Lighting for Simple Portraits

Whether or not you want to do them, at some point you’ll be the person with the “good” camera and be called upon to shoot some portraits for family and friends.  This doesn’t mean it has to be hard or expensive.  To do a decent job you need a hotshoe mount flash, often called a speed light and a white ceiling and for more advanced lighting, you need a flash, a radio control kit, a light stand, an umbrella bracket and an umbrella.  It really could not get much simpler.

TTL Means Success

Yes, I know about every article, and every sales person and every other Youtube thing yada yada yada that says that TTL is bad, doesn’t work and for all I know makes you radioactive.  This is a pile of doo-doo, it’s bohunk, it’s toro-poopoo.  If you have ever used the meter in your camera to make an exposure and been pleased with the result, counting yourself in amongst the 100% of others, then you have already used TTL.  The only difference here is that you will use TTL to control your flash.  Get yourself a flash that talks to your camera in its native TTL mode.

Direct Flash is NOT the Route

When you say the word flash, most people think about that deer in headlights, frozen face, harsh shadows, driver’s license photo look.  No, no, no.  Many people hate flash or fear flash because this is what they envision when they hear the word flash, partly because they think of that awful little popup built into the camera.  You won’t be using it, and you won’t be using direct lighting at all.  So take a breath and move on.

Indirect Light is Key

 This Godox TT685 is for Canon but clicking on the image will take you to the B&H page with all the different variants. It’s an awesome flash for the money

This Godox TT685 is for Canon but clicking on the image will take you to the B&H page with all the different variants. It’s an awesome flash for the money

Think about a “natural light” photo made outdoors.  Do you like a photo made of people on a bright sunny day, with high contract, harsh shadows, squinting subjects and every line and wrinkle accentuated?  Or do you prefer a photograph made on an overcast day where the light is soft, numerous light shapers are left at home and everyone looks better and more relaxed.  Unless you are doing fashion, hard light is not suitable for portraits.  For everything else, you want the soft light such as you will get from an overcast day.  So your flash is going to be used to create the same look, what is called indirect light.  The cheapest, easiest and most forgiving route is to simply point the head of the flash at a white ceiling and “bounce” the light off the ceiling onto your subjects.   This takes the teeny tiny head of the flash and expands it to be a a much larger “source” because the light hitting the subject is the size of the ceiling.  That’s all bounce light is, taking a small source and making it larger.  The larger the source closer to the subject, the softer the light.  If you have a white ceiling of reasonable height, you have all you need.  No brackets, light shapers, stands, cables, radios, just your camera, your bounce head flash and you.  Amazing.

Get The Flash Off Camera

In a perfect world you could use a bounce head to aim the flash into a white ceiling and turn the ceiling into a giant reflector.  The challenge that sometimes appears is that when it comes time to shoot, the ceiling is too high, or not white or there are obstructions or elements that are going to create ugly specular reflections.  Sometimes you can point the flash head into a different direction and still get really nice light, but there will be times when you will need to get the flash off camera.

 This is the Canon model of the Godox X1T transceiver. The TT685 flash has a receiver built in, but if your flash is not a Godox, just add a Godox X1R receiver for your model. Clicking the image will take you to the B&H page that features all the models.

This is the Canon model of the Godox X1T transceiver. The TT685 flash has a receiver built in, but if your flash is not a Godox, just add a Godox X1R receiver for your model. Clicking the image will take you to the B&H page that features all the models.

This is extremely easy to do and does not require the use of camera built in optical triggers and slaves that work in videos and never for you.  That tech is old and out of date.  If you already have a bounce head TTL flash, you simply need a TTL radio transmitter for the camera and a TTL radio receiver for the flash.  These are small, pocketable devices.  There are about a zillion variants.  I’m going to make it easy for you.  At the time of this writing, the Godox X1 family of transmitters and receivers are the best bet going.  They are available for all popular camera TTL systems, and each part costs under $100.  If you find others that you like, great, I recommend these because I have personally tested them and they work a charm.  Documentation is not great, and while they are firmware updatable, they can only be updated from a Windows machine.  I find that these constraints are true for most of the off brand trigger kits, so don’t fret about it.  The key element is that the kit speaks your camera’s TTL language.

Now you can put your flash typically anywhere within 100 feet of the trigger and there does not have to be a direct line of sight between the trigger and the receiver. You set a channel for communication and a group for flash control.  Match them on both devices and the tech work is done.  If you don’t have a hotshoe mount bounce head flash go get a Godox TT685 that speaks to your camera.  This flash has plenty of output and runs on standard AA rechargeables.  It’s also well under $200.  I’ve put these through the wringer and they have held up stunningly well.

Mounting the Flash Off Camera

 I love this bracket. It has a reliably locking cold shoe and is fast to mount and has a very positive tilt control. From Manfrotto

I love this bracket. It has a reliably locking cold shoe and is fast to mount and has a very positive tilt control. From Manfrotto

To mount the flash, you are going to need a light stand and a tilting umbrella bracket with a cold shoe.  The light stand is a collapsible metal stand that holds your flash.  A cheap stand will not be reliable.  Get something that is sturdy and transportable.  The maximum height should be determined by your typical working space.  You don’t need a 12 foot stand if you only work in rooms with ceilings no more than 9 feet high.  My personal “always” recommendation is a boom stand so you can get your light not just up, but also over, because a light stand between you and your subject is a real pain in the butt.  

