Studio Lighting Setups for Portrait Photography: Part II

This is another in a series of articles on studio lighting that I put together with help from Karl Leopold at in Melbourne, Florida. Karl graciously opened his studio to me and patiently went through the basics of lighting a studio portrait.

Last time we went over a fairly basic three-point lighting setup for studio photography and that was fun and you can do quite a lot just by moving the lights around and adjusting your camera settings. But for many only using three lights left you wanting more.

More lights, you say! You want to burn more power! Yeah, buddy, now you’re talking my language! So you want it bigger; well, my friend, step right this way.

To me there’s no such thing as too many lights or too much power. That, of course, is not entirely true because the proper lighting for any shot is the right amount at the right angle, not necessarily the most.

But who doesn’t like it when the right amount of light also draws so much current the lights dim across town? If it’s so wrong then why does it feel so good to push that button and the POP! is so bright that spectators need sunscreen?

Aside from the fun aspects of using more lights there are also sound reasons from a technical standpoint. Ever seen those fashion shots where the models seem to be floating in a seamless, uniform white background?

That’s the effect we’re looking for today and to get that separation we’re going to need to make some changes to the lighting setup we used the first time, but not as many as you might guess.

First, if you haven’t already done so, take a look at the first lighting setup. For the next setup we’re going to keep that light and camera set pretty much where it is and make some changes.

– We’re switching to a white background. Because Karl’s studio wasn’t big enough to paper the landscape, we had to limit our shooting to waist-up shots.

– We had the talent change clothes so we didn’t have a white outfit on a white background.

– We added two extra lights to light the background called “kickers”. Specifically Alien Bees B400s in a softbox fitted with a front screen grid.

Instead of just lighting the subject, now we’re lighting the subject and the background separately. And we’re not just lighting the background, we’re going to blow it out so far that it will be so wildly overexposed as to completely mask any creases or imperfections in the background paper. To make sure we got the most overexposure on the background, we set the kickers to full power.

Our five point lighting setup

So now every time I triggered the strobes I was firing two B800s, two B400s and an Ultra 1800. That made a very satisfying CHA-POP! and I have to admit to getting a little carried away. CHA-POP! CHA-POP! CHA-POP! CHA-POP! Until the talent, also my wife, started complaining that all she could see were blue spots and Karl asked me to please stop doing that.

This shot shows the orientation of the key (right), the hair light and the kicker (lower left). Also note that flower leis are optional equipment on most studio strobes.

We did have to back off the kicker power a little because we were initially getting so much blowback from the white background it was causing a halo on the talent. Reluctantly running them back to 3/4 power and going to f/13 fixed that issue but we were still putting out a lot of light in small space.

The Results

First one without the kickers and then one with them on, so you can see the difference.

This shot is without the kickers and you can see the background is a little drab, kind of a bluish-gray. We should have bumped up the hair light, which is getting totally overpowered by this time.

With the kickers the background is more uniformly white, though we are still getting some blowback from the background and some shine off the jacket and studio walls. To finish out this shot I’d want to dodge the hair on the right side and fix the jacket shine in post.

To improve this look we would need a bigger studio so we could get more separation from the background and add some screens between the talent and the kickers to stop some of the blowback and bump up the hair light a stop.

But overall we got the look we were after and the talent could stand up and move around instead of being confined to the comfy chair. Besides, it’s really fun lighting up that much hardware at once. CHA-POP! Sorry, last time.


By Chris

Chris Poindexter is a freelance writer, photographer and videographer. He has spent the last four years on the road writing two books on full-time RV living. Besides photography, Chris writes about personal finance, science, technology, travel and fine dining. He and his wife are currently living large on Florida's treasure coast and travel extensively. Besides a writer, Chris was a software engineer, CIO of a medical services company and volunteer firefighter.


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