December 29, 2017

How I Light My Studio Portraits by Nick Walter

All words by Nick Walter

Last month I had a really great time shooting a local skater here in Victoria named Aaron. Aaron is hands down the best skateboarder I know and we had a great time making portraits in my studio together. I’ve done a fair amount of studio portrait shoots over the last couple of years and I thought it would be fun to share a little bit about my lighting technique and the tools that I use to get the look you see below.

Every image you see here was shot with two lights, a key light (or main light) and a fill light to keep the shadows from going completely dark. The fill light has caused me the most stress in the past, mostly because I didn’t understand how to incorporate a fill light that actually looked natural. After a lot of trial and error, I finally settled on a three-stop difference between the key light and the fill light. That’s my ideal lighting ratio, as it gives just enough contrast to shape the light but doesn’t get so dark that you don’t have any options during post-production.

At this point in time, I’m of the belief that the brand of studio strobe or flash that you use doesn’t make a massive difference in the end result, but I currently use two Einstein E640 flash units from Paul C Buff and have no complaints at all. There’s a lot to like about these strobes, especially considering how affordable they are compared to more premium brands. One of my favourite features is the Action Mode that prioritizes a short flash duration, making sport or action shots look perfectly sharp without any motion blur.

The thing I find the most essential when creating studio portraits is your lighting modifier choice. I like the 60″ Photek Softlighter ii.  The Softlighter is a large, silver umbrella that also includes an optional diffusion layer that can turn the modifier into a poor man’s Octabank. I always use it in place of an Octabank for my fill light and I tend to only take off the diffusion for my key light when shooting black and white images. I believe you can also take the backing off to turn it into a shoot-through umbrella, so that gives you three different modifiers in one. Not to mention it couldn’t be easier to set up and takedown. If my budget allows, one day I might go for an Elinchrom 69″ Octabank, but I’m pretty happy with the Photek for now.

I think the most important thing to consider with studio portraits, aside from the choice of lighting modifier, is the positioning and placement of the lights. I’ve realized that placing both key and fill lights as close to the model as possible is essential to getting a beautiful quality of light. Equally important is keeping the bottom of the lighting modifiers (for large modifiers at least) just above the model’s shoulders to have the light fall in a way that looks both natural and flattering.

I do love using Octabanks for both the main light and the fill light, but I think it’s worth mentioning just how under appreciated a simple silver reflective umbrella can be. Every black and white image in this post was shot with a 60″ silver reflective umbrella as the main light. I love that a silver umbrella gives a harder edge and shadow contrast than an Octabank but still looks soft enough to be used for glamour or beauty portraiture.

Other than using a handheld light meter to help me determine the correct exposure for the film, that’s really all there is to my lighting technique. If you have any questions feel free to drop me a line and we can geek out on lighting techniques together 🙂

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Originally posted on Nick’s Blog

Nicklaus Walter is an avid film photographer, specializing in medium format portraiture. He’s also a cool-dad skateboarder and our Senior Account Manager at Stocksy HQ. Check out his portfolio and shop Nick’s film images here >>

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