The Classic Portrait: How to Build and Use Your Own Portable Portrait Studio
Ed Verosky is a professional photographer and author based in New York. In this article, Verosky explains how to create classic portraits with minimal lighting equipment. To learn more about achieving great lighting in any situation, check out Verosky’s popular eBook, “100% Reliable Flash Photography.“
In photography, there are few things as compelling as a classic portrait created with a single main light source. One could theorize that we innately perceive a single light source (such as the sun) as looking more natural and believable than, say, multiple artificial sources. Put that together with the fact that looking at another human face activates several areas of the brain, quite literally turning it on. The subject doesn’t have to be young with flawless features for the portrait to be fascinating. But well placed light will make all the difference.
All you need to begin creating classic portraits anywhere is a single light. Although various light sources will produce different effects, the type of light source is not as important as the position of the light in relation to the subject. Any light will do, even a household lamp.
In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how to create this classic look with a dedicated flash unit on a simple, very portable, lighting rig. This light-on-a-stand configuration is part of a two-light setup I detail in my eBook, ‘100% Reliable Flash Photography.’
My Portable Flash Setup
For editorial and portraiture work, I’ll often use two of these lighting rigs, with shoot-thru umbrella modifiers, for versatility. However, for a classic portrait, I’ll usually use just one. Keep in mind there are several ways to get a flash on a stand, with or without an umbrella modifier. This is an example of what you might want to try, but there are other products at various price points that have more or less the same basic elements to mix and match.
- Light Stand
- Umbrella Adapter (Swivel Bracket), Item #0041 From FlashZebra.com
- Brass Stud/Spigot with 1/4”-20 thread screw, included with Umbrella Adapter
- Flash Shoe Adapter with 1/4”-20 thread hole, Item #0068 From FlashZebra.com
- Hotshoe to PocketWizard Adapter Cable, Item #0138 From FlashZebra.com
- PocketWizard Transceiver Unit
- Umbrella (I use the shoot-through technique)
1) Attach an umbrella adapter (swivel bracket) as shown. The end with the hole for the umbrella is on top. Some of these have a flash shoe adapter already attached, but mine does not. I attach one myself (see next steps).
3) You’ll want to tightly screw the stud/spigot into the flash shoe adapter next. Then place that into the top hole of the umbrella adapter and secure it.
4) Finally, attach the hotshoe to PocketWizard adapter (0138 unit) securely to the flash shoe adapter. Note: You could just bypass the previous shoe adapter step, and screw the stud directly to the 0138, but I prefer not to. Also, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary, but I like to place a small piece of electrical tape over the four little contact points on the 0138 where they would otherwise come into direct contact with the ones on the flash unit itself. Call me paranoid, but I don’t want anything screwing up the circuitry in my flash. The main (center) contact point remains bare so as to allow the flash to be triggered.
As shown in the picture, make sure the angle adjusting knob/lever of the umbrella adapter is on the RIGHT hand side as the flash is pointed away from you. The angle of the hole that holds the umbrella in place is setup so that it only works properly this way. Your flash will not be angled correctly into the umbrella otherwise.
Attach your flash, plug in your PocketWizard unit, slip in the umbrella, and you’re ready to start making portraits!
Setting Up The Shot
In the diagram below, our single light source (A) is positioned about 3ft from our subject and in the 45/45 position. Roughly, this means the light is 45 degrees to one side of the subject, pointed down at a 45 degree angle from above the subject. This is only a starting point, and you can experiment to find the angle you like best. It’s hard to go wrong with this. The background should be simple and free of distracting colors or patterns. Solid dark colors and classic mottled backdrops work well.
If you like, you can add a spot of light to the background using another flash unit (B). Putting this on the opposite side of the main light can help add depth and separation between subject and background.
Finally, with or without the background light, you can always add a little fill if you’re not happy with the contrast you’re getting off the one light. A reflector (C) made of foam core, a wall, or other white surface, can do this for you.
I had only a few minutes to shoot a set of portraits for a magazine profile of musician David Garza. After the requisite "white background" cover shots, I asked him to sit down with his guitar for a few quick classic shots. As you can see, my single light was positioned at the 45/45 on camera left. I simply asked him to look at the camera for a couple of shots, then had him hold his guitar for a few more. Several nice portraits came out of that segment of the shoot.
Here, I had Gary Clark, Jr. under one light, but close enough to the background for it to catch a little illumination, too. This provided the subtle separation you see on the left edge of the subject.
A more electric look, yet still classic lighting, for Meagan Tubb, featured in her CD insert.
And finally, Carrie in an example typifying my favorite use of this technique. Subtle, almost monochromatic coloring, just enough contrast to keep it interesting, and the slightest separation from background on the shadow side of the subject.
Check out more of Ed’s tips on lighting in his fantastic eBook 100% Reliable Flash Photography.