The Classic Portrait: How to Build and Use Your Own Portable Portrait Studio - Digital Photography School

The Classic Portrait: How to Build and Use Your Own Portable Portrait Studio

_classic-portrait_classic-portrait-header.jpg

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. (update: you can currently get Eds eBooks as a bundle in our 12 Deals of Christmas promotion).

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.

Items Used:

  • 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)

Components of the flash-on-a-stand setup.

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.

Fully assembled flash-on-a-stand: 42\

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.

An example of extending a one-light portraiture setup. All that is really needed for great portrait, however, is the single light (A). Flash unit power setting and f-stop are my typical settings.

_classic-portrait_classic-portrait-3.jpg

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.

_classic-portrait_classic-portrait-4.jpg

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.

_classic-portrait_classic-portrait-5.jpg

A more electric look, yet still classic lighting, for Meagan Tubb, featured in her CD insert.

_classic-portrait_classic-portrait-6.jpg

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 (currently on special in our 12 Deals of Christmas promotion).

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

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  • http://www.GuessTheLighting Guess the Lighting

    Great advice for a simple, portable setup. Your images have that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders feel. If you’re interested in seeing how famous photographers light their images, take a peek at GuessTheLighting.com

  • April

    Thanks for the advice! I just recently bought portable backdrop stands and lights. I really do not like the lights. I would much rather use flash. I am now in the market for an adapter for my external flash. I have not been taking photos for very long. I have gotten a lot of great tips from your site and weekly newsletters. I have improved my photo taking skills and love it! Thank you again!

  • Caroline

    As a newbie who finds Strobist a bit overwhelming, I’d like to see more articles like this from DPS!

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason Collin Photography

    Thank you for this clear and concise article with very useful diagram. I have only been using a diffuser cap on my strobes as I often work out on location, especially beaches where things can get windy and I do not have an assistant.

    I have been debating on whether to get a softbox or shoot-through umbrella. I feel that a softbox is the “cool” strobist gear to use now, but I see results like yours with a shoot-through umbrella and like the lighting.

    A recent quick portrait I made of a photography student using just one strobe handheld off camera:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/8/5/dslr-photography-lesson-with-rossie-his-canon-40d.html

  • Jenson Lightwave

    The guy who runs flashzebra is super nice as well. :)

  • http://www.frescova.com Martin

    I use practically the same set-up; just bought some cheap SB-28 on eBay so I can plug the Pocket Wizard directly; Been getting some nice results. – here’s some a few pics I shot of my daughter the other day (I used a second light in this case)…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/frescova/sets/72157624767749470/

  • http://www.tailsnaps.wordpress.com Nikki

    Thank you — concise yet detailed write-up on taking the classic portrait. I just got a couple umbrella softboxes for location shooting — ease of set up like an umbrella but the soft lovely lighting of a softbox. Can’t wait to try them out. One note re: your article: The f stop and power setting (f/4.0; 1/8 power) aren’t very meaningful without specifying the lens and the flash unit you are using. (e.g., 1.8 power on a 580EX II is not the same as 1/8 power on a 430EX II; and f/4.0 might be fine for a lens with a max aperture of 1.8 or even 2.8 but not so with a lens with a max aperture of 4.0 — usually best to use one or two stops smaller aperture relative to the max to avoid lens aberrations and to get max sharpness).

  • bratwurstgirl

    Thanks a lot for the great article! I’m an off-camera-flash-beginner but would like to use these kind of light set-ups. What I still don’t really get is the pocket wizard. Do I need one right away if I just want to experiment a bit? Or can I just trigger the flash with the build-in trigger (and block the pop-up)? If not – why? Would be great if someone could explain that!

  • http://www.veroskyphoto.com/myblog Ed Verosky

    @Nikki: Although I mentioned it was an example, you’re absolutely right. But, for a modern Speedlite/Speedlight, 1/8 power at this distance is a good starting point. The 580EX series has been out since 2004 (see my blog’s recommended items section (http://www.veroskyphoto.com/myblog). With f/4.0 as a reference, the correct aperture can be inferred. If 1/8 power on the flash is determined to be the best setting at f/4, you’d use 1/4 for f/5.6, or 1/2 for f/8.0. Again, if your flash dictates a setting of 1/4 power at f/4, you’d adjust accordingly.

