Pro Portraits with Just Two Flashes

You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on expensive lighting to get professional-looking portraits.

Many amateur photographers are intimidated by studio portraiture, and for good reason. A trip to a working pro’s studio reveals thousands of dollars of lighting equipment, specialized backdrops, and various posing accessories. Who can afford that?

You have to remember that working pros need all that stuff because they’re required to meet the needs of a various clients. Pros often don’t know who’s going to walk in the door and what that person is going to want. You don’t have that problem. Your mortgage isn’t dependent on your ability to meet every customer’s whim.

So, then, how much stuff do you need to shoot a professional-looking portrait? Your setup can be as simple as two flashes, two light stands, one photo umbrella, and a nontextured backdrop, such as butcher’s paper. All of these goodies fit easily in the trunk of your car, enabling you to shoot great-looking portraits just about anywhere.

Get Your Lighting Together

For this assignment, I’m going to start by showing you what I consider the easiest way to go. Even though the investment in this equipment is far less than what pros spend, the bottom line might still be more than your budget allows (figure about US$600). If this is the case for you, I’ll present some low-cost alternatives at the end of this hack. But let’s start with the most desirable and go from there.

First, I strongly recommend a camera that has Manual Exposure control and accepts external flashes. A camera that has lots of flash accessories available from the manufacturer is even better. At the moment, Nikon and Canon provide the most options.

When you’re shopping for external flashes, look for models that can be triggered wirelessly by the camera. These units are perfect for the photographer on the go. I’m using two Canon Speedlite 420EXs (as shown in Figure 4-9) and a Transmitter ST-E2 for this assignment. The transmitter mounts in the camera’s hot shoe and wirelessly triggers all the flashes when you trip the shutter.

Canon 420EX flashes in slave mode

Figure 4-9. Canon 420EX flashes in slave mode

Not only does this configuration save you from the tangle of wires, but the flash units and camera also communicate during the exposure, so you get perfectly exposed shots without having to calculate guide numbers and f-stops. It’s truly amazing. Nikon’s offering is equally fantastic.

Now, all you need are a couple of light stands (with brackets) on which to mount your flashes and a photo umbrella to serve as a diffuser for the main light. I’ve had good luck with Bogen light stands, such as model 3097, because they provide good height but fold down to a compact size and are lightweight. I add a Bogen 028 flash bracket to the top of each stand so that I can position the light at any angle. Plus, I use these brackets to hold the umbrella, as shown in Figure 4-10. Just about any type of photo umbrella will serve you well, so shop for price.

Flash on stand with umbrella reflector

Figure 4-10. Flash on stand with umbrella reflector

I can use this lighting setup with almost any Canon camera that has a hot shoe, including both film models (the EOS series) and digicams, the “G” series, Digital Rebel, 10D, and on up the line. Figure 4-11 was shot with this lighting arrangement and a Canon 10D digital SLR. But I’ve recorded many successful portraits with the more affordable Canon G2 prosumer model. They all work equally well.

Portrait taken with two-flash setup

Figure 4-11. Portrait taken with two-flash setup

The Setup

Find a room that gives you at least 10’ 10’ of working space. Lots of natural light is helpful for accurate focusing and keeping the subject’s eyes from dilating too much. Attach a 6’ 6’ piece of backdrop on the wall. You can use photographer’s backdrop paper that comes in rolls, butcher’s paper, or just about any other smooth surface. The main thing is that you don’t want to show wall texture, because that looks amateurish. Try to position your subject at least four feet from the backdrop. This helps soften its appearance in the final shot.

Now, mount one flash on a light stand and attach the umbrella. This will serve as your main light. Position it close to the model, within a few feet, and just off to one side. The lighting rule for this type of photography is that the larger the light source (in this case, light reflected off an umbrella) and the closer its proximity to the subject, the softer the light. Soft light is good for portraits in which light is reflected off an umbrella just a few feet from the subject, as in Figure 4-11.

Mount your second flash to a light stand and position it behind the subject but off to one side (so it doesn’t show in the picture). Cover the flash head with several layers of tissue held in place with a rubber band. This will reduce the light output from the flash. Elevate the stand as high as it will go and point the flash at the top of the model’s head. This will serve as the hair light. Lighting the hair separately is a sure sign of professional portrait photography.

Now, turn everything on, including the transmitter that you’ve mounted in the camera’s hot shoe. Set the camera to Auto Program exposure mode and take a few test shots. After reviewing the images in the LCD monitor, adjust your lighting accordingly. Is the hair light too strong? Then add more tissue or move it back a bit. Is the main light flattering for the model’s features? If not, move it to a different position and try again. I usually take about a dozen test shots before I find a lighting combination that I like. Once I do, I shoot quickly, before my subject gets tired of posing.

You’ll be amazed at how good your portraits will look.

Alternative Equipment

The wireless flash setup is far and away the most accurate, convenient, and portable arrangement you can use. But if you don’t have the US$600 to invest in these tools, consider this alternative lighting arrangement.

If you already have a few older flash units available, make them wireless by purchasing so-called slave triggers , such as the Wein WP-HS that’s available for around US$30. The slave attaches to the foot of the flash and has a hot-shoe mount and a tripod socket so that you can attach it to a light stand. Position your slave-mounted flashes, as outlined earlier in this hack, and then activate your camera’s built-in flash. When it fires, it will cause the other, more powerful flashes to fire too. You might want to put a few layers of tissue or a piece of exposed slide film over your camera’s built-in flash so that it doesn’t adversely affect your lighting scheme. Its job is to trigger the other flashes.

Some digital cameras emit a preflash before the real exposure. This can throw off the timing of your wireless arrangement. Overcome this problem by mounting a small external flash in the camera’s hot shoe. It won’t emit a preflash like the built-in unit.

Now, we have to address the problem of exposure. Since there’s no communication between the camera and the flashes, everything has to be set manually. You could calculate guide numbers for this arrangement, but why? You get instant feedback on your camera’s LCD monitor.

Put your camera in Manual Exposure mode with the shutter speed at 1/60 of a second and the aperture at f-5.6. Set your main flash (the one reflecting off the umbrella) to its most powerful setting. If the hair-light flash has variable settings, set it to 1/4 power. Otherwise, add layers of tissue as needed. Now, make an exposure.

If the subject is too bright, stop down your aperture to f-8. Too dark? Try f-4. Once you find the magic combination of flash and aperture settings, take notes! This will save you much effort the next time you use this setup.

Final Thoughts

You can travel light and still shoot portraits like a pro. The best route is to use wireless flashes made by your camera’s manufacturer. But with a little patience, you can patch together just about any assortment of flashes for fantastic results.

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