Portrait with Two Lights


I took some photos of Stephanie and Jeff on New Year’s Eve. This was a simple two-light set-up using Vivitar 285HV speedlights. These flash units have been around for about 30 years and they are still my favorite workhouse. The 285HV has a zoom and tilt head, and allows for some manual settings that allow you to reduce the flash output to 1/2, 1/4 and 1/16 power, thus giving much more control over the light. I added some velcro to the flash head to make it easy to attach a snoot or gobo.

(you can refer to the lighting diagram below as I describe the setup)

Backdrop: I placed Steph and Jeff in front of a black fleece backdrop. Black fleece is light and easy to store. Just stuff it into a bag – when you pull it out, there are no lasting wrinkles! It is easy to use a few pieces of blue painter’s tape to attach it to a wall. And you can light it with a color-gelled-flash for some extra “pop” behind the subjects. In this session, I left the fleece unlighted.

Posing: In this pose, Steph is sitting on a short stool in front of a white posing table. Jeff is kneeling right behind her. I wanted to bring their faces close together to give the sense of closeness between them. I also wanted to be sure that their eyes and mouths were not horizontally aligned. It gives a little more dynamic look to the image when the subjects’ faces are not at the same height.

Main light: The main light was a Vivitar 285HV at camera right. Notice the placement of the little catchlights in the eyes – this gives you the first clue about light placement. I shot the flash through a 43″ white shoot-thru umbrella to soften the light on their faces. The flash was set at 1/4 power – this gave me a working aperture of f/8 at ISO200- just about right for this image. The umbrella was about 1′ above their faces, slightly pointing downward.

Hair light: The second light was a Vivitar 285HV placed high on a light stand above and behind Stephanie. This light was pointing downward at the tops of their heads to give their hair some rim-lighting and separate them from the background. I placed a gridspot on the front of the flash to localize the light on them without lighting the rest of the scene. This flash was also set at 1/4 power. Both flash units were triggered with Pocket Wizard remotes.

Reflector: I placed a large white reflector just on the outside of the frame at Stephanie’s right shoulder. This adds a little bit of light to the opposite side of their faces, away from the main light. Since the main light is still stronger, it gives nice modeling to their faces.


What went well:

  • With the flashes set at 1/4 power, the recycling time was about 2 seconds. This allowed for quick shooting without long pauses.
  • The main light provided nice soft light on both faces. The subject placement gives a nice close feeling between Steph and Jeff.
  • The white posing tabletop reflected a small amount of light up into the faces. This slightly lightened up the areas under the eye brows and below the chins.

What Needs Improvement:

  • I noticed that the hairlight did not illuminate Jeff’s hair as much as I would have liked. This does not give a strong separation between his dark hair and the dark background. The existing separation is passable, but I would have liked it to be a little more prominent.

Overall, I am very happy with the results. This was a simple lighting setup and demonstrates that a minimum amount of portable equipment can support the creation of nice portraits.

– + –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s