  • Jaime

    Hi, a newbie question… what’s the color of your backdrop on David Garza’s and Gary Clark’s photos?

  • Phil Burness

    Ed,
    This is a nice article and I really appreciate you sharing it. As a novice all help and tuition is greatly appreciated. The only thing I found lacking was the ommission of the Guide Number(s) for the flashes used.

    Thanks for posting it!
    Phil

  • http://www.tailsnaps.wordpress.com Nikki

    Ed, thank you so much for your response and the helpful guidelines in selecting aperture and power settings. Took a look at your ebook ad site and it looks amazing. Will be buying soon!

  • http://www.veroskyphoto.com/myblog Ed Verosky

    @bratwurstgirl: There are plenty of ways to trigger an off-camera flash, including with a PC cord, or optically as you’ve mentioned. Especially if you’re just experimenting, give it a try. Using a radio trigger like a PocketWizard can just make things easier, more dependable, and consistent.

    @jaime: Black seamless for David, Gray for Gary. These just happened to be what I had up at the time. You can actually get the same “colors” off either background depending on how much light you hit them with.

    @phil: The literature says GN of 190 @ ISO 100. But again, I wouldn’t pay so much attention to the specifics of the settings. Copying the exact settings isn’t going to be as helpful as finding the ones that work best for you. So many factors are involved, including the loss of light via a particular shoot-through umbrella (or standard umbrella), slight distance changes, the overall effect you want, and the subject’s skin tone, clothing, and hair color.

    @Nikki: You’re welcome! My ebook has lots of info that will help anyone navigate through those exposure combinations.

  • very

    Thanks for the tutorial. I did this with two flashes and ebay triggers. Seems that black or dark background is really needed. I only have white wall so there was a bit too much spill from umbrella. But still enjoyed trying this out!

  • Jaime

    Thanks for the answer!

  • Juan

    Great pictures, great artlicle!! Thanks a lot for sharing

  • http://shimworld.wordpress.com Jan Shim

    The combination of shoot-through umbrellas, Pocket Wizard transceivers and Speedlite flashes mounted on portable light stands have been my lighting recipe for single portraiture to lighting a few people in the composition.

    [eimg url='http://shimworld.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/cny-2009-07.jpg' title='cny-2009-07.jpg']

    However, I often prefer the Canon ST-E2 transmitter when I’m shooting indoors where ETTL is preferred over TTL. Example of where not one but two 60″ umbrellas were used:
    http://shimworld.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/reflections-of-aidilfitri/

  • bratwurstgirl

    @Ed, thank you so much for explaining!

  • http://www.galeria-krakowska.com Slubny fotograf

    Very cool for the wedding portrait session outside. Ideally was that two lamps and a blend

  • King

    Well explained with clear steps and clean examples. Impressive results.

  • http://lindaphotoart.wordpress.com Linda Holmes

    I have recently done a pregnancy photo shoot – In some of the pics I used only one light to give shadow. Both my clients and myself fell in love with the result …
    http://lindaphotoart.wordpress.com/?s=pregnancy+portraits&submit=Search

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz Amir Paz

    I do a lot of portrait photos of my children

    i used a lot only one off camera flash to make interesting portraits of them

    i recently bought my second flash and have set up a studio at home with two light sources

    here are some of the results of the old and new setups:

    one flash:

    my dog:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4521046078/in/set-72157605465716971/

    my son:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/2889130167/in/set-72157604839515076/

    my daughter:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/3858572322/in/set-72157604823214817/

    two flahes:

    my daughter:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4920216717/in/set-72157604823214817/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4926885884/in/set-72157604823214817/

    my son:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4920211961/in/set-72157604802426884/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4926891232/in/set-72157604802426884/

    playing with light for portraits is fun :)

    Amir

  • Grapauo

    You have made me learn alot about photography studio.

