Advice on achieving this lighting look?

Discussion in 'Portraits and Fashion' started by valerieterranova, Mar 21, 2019.

  1. Hello all, I'm very very new to portrait photography and have been playing around myself with trying to figure out headshot setups, but I feel like I'm getting this very wrong right now.

    The look I'd like to achieve is at

    I've attached a file what I've been getting. Barring the not so great framing and slightly off focus (they're self portraits with no assistance...though help on achieving that is welcome as well I guess...though a secondary at the moment. And please no feedback on my doofy no-makeup look), I'm wondering what's so off about my shots.

    I'm using a 20" softbox (with speedlight) slightly above head angled down and a silver reflector at about chest high angled slightly towards subject. Fill light is a speedlight angled slightly toward backdrop.

    Any thoughts? Do I need a larger softbox for the key light? Am I totally off with my setup? I know speedlights likely won't achieve exactly what I'm going for but I'm hoping to inch closer to the principles of what I'm going for.

    View attachment DSC_6817.jpg
  2. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Looking at the array of sample images at the opening page of David's website, I see a range of lighting techniques and a variety of 'looks': his variety seems to suit/address/endorse the: mood; nature physicality and objective of the Subject.

    It is therefore difficult to ascertain which of David's sample(s) you want to contrast and compare, with your sample.

    Perhaps it would be better if you could articulate the elements that you do not like about your sample.


    That stated, the lighting in your image appears to my eye to be 'flat' across the whole image pallet.

    I generally would prefer more differentiation/attention of the lighting that is on the face of the Subject even if the general approach was for general flat and soft lighting.

    For example David's image of Yelena Podkolzina, I doubt that was done using a light box and reflector as the key: I expect that he used a device to focus or target the key light; additionally there appears a Fill (set a camera right) which acts mainly as a kicker and a subtle rim light for her hair

    In another example, (Jessica Renee Russell), he has set an active and slightly hard Rim Light at Camera Left, for her hair.

    In both these examples, whilst we could argue that the lighting on the face is generally soft and generally flat, it is targeted: moreover in both examples there is certainly a fill light acting as a Rim and/or a Kicker, which does the job of creating dimension and depth across the whole of the image pallet.

    That noted: it is important to also note that David’s lighting (and thus ‘look’) does vary and there are general themes as he addresses his Subjects of differing: ages; genders; skin colours; and (men with) facial hair.

    Uhooru likes this.
  3. Thanks William. I guess since I am currently working with a dark background I'm mostly trying to asses what I see there of subjects on dark backgrounds. What I'm observing that seems to be a theme that I like is that all the subjects seem to have both a soft, even glow, whilst having some nice specular highlights or subtle shadows creating some definition in their bone structure. So it feels soft but not "flat". The catchlights feel more present than in my photo as well. And, contrary to my photo, there is a nice separation from the background.

    I'm not certain what you mean by using a device to focus the key light. Would that be similar to changing the speedlight zoom?

    I also feel the lighting of my photo feels a little flat, but I'm having trouble figuring out why.

    Thanks again for your response!
  4. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Thank you for further explanation.

    Some, if not a lot, of 'soft even glow' might be a product of Post Production.

    Separation from the background can be made by applying different lighting to each of the Subject and the Background.

  5. Valerie, take for example the portrait on Mr. Noles' site with the subject: Kimiko Glenn. Some of the elements in this portrait are similar to your self portrait.

    1. Mr. Noles appears to be using two vertical and seemingly narrow strip boxes. One to camera left and one to camera right. Fairly close to the lens axis. Your lighting setup is considerably different from Mr. Noles'.
    2. Mr. Noles' subject exposure is relatively high. This is a constant throughout the images. What varies is modeling/directionality and background. Your key (main) light (strip boxes or soft box) needs to be stronger, relative to the background.
    3. The hair light in Mr. Noles' images is fairly hot. You need to increase the strength of the hair light in your image.
    4. Ms. Glenn's hair is pulled back in the direction of the hair light, which allows the hair light to partially illuminate the face. Your hair is not pulled back and shadowing that side of your face.

    A couple of suggestions:
    - use strip boxes with a stronger output
    - position the subject farther from the background
    - use a stronger hair light
    - use a flash meter to measure exposure of the key light, hair light and light falling on the background. Work so that you achieve significant separation in values.

    Portraits are a learned skill. Many small adjustments over time will allow you to achieve the style you seek.
  6. Thank you both! Helpful stuff for when I have a chance to experiment with this again.
    Wilmarco Imaging likes this.
  7. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I think that you're really pushing it uphill testing your Lighting Sets on 'self portraits'.

    I advise that you acquire a Subject, post haste, and consider shooting tethered to a PC or a screen, that will allow a very quick review time and a reasonable sized image (i.e. bigger than your Camera LCD).

  8. Thanks William...doing self portraits is really just something I’ve been messing around with in my own time/space when I haven’t been able to coordinate with friends as subjects. But soon! And thank you for the tethering suggestion, will use that next time.
  9. Focus: With conventional cameras I suggest
    1. getting hold of a Siemens star to focus on. The Android app "Focus chart" is what I have and use. - Printing might be an alternative..
    2. cobble your device / print out on something light stand to place it where your front eye is supposed to be in the shot.
    3. Acquire focus on it and turn AF off
    4. move into position and put light stand away.
    (Cranking up lights and stopping down further is never a bad idea either.)

