Painting with Light: A Crash Course in Studio Lighting

After a series of four intensive workshops on portrait studio lighting, I was asked the question what makes a good portrait? My first response was to cite a cliché about the look in the eyes, perhaps capturing an intangible moment between subject and photographer. That may very well be, but practically speaking, it’s all about the lighting.

The course at the Light Factory was lead by portrait photographer Herman Nicholson in Charlotte, NC. By default, Herman ended up being the model and the majority of the pictures are of him.

The first class was a frenzy of different lighting setups and modifiers using Paul C. Buff’s Alien Bees B800 flash units and accessories including softboxes, octaboxes, umbrellas and reflectors. Using only one light at a time, we could see the impact of each different setup. I frantically tried to document each one by scratching notes and sketches in my notebook and taking the occasional iPhone pic.

Here are just a few examples of lighting setups using a single light. I particularly liked the use of modifiers to narrow the light for a dramatic effect. (I’ve included a description of the lighting setup for each image for my own future reference).

The second workshop added new layers using fill lighting and we experimented with taking corporate headshots, minimizing shadows in favor of even lighting and tones.

Here are two examples, one using a white background illuminated with stripboxes and the other shot on a black background. Both methods have minimal shadows on the face. Thanks to the patience of this great model who likely ended up with a couple of good shots to post on LinkedIn.

As a marine and sailing lifestyle photographer, I never had the luxury to use additional lighting and most of the shoots were done on the fly (or on the water, is the case may be). While there is always control over the results, the nature of the subject was more spontaneous and greater than one photographer could control –  weather, sea conditions, access to chase boats are just a few elements that all needed to align in order to capture a great shot. Light is what defines all photography, and with studio lighting, the potential for control over the environment is what makes it so appealing.

While you can control lighting, that is not always the case with the subject. In this case, the older of the two girls was more agreeable to pose, but the younger one simply did not want to smile and a dance of the wills ensued. In this case, I found a more passive approach resulted in an enchanting and compelling portrait.

Here are a few examples of the two very sweet and patient girls. They both wanted to twirl and perked up when they got to spin in their fancy dresses. Girls do just want to have fun.

The final week we were introduced to more intricate lighting effects to create dark shadows and contrast using flags, background halos (a go-to favorite on Wired Magazine cover shots), dramatic contrasts to add depth and dimension similar to Marco Grob’s portrait style and finally, Herman pulled all the stops by recreating Jill Greenberg’s icon style. By introducing fill lighting, shadows recede, profiles are outlined and new, dramatic accents are applied to the image much like a painter applies oils with a palette knife.

Coming into this class with no prior experience in studio lighting, I felt like I was fumbling along and mostly watched Herman do all the setups. Sifting through some of these setups and keeping in mind the concept of light painting, I applied some of what I learned over the weekend to varying degrees of success. It felt great to get my hands on the lighting equipment, and with an audience who had confidence in my ability(!), I went about setting up, adding more fill, changing accessories and adding modifiers to get different results.

While I still don’t have the answer to ‘what makes a good portrait?’ I do know that ultimately I am a storyteller, and while it may be naïve to think I can capture a story in a single image, playing with light can hopefully enrich that story.

As for the eyes? They do in fact have a lot to reveal. If you look closely you can see exactly where the key light is coming from. And so begins my journey into deconstructing photographs. That’ll keep me busy for a while.