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    This is an excellent article. I use the same setup as described with some superb results. Sometimes I use two SB600s with shoot through umbrella, off a reflector, etc depending what lighting I am trying to achieve. This image of a stunning model was taken with lights at 90 degrees and a reflector opposite for a bit of fill.

    http://tinyurl.com/34wdcxt

    Regards, Erik

Some older comments

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    November 22, 2010 01:36 pm

    This is an excellent article. I use the same setup as described with some superb results. Sometimes I use two SB600s with shoot through umbrella, off a reflector, etc depending what lighting I am trying to achieve. This image of a stunning model was taken with lights at 90 degrees and a reflector opposite for a bit of fill.

    http://tinyurl.com/34wdcxt

    Regards, Erik

  • Grapauo

    August 30, 2010 05:47 pm

    You have made me learn alot about photography studio.

  • Amir Paz

    August 27, 2010 07:56 pm

    I do a lot of portrait photos of my children

    i used a lot only one off camera flash to make interesting portraits of them

    i recently bought my second flash and have set up a studio at home with two light sources

    here are some of the results of the old and new setups:

    one flash:

    my dog:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4521046078/in/set-72157605465716971/

    my son:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/2889130167/in/set-72157604839515076/

    my daughter:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/3858572322/in/set-72157604823214817/

    two flahes:

    my daughter:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4920216717/in/set-72157604823214817/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4926885884/in/set-72157604823214817/

    my son:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4920211961/in/set-72157604802426884/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/4926891232/in/set-72157604802426884/

    playing with light for portraits is fun :)

    Amir

  • Linda Holmes

    August 27, 2010 06:51 pm

    I have recently done a pregnancy photo shoot - In some of the pics I used only one light to give shadow. Both my clients and myself fell in love with the result ...
    http://lindaphotoart.wordpress.com/?s=pregnancy+portraits&submit=Search

  • King

    August 27, 2010 01:06 am

    Well explained with clear steps and clean examples. Impressive results.

  • Slubny fotograf

    August 23, 2010 08:40 pm

    Very cool for the wedding portrait session outside. Ideally was that two lamps and a blend

  • bratwurstgirl

    August 23, 2010 07:53 pm

    @Ed, thank you so much for explaining!

  • Jan Shim

    August 22, 2010 03:45 pm

    The combination of shoot-through umbrellas, Pocket Wizard transceivers and Speedlite flashes mounted on portable light stands have been my lighting recipe for single portraiture to lighting a few people in the composition.

    [eimg url='http://shimworld.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/cny-2009-07.jpg' title='cny-2009-07.jpg']

    However, I often prefer the Canon ST-E2 transmitter when I'm shooting indoors where ETTL is preferred over TTL. Example of where not one but two 60" umbrellas were used:
    http://shimworld.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/reflections-of-aidilfitri/

  • Juan

    August 22, 2010 02:03 pm

    Great pictures, great artlicle!! Thanks a lot for sharing

  • Jaime

    August 22, 2010 03:04 am

    Thanks for the answer!

  • very

    August 21, 2010 07:41 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial. I did this with two flashes and ebay triggers. Seems that black or dark background is really needed. I only have white wall so there was a bit too much spill from umbrella. But still enjoyed trying this out!

  • Ed Verosky

    August 21, 2010 09:55 am

    @bratwurstgirl: There are plenty of ways to trigger an off-camera flash, including with a PC cord, or optically as you've mentioned. Especially if you're just experimenting, give it a try. Using a radio trigger like a PocketWizard can just make things easier, more dependable, and consistent.

    @jaime: Black seamless for David, Gray for Gary. These just happened to be what I had up at the time. You can actually get the same "colors" off either background depending on how much light you hit them with.

    @phil: The literature says GN of 190 @ ISO 100. But again, I wouldn't pay so much attention to the specifics of the settings. Copying the exact settings isn't going to be as helpful as finding the ones that work best for you. So many factors are involved, including the loss of light via a particular shoot-through umbrella (or standard umbrella), slight distance changes, the overall effect you want, and the subject's skin tone, clothing, and hair color.

    @Nikki: You're welcome! My ebook has lots of info that will help anyone navigate through those exposure combinations.

