Environmental Portrait Using Three Speedlights


Does the background in this photograph tell you anything about the person?

An environmental portrait shows a person within a context that explains something about the person. Usually, the image includes elements of the environment and these elements are visual clues about the subject matter.

In this case, I took a portrait of a Lutheran Minister (Pastor Bill) and wanted to include some parts of the back wall of the church altar. This required that I light the background on a completely different plane than the minister.

(You can click on this lighting diagram to open a larger one in a new window.)

Background light: First, I placed a Vivitar 285 on the floor near the back wall and placed a snoot on the flash to localize the light on the wall in a small area. This flash unit was set to 1/4 power.
Pastor Bill was positioned in the center aisle of the church, about 40′ from the back wall.

Main light: I placed a Vivitar 285 on a light stand, camera left, with a white shoot-thru umbrella. This flash was set to 1/4 power and was placed about 3′ from him.

Kicker light: I then used a Home Depot squeeze-clamp to mount another Vivitar 285 to the top of a pew behind and to the camera right of Pastor Bill. This flash was set at 1/16 power and also had a snoot on it to avoid lens flare. This light provided enough separation to keep Bill from blending into the background.

Camera Position: I placed myself about 20′ away from Pastor Bill and used a longer lens to compress him with the background, yet leave the background slightly out of focus.

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Macro photography – do it yourself!


I took this bee photograph with a Do It Yourself macro lens. I bought an old used wide angle lens at a camera store’s junk bin. The lens looks like it was originally made for an older Minolta 35mm camera. The filter size on this lens is 55mm, so I also bought a used filter step-up ring from the same junk bin. The filter ring fits on the front of the lens and has a flat area for a larger round filter. I then took a plastic body cap that fits my Canon 30D camera. I cut out the center part of the body cap and used some JBWeld to glue the body cap to the step up ring. This makes a “reversing ring adapter”.

This adapter lets me mount the wide angle lens backwards to the front of my 30D, thus making a very powerful macro lens. I also bought a used 50mm lens with the same size filter mount; this lens is a little less powerful, but still very useful for close-up photography. 

Total investment: $22 for two lenses and one adapter.

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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.

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