A Guide to Portrait Photography Step Seven in Home Portraits with One Light Part One

How to make perfect in-home portraits using just the key light

Many of you will recall from reading my photography series that I did formal in-home portrait photography for a national photography company when I was just starting out in photography as a business. Working for one of those companies was a great way to gain experience shooting portraits and they still are. Back in those days all you needed to start working for one of those companies was a SLR, a few lenses, a tripod and the proven ability to take good pictures. Having a portable lighting outfit, a few scrims, and a portable backdrop setup was helpful too but they were prepared to sell you those extras at a very reasonable price if you didn’t have them. They were a great way to start out because the company did all the selling, they set up the shoots, all you had to do was show up on time, set up your equipment and take the portrait shots. After a shoot, I dropped the film off for the company to process. They have gone digital but these companies are still a good training ground for the talented amateur who wants to start a portrait photography business.

George Eastman once said, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” that’s one of the most important things that I learned while doing in-home portraits photography. I mastered the use of studio lights. I learned how to control it and how to manipulate it.

The first thing that I had to do after arriving at a clients home was to ascertain what “Look” they were looking for in the finished portrait. Was the portrait to portray the person in a soft, romantic light? Did they want to appear as being hard and serious? Some older people that had me photograph them as the stern, family patriarch. The answer to those questions determined how I set my lights up, what type of light modifiers I would use, and how I would use them. Before we go any further, I would suggest that you reread the first six parts to this Guide to Portrait Photography series. It’s a good idea to periodically review what you have already learned because these tutorials build on one another. Here are the links

1. https://knoji.com/an-introduction-to-portrait-photography/

2. https://knoji.com/guide-to-portrait-photography-step-two-how-to-build-a-home-photo-studio/

3. https://knoji.com/guide-to-portrait-photography-step-three-understanding-white-balance-and-color-temperature/

4. https://knoji.com/guide-to-portrait-photography-step-four-how-to-take-great-outdoor-natural-light-portraits/

5. https://knoji.com/a-guide-to-portrait-photography-the-laws-of-lighting/

6. https://knoji.com/a-guide-to-portrait-photography-light-modifiers/

Now that we know the desired outcome of the portrait shoot, we need to determine how to place our light to achieve that effect. The objective with this tutorial is to teach you how to make great portraits using only one light but what you will learn here will also apply to using multiple light setups.

Light Position

The angle of the main light in relationship to the subject determines the character of the lighting effect. The apparent size of the light relative to the size of the subject determines softness or hardness. The closer we move the light to the subject, the larger its apparent size becomes, the softer the lighting effect. The farther we move the light from the subject, the smaller the apparent size of the light becomes the harder the lighting effect. We can also use light modifiers to further effect the lights apparent size.

Filling in the shadows and creating fill light.

With a single light, we can only throw light on our subject from one direction. Right? Wrong! This is a common error in thinking made by most new portrait photographers. Back in the days when I got my start at doing in-home portraits I learned to use light colored wall to create reflected fill light. I learned to control the amount of fill light by moving my subject closer to or further from the wall. Money was tight for me when I was starting out. I learned how to make reflectors out of common household items, like cardboard and aluminum foil to save a couple of dollars. I teach you how to make your own in another article but I recommend buying a few professional reflectors if the budget permits. They make you look more professional in your client’s eyes and are a joy to use. Check out those available at Adorama.Com. Adorama.Com is a good online source for all your photographic needs. They are one of my favorite sources and I recommend them to anyone looking for a one-stop online source of photography equipment and supplies.

Lighting the background

Backgrounds can be lightened without blowing them out by placing a scrim between the light and your subject. As you will remember from my article on light modifiers, scrims are translucent panels that diffuses the light before it strikes you subject. A side effect of using a scrim is that less light reaches your subject and your subject appears darker. By adjusting the exposures to compensate for the reduced amount of light falling on your subject causes the background to be slightly overexposed thus lightening it.

Camera settings and White Balance

I mention in my tutorial on White Balance and color temperature that you need to switch off your cameras Automatic White Balance control. A camera set to its AWB (Automatic White Balance) setting will do funny things under studio flash lighting. Using the AWB setting, you are going to get some weird colors in your pictures. Here’s why: studio flash units have a built in “Modeling Lights” which the photographer uses to position his lights so there aren’t any unwanted shadows, reflections, etc. The modeling light, which is an incandescent bulb, has a much warmer color temperature than the flash tube, which simulates daylight color temperatures. With the AWB turned on the camera will balance for the warmer incandescent modeling light causing your pictures to take on a bluish cast. The same thing happened back in the day of film cameras when we loaded indoor film into our camera and then shot pictures outdoors without using the proper color temperature correction filters. What you need to do is turn AWB off and set the WB to its “Flash” setting.

In part two of this step we will learn how to set your key light at 45 degrees to your subject and shoot some fantastic portraits. This will be a hand on tutorial so I’m going to assume that you have at least one studio strobe, a tripod for your camera and other basic studio equipment.

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Helen Oster
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Posted on Sep 14, 2009