  • Nikki

    August 21, 2010 07:57 am

    Ed, thank you so much for your response and the helpful guidelines in selecting aperture and power settings. Took a look at your ebook ad site and it looks amazing. Will be buying soon!

  • Phil Burness

    August 21, 2010 06:27 am

    Ed,
    This is a nice article and I really appreciate you sharing it. As a novice all help and tuition is greatly appreciated. The only thing I found lacking was the ommission of the Guide Number(s) for the flashes used.

    Thanks for posting it!
    Phil

  • Jaime

    August 21, 2010 06:14 am

    Hi, a newbie question... what's the color of your backdrop on David Garza's and Gary Clark's photos?

  • Ed Verosky

    August 21, 2010 05:59 am

    @Nikki: Although I mentioned it was an example, you're absolutely right. But, for a modern Speedlite/Speedlight, 1/8 power at this distance is a good starting point. The 580EX series has been out since 2004 (see my blog's recommended items section (http://www.veroskyphoto.com/myblog). With f/4.0 as a reference, the correct aperture can be inferred. If 1/8 power on the flash is determined to be the best setting at f/4, you'd use 1/4 for f/5.6, or 1/2 for f/8.0. Again, if your flash dictates a setting of 1/4 power at f/4, you'd adjust accordingly.

  • bratwurstgirl

    August 21, 2010 05:53 am

    Thanks a lot for the great article! I'm an off-camera-flash-beginner but would like to use these kind of light set-ups. What I still don't really get is the pocket wizard. Do I need one right away if I just want to experiment a bit? Or can I just trigger the flash with the build-in trigger (and block the pop-up)? If not - why? Would be great if someone could explain that!

  • Nikki

    August 21, 2010 03:28 am

    Thank you -- concise yet detailed write-up on taking the classic portrait. I just got a couple umbrella softboxes for location shooting -- ease of set up like an umbrella but the soft lovely lighting of a softbox. Can't wait to try them out. One note re: your article: The f stop and power setting (f/4.0; 1/8 power) aren't very meaningful without specifying the lens and the flash unit you are using. (e.g., 1.8 power on a 580EX II is not the same as 1/8 power on a 430EX II; and f/4.0 might be fine for a lens with a max aperture of 1.8 or even 2.8 but not so with a lens with a max aperture of 4.0 -- usually best to use one or two stops smaller aperture relative to the max to avoid lens aberrations and to get max sharpness).

  • Martin

    August 21, 2010 03:11 am

    I use practically the same set-up; just bought some cheap SB-28 on eBay so I can plug the Pocket Wizard directly; Been getting some nice results. - here's some a few pics I shot of my daughter the other day (I used a second light in this case)...

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/frescova/sets/72157624767749470/

  • Jenson Lightwave

    August 21, 2010 03:02 am

    The guy who runs flashzebra is super nice as well. :)

  • Jason Collin Photography

    August 21, 2010 02:20 am

    Thank you for this clear and concise article with very useful diagram. I have only been using a diffuser cap on my strobes as I often work out on location, especially beaches where things can get windy and I do not have an assistant.

    I have been debating on whether to get a softbox or shoot-through umbrella. I feel that a softbox is the "cool" strobist gear to use now, but I see results like yours with a shoot-through umbrella and like the lighting.

    A recent quick portrait I made of a photography student using just one strobe handheld off camera:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/8/5/dslr-photography-lesson-with-rossie-his-canon-40d.html

  • Caroline

    August 21, 2010 02:09 am

    As a newbie who finds Strobist a bit overwhelming, I'd like to see more articles like this from DPS!

  • April

    August 21, 2010 01:19 am

    Thanks for the advice! I just recently bought portable backdrop stands and lights. I really do not like the lights. I would much rather use flash. I am now in the market for an adapter for my external flash. I have not been taking photos for very long. I have gotten a lot of great tips from your site and weekly newsletters. I have improved my photo taking skills and love it! Thank you again!

  • Guess the Lighting

    August 21, 2010 12:48 am

    Great advice for a simple, portable setup. Your images have that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders feel. If you're interested in seeing how famous photographers light their images, take a peek at GuessTheLighting.com

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