    If lighting looks flat, it probably was flat?
    + Fill + reflector sound far from "dramatic" to me.
    I'm no headshots-studio guy. To speed learning up I recommend getting hold of a doll (head) use something light stand*, to move it into your head's position and grab a simple harsh tiny light source like a Maglite and move it around your doll head to get an idea what light angles mean. That exercise shouldn't take much longer than a song (per iternation). - So far it has helped me with the trickiest to light products.

    If you want to copy somebody's portrait lighting: Dig a Christmas bauble out and replicate reflections seen on the original's eye ball on it.

    Upon modifiers: Maybe your softbox has an internal 2nd diffuser to remove? (or keep without the external one?) - If you are working in a small room with white walls and ceiling you'll generate more spill than somebody else in a bigger studio.

    If you have time for learning: Work with hard lights first and add diffusers later.
  10. David Noles headshots are not shot with flash but rather they are all available light which is done most likely by a large picture window the size of a garage door. David is standing with his back to the window in the middle which makes the catch light look like two strip soft boxes on either side.
    Wilmarco Imaging likes this.
  11. Wow! it's a great capture for a beginner. I'm also a newbie here. May I ask if what camera did you use? and what are it's specifications? I love photography and I use Canon EOS 40 D and 100D. I don't have the silver reflector and other stuff you used but I might buy someday to fulfill my passion :) I'm fun of taking photos along the shore with pets as the subject. I want to do some portrait photography someday.
    Wilmarco Imaging likes this.
  12. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    EXIF reveals, for the OP's image:

    Nikon D3400 with probably a variant of a Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6.
    Shot made at FL = 75mm.
    F/4.8 @ 1/125ths @ ISO 100.
    Manual Exposure. CWA Metering.

    Wilmarco Imaging likes this.
  13. Good evaluation Michael.
  14. Thank you Jochen and Michael for the evaluation and tips! Everyone has been so helpful so far, and I am so appreciative. And yes, William Michael...that's exactly the breakdown of my camera set up. How were you able to assess that?

    I ended up getting a friend to model, and feel like I have made progress, though I definitely still have work to do.

    I do have to say for the time being I'm probably going to have to continue playing around with speedlights/reflectors, and the softbox I have until I can get a firmer grasp on some concepts and spend a little more money on renting/trying out gear that will help me achieve the look I'd like, or something that at least has a similar pop to it.

    That being said, I've attached another image, and would love if anyone has thoughts. Given that I'm working with a much smaller lightsource than Michael identified, I played around and thought this was the best look I could achieve. I've moved my softbox fully center (still w/a parallel reflector to avoie too many shadows), removed the middle diffuser and turned up the output a bit. I (obviously) have a hairlight coming diagonally from behind.

    The look is better I think, but I'm curious what others think. I think I may need a third light to separate the backdrop and a softbox over the current hairlight, as it seems harsh. Any thoughts?

    PS, Michael Mowery, did you take that shot? From the eyes it looks like the "clamshell" lighting I'm using, but with larger lightsources, and a softbox instead of reflector. Awesome shot!

  15. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    You're certainly moving forward.

    The hair-light allows the depth to be created. I think that's good. The shine on is nose could do with a bit of Post Production - and I think that your idea of a soft box over the hair light has merit, try some tissue or other diffusing material. The point about experimenting with Digital is that it is so inexpensive.

    The image appears a bit soft. For this shot it appears that you've used your 70 to 300 at the wide end (around 78mm) and you have used it with the aperture wide open: typically this type of zoom presents with not the best Image Quality at the extremities of the zoom and when used wide open. If you do not have enough power in the Flash Units to use a smaller Aperture (think F/7.1~F/8) , then I suggest you bump the ISO from the ISO100 you're using.


    Digital JPEG Images have EXIF Data embedded in the File. One can strip or edit the EXIF details. Some Post Production programs strip them automatically.

    The images you have posted here have retained most, if not all the EXIF data, that your camera embedded in the image file.

    I accessed that EXIF data from both your images to ascertain some technical details.

    valerieterranova likes this.
  16. I don’t know, but I’m thinking that in addition to a variety of backdrops and a skilled touch in post he has a large soft box or one of those big umbrella reflectors that surround the lens, though sometimes he’s using either a large soft box to either side or a couple of large windows, and a key light that he sometimes positions up and to one side.
    valerieterranova likes this.
  17. Yes, that is my shot posted and it is 100% available light being a very large picture window behind me with a silver reflector under her chin. So yes it is a variation of clamshell lighting.

    PS. Your last posted picture of the man is better but don't go crazy by adding more lights as in that kicker light which also lit his nose and neck areas. The kicker light was totally unnecessary and only made it look worse. Learn to master your main light first and create beautiful images before moving one to adding additional lights. Baby steps is my advice.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 5, 2019
  18. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member


    In regard to the Hair Light (Kicker Light) - I think that is better advice that what I gave you.

  19. Hi All,

    Me again.

    I had the chance to get in a studio and work with some strobes and a larger space yesterday, and I have mixed feelings about the results.

    I feel like there is a weird swirling and/or gradient effect happening on the background of all of the images that I really dislike, and I'm honestly a bit confused about why it's happening (it looks round or amorphous, even though I was using strip boxes). Any ideas? Is it something I can get rid of in post? How can I avoid it in my setup?

    I'd also love if anyone has thoughts about the lighting and images in general.

    View attachment DSC_8962.jpg

    View attachment DSC_8953.jpg

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