 My favourite stand for hot shoe flash is this Manfrotto 420B boom stand. You can certainly get cheap offshore clones, but this one is built tough and will last you a long time. Note that it comes with a sandbag for the arm, just don’t forget to get one for the base

My favourite stand for hot shoe flash is this Manfrotto 420B boom stand. You can certainly get cheap offshore clones, but this one is built tough and will last you a long time. Note that it comes with a sandbag for the arm, just don’t forget to get one for the base

To be able to attach the flash to the stand or boom arm, you need a tilting bracket with a hole for an umbrella post and a solid and reliable cold shoe to lock your flash into.  Do not go cheap on this as a poor cold shoe will let Ms. Gravity demonstrate her ability to bring your flash crashing to the ground.  There are some decent third party products out there, but my personal recommendations are products under the Manfrotto line.  They will be a bit more expensive than the clones, but will hold up better, and last longer.  Finally you will need a sandbag to go on the base of the stand to keep it from tipping. The sandbag should drape over the stand base so the bag holds the stand but does not touch the ground.  If you get a boom stand, you should have a bag for the end of the boom arm, and a bag for the stand base.  You can buy empty sandbags very inexpensively and fill them with playground sand or gravel from the home store.  You can spend a lot of money on bags that you fill with water.  These are great if you have too much cash and you enjoy water everywhere, otherwise they are a pain in the ass.

At this point you can put the flash wherever you like and tilt and swivel the head to point it at the best location for optimal reflection.  But what do you do if you want more control over the light, but without creating a massive credit card bill?

Umbrellas Are Easy and Forgiving

 This 43” umbrella from Westcott is under $50 and has a removable backing so you can use it as a shoot through. The white is backed with silver inside the cover, hence why it does not look white in the illustration

This 43” umbrella from Westcott is under $50 and has a removable backing so you can use it as a shoot through. The white is backed with silver inside the cover, hence why it does not look white in the illustration

You will have heard by now that a softbox or an octa solves every lighting problem.  Perhaps not every but they really do produce nice light.  Using them takes practice and setup can often put you at risk of putting an eye out whilst bending rods to hold the box shape.  Umbrellas are older.  They are less fashionable.  They look less fancy.  They are also far more forgiving, and much faster to set up.  They do not give you the directional or edge control of a soft box, but for simple portraits they are unbeatable.

Slide the shaft of the umbrella into the hole in the tilter bracket.  Point the flash into the umbrella.  Point the umbrella’s shaft at your subject.  Simple.  Finished. Done.

Umbrellas come with either a white or silver interior.  White interiors use more light internally and will typically be used when you can get the light closer to the subject.  A silver interior reflects more light and can be further away.  A white umbrella that has a silver backing has enhanced reflectivity but still not as much as one that is all silver.

Sometimes you can remove the backing or buy a white umbrella that has no backing.  These can be placed between the flash and the subject in a configuration known as “shoot-through”.  The source gets closer and is therefore softer, and also as more spread at the sides.  If you can only buy one umbrella, get one about 40” in diameter, with a white shell and a removable backing of silver on the inside and black on the outside.  A decent one might cost you $60

I’ve used one of my regular tools to create a very simple shooting layout.  This is a medium sized room using a single radio controlled flash mounted on a plain stand with a white umbrella.  The tool allows me to mimic camera settings, so in this example, I used a 100mm FF focal length with the camera at ISO 200, f/5.6 and 1/125 of a second, and got a nice exposure.  You would use the camera in whatever mode you liked and with the flash in TTL will get a great exposure on the first shot.  You will note that the model is not right against the background.  This allows for some nice light falloff and any wrinkles or patterns in the backdrop to fall out of focus because of shallow depth of field.  

Jessica One Light.jpg

Posing

Keep the posing simple.  Push the forehead towards the camera to lengthen the neck and pull the skin tighter.  Keep the hands away from the face and blade the body as in the example shot above.

Her pose is fairly relaxed, hands on hips, body turned a bit, but her face at the camera.  The closest leg is kicked forward a bit to drop her right hip.  The idea is not to shoot the body head-on.  Have your subjects turn the body at an angle to lean it out and push their face toward the camera.  In the family shot used earlier, you can see the power of pushing the face onwards.

 Image Source : Pexels.com

Image Source : Pexels.com

You can use some popular layouts like this shot with everyone laying down facing the camera.  You need to get down to their level and only use so much depth of field as you must.  The focus point is always the closest eye.

 Image Source : Pexels.com

Image Source : Pexels.com

When working with children, get everything arranged before they come on set.  Sometimes letting the child hold a favourite toy will go a long way to making things easy.  Sometimes parents do not want this.  It is up to the parents to control their kids, not you.  If there is a family pet, doing singles with a child and the pet can be very successful.  When working with kids, always try to keep them interested and don’t forget to show them the shot on the camera LCD.  They want to know that all is good, and that you are actually doing something.

 Image Source : Unsplash

Image Source : Unsplash

Even portraits made outdoors will benefit from using your flash in TTL mode to provide fill flash. No measuring tapes, no light meters, just the TTL flash on or off camera set to fill in mode.

Wrapping It Up

Follow the KISS principle.  Keep it simple.  Don’t load up with a lot of lights, reflectors and other stuff that will just get in the way.  If you position your umbrella properly, you won’t need reflectors, or eyelighters or extra lights.  Keep the attention on the subject and let the rest simply provide context.  I really don’t understand why folks are in such a big hurry to make this complicated.


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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, watching and listening and until next time, peace.