Elaborate studios are not necessary for portraiture. In fact, very little room is required for head and shoulder portraits, and a corner of the home living room is usually more than enough space for a simple lighting and backdrop set-up.
Lighting is usually the first consideration for portraiture and often a single light source is all youâ€™ll need. Your primary light source can be as simple as window light. The great masters of portrait painting such as Rembrandt were skilled at using window light and reflectors.
Modern films and wide apertures remove the need for lengthy shutter speeds to a large degree, but the single main light source is still considered the most viable option for modern portraits.
A gold or white reflector should be placed to reflect light back onto the shadow side, while still allowing for the interplay between light and shade to create shape and mood. You can use a commercially available reflector such as those made by Lastolite and Inca, or you can simply make your own using some custom wood or card. A gold/white combination is excellent as you can choose either side of the reflector, depending on whether you wish to â€œwarm upâ€ the skin tones or simply reflect white light back onto the subject. The reflector will usually need to be quite close to the subject if itâ€™s to be effective.
Window light, however, is not always available â€“ nor is it always appropriate or correctly placed. Also, in winter months its light can be cold and blue. Electronic flash is used widely these days but its effect can be unflattering and unpredictable. Modern studio flash heads come equipped with modeling lights that are a constant source of illumination, showing where and how the light will fall. To these can be attached various diffusing tools such as umbrellas or soft boxes.
Most flash head systems cost thousands of dollars, but simple flash head systems are available from only a few hundred dollars including stands, reflectors and flash head.
Check with your local retailer. If your flashgun is powerful enough you can even use it for studio portraits, but it should not be used directly into the face as it normally is. Rather, place it off-camera and on a bracket, using it as you would a studio flash head.
The latest digital and film cameras employ through-the-lens (TTL) flash, which can often be used off-camera if you have the right synchronisation leads. This can take much of the calculation out of exposure and allow you to concentrate more on the subject. If you prefer to use a studio flash head, or your flash system is not TTL, youâ€™ll probably need a flash meter to determine the aperture. Failing that, you can roughly calculate your aperture by using the old guide number/distance equals aperture mathematics, but the amount of light lost in the softbox or umbrella is anyoneâ€™s guess. Digital is less forgiving than film with regard to exposure, but you do have the advantage of the cameraâ€™s preview screen.
Tungsten lights are also an option and these can be simply household bulbs â€“ provided theyâ€™re bright enough. Professional tungsten lighting set-ups can be purchased quite cheaply and they work very well. Just make sure that your film is balanced for tungsten light or your portraits will be printed with an orange-yellow tinge. If shooting digitally, simply set your white balance to the tungsten setting.
BASIC LIGHTING TECHNIQUES
There are four main styles of lighting that can be easily achieved with only one diffused light source (either through a softbox or reflected from an umbrella) and a reflector. Your choice of lighting style is dependent upon a few factors, including the shape and features of the subjectâ€™s face and the mood you wish to create.
â– Broad lighting Broad lighting occurs when the main light is positioned so that it illuminates the side of the face closest to the camera. In other words, if your subjectâ€™s face is angled towards your left, your main light will be positioned on your right and pointed towards the subject. This technique is used mainly for corrective purposes as it takes the emphasis away from the face and makes narrow faces appear wider.
â– Short lighting Short lighting is the exact opposite of broad lighting in that it illuminates the side of the face furthest from the camera. If your subjectâ€™s face is angled to your left, then your main light will also be on your left. Short lighting highlights the face and emphasises facial contours more effectively than broad lighting.
This lighting style is sometimes called â€œnarrow lightingâ€ and is useful in low-key portraiture.
Because short lighting has a narrowing effect, itâ€™s great for use with subjects that have particularly round or plump faces.
â– Butterfly lighting Also known as â€œglamour lightingâ€, this method is used extensively in fashion photography and saw its heyday in the classic Hollywood portraits of the 1930s, â€˜40s and â€˜50s. Itâ€™s easily achieved by positioning the main light directly in front and above the subjectâ€™s face, adjusting the height until a shadow is created directly under the subjectâ€™s nose. This style is best suited for subjects with a normal oval face and is used mostly for portraits of women. Itâ€™s not recommended for use with men because it has a tendency to highlight their ears! â– Rembrandt lighting One of the most popular forms of formal studio portrait lighting is called â€œRembrandt lightingâ€ and itâ€™s basically a combination of short lighting and butterfly lighting. The main light is positioned high, like butterfly lighting, but to the side of the face thatâ€™s furthest from the camera, and produces an illuminated triangle on the cheek closest to the camera.
The triangle will illuminate just under the eye, but not below the nose.
While photographers have devised infinite variables of these four main styles, there are few portraits taken which donâ€™t use one or more of these in some form or other. Learning to select and understand which of these to use in your portraits will lead to an understanding of more complex lighting styles.
Choice of background is also a question for those trying their hand at home portraiture.
Ideally suited for this kind of portable studio are the Lastolite folding backdrops, which fit neatly into a carry bag and unfold into a solid backdrop ready for use. Attached to a stand or simply propped against a wall, theyâ€™re the same as professional studio backdrops in appearance, only smaller and easier to manage. You can make your own backdrops if you wish, but thatâ€™s really a case of â€œeasier said than doneâ€! Whatever you design or select, ensure that itâ€™s not distracting, overly busy or colourful. Simple is usually better.
Use a medium telephoto lens so that your subject is comfortable and youâ€™re not too close. Avoid having your subject sit or stand square-shouldered to the camera. Position them comfortably on an angle, with their face looking over their forward shoulder and straight into the lens or on a comfortable angle. This is a standard approach to your first pose, after which you can experiment. One way to achieve this and ensure your subject remains on an angle is to place the chair on the angle you wish to use. Instruct your subject to sit in the chair as they normally would, and not to face the camera square-on. Often youâ€™ll find that despite placing the chair at a 45-degree angle, your subject will ignore the angle of the chair and sit facing the camera! (For more information on this topic see â€œPosing the Questionâ€ in our Spring 2002 issue.) Donâ€™t hesitate to use a roll of film or two. If youâ€™re shooting digitally, then youâ€™ll have even fewer limitations. Youâ€™ll find your subject will relax as the session continues and usually the best photographs are those taken towards the end of the session when both photographers and subject have eased up a little.
Shelton Muller can be contacted at email@example.com