug so I was able to calculate the angles a bit more accurately. Trial and error prevailed as always.  The tutorial makes the point that it is often not very flattering to shoot face on, especially women, so the photographer will often have the sitter turn slightly to one side of the camera.

The studio equipment included a large octagon softbox (200 cm) with a 200 w flash, two narrow beam strip boxes with 300 w bulbs, a small octagon softbox and a small light with a snoot. I also used a silver reflector and a large piece of polystyrene painted black on one side to reduce reflection from the white walls.  The large octagon was useable as a key light and a fill light by changing the power settings.

These two images show what a difference a reflector can make:

As usual, even though I took several lenses, I only ended up using one (24-70mm) for the whole shoot which was a bit daft!  I kept my camera on f8 to ensure focus from front to back, with a speed of 1/125 and ISO 100. I bumped up the ISO when it needed a little more exposure rather than changing shutter speed in order to avoid problems with the sync, as evidenced in these shots (when I forgot briefly how a dSLR works):

The studio was quite small and contained a lot of equipment so I had to be careful about tripping over things and touching hot lights.  The model was tall and so I spent some of the shoot up a ladder to be at eye-level or higher.


Split lighting

This is for dramatic or moody shots and is more likely to be used in ads, music photography or fine art than in commercial portraiture.  It may be used to imply evil or duplicity. More likely to work well with men than women. The source is 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject.


I found it quite difficult to get any light in the eye on the dark side and the possibility of this will depend on the physiognomy of the sitter.

I think for this subject it worked better in black & white or desaturated/cold tone to add to the drama and I really liked the effect actually.


Loop lighting

The source should be 30-45 degrees from the camera and higher than eye-level. The effect is for a small loop of shadow to one side of the nose but one which does NOT touch the shadow from the cheek. There is also defined line shadow under the chin the give shape to the jaw.


This was initially tricky as the sitter had a dark moustache which obscured the size of the nose loop. A good effect though and one which would suit many faces. The lesson here was to look very critically at all the shadows being cast and decide if they are flattering or distracting.

Rembrandt lighting

This technique results in a triangle of light on the darker cheek of the subject as seen in some of Rembrandt’s portraits. The sitter needs to be turned slightly away from the light and with a high light source, much like Rembrandt’s window.


This is lovely subtle lighting but with some atmosphere still. It is flattering for people with good cheekbones but may not work as well if the nose is very small as the shadow below should meet the cheek shadow. I seem to have cheated a little with this model as he has a black moustache which can give the impression of a classic Rembrandt but it worked well when he smiled.

Butterfly lighting

The technique should give a small butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose and light sculpting shadows under the cheeks and chin. The source should be behind and above the camera and is used in glamour shots or for older subjects to soften lines.  It works best for sitters with slimmer faces.


Again this was difficult to see properly due to the model’s moustache. We had to test lots of different heights and power levels for the large key light and eventually concluded it did not work too well for this subject’s face and skin tones.

Broad lighting

With this technique the subject is turned away from the camera with the ‘broad’ side nearest in most light. This can widen the appearance of the face and commonly used in a high key approach.


I think I should have added a little bit of fill light on the other side to give some definition to the full face.


Short lighting 

This is the opposite of broad with the side of the face towards the camera being in more shadow.  I particularly liked this effect with this model as I think it presented his face well and was more interesting to look at than the ‘broad’ approach which is probably more intuitive in a natural light scenario.


After working through these basic – but distinct and labelled – approaches, I experimented with ways to accentuate the model’s physique. I played with using a rim-light and then building from one light up to having five, placed strategically around the sitter.



One of the best aspects of the full light set was a brighter background which gave depth and a more professional look to the shoot.  I realised afterwards that I should have experimented with a white background to get a sense of the hardness of the shadows and the fall off.






Things I have learned

  • Tether the camera (or use wifi if possible) to a laptop to be able to see the results better immediately. I didn’t do this as I wanted to have freedom to move around in what was a small space full of equipment and I regret that decision now.  The modelling lights can give an indication of how things will look but nothing like the final effect.
  • Next time I get access to a studio I would like to experiment with different lenses and using wider apertures.
  • Some make-up might have been useful as there was a sheen on the model’s forehead for some of the lighting configurations.
  • Every face is different and experience/practice will help me to be able to anticipate which lighting set-ups will work best for each individual and suit the objectives of the shoot.
  • Look very carefully and critically at all the patterns of light and shadow being cast. At the time I thought everything looked good but with close inspection some effects have worked better than others.
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