Requesting school portrait advice for a product photographer

Discussion in 'Portraits and Fashion' started by Brian R., Feb 2, 2021.

  1. With my 4th-grade daughter virtual learning at home during COVID, I'd like to make her school portrait at home and do it right. The look I'm going for is what I would consider the classic school portrait, consistent with school yearbooks as I plan on doing this from now on.

    My google-fu is failing me on how exactly a portrait photographer would approach this, so I thought I would ask here for a concise response. I'd appreciate any thoughts you have, this is my first school portrait and you'll help me approach this with more confidence.

    My initial thoughts on a plan


    • Background: A 5' x 7' painted mottled canvas backdrop supported with a backdrop stand at the back of the room.
    • Background light: Profoto D2 with a reflector as the background light behind the subject position, not angled but parallel to the background surface. May need a grid and/or diffusion, try without first. My thought is to create a nice pool of light behind the subject that has a wide and even gradient.
    • Subject position: An apple box angled 45 degrees to camera right (stage left). I'm thinking ideally this will be a distance that will be far enough away from the background that the background will be a little blurry, right now it's 4'-5' from the background. The subject sits at that angle and turns their head to the camera ... thoughts on this?
    • Subject lighting: Profoto D2's for key and fill lights positioned about 45 degrees to each side, same height?, as best as possible in a narrow space with furniture, slightly above the subject's eyes angled down. The subject wears glasses so I may need to raise the lights more. Key on camera right, fill on camera left one stop lower than key. My goal is round catchlights so I was thinking to use either umbrella deep (small or medium) translucent with backpanels (more spread) or umbrella deep (small or medium) white (more spill control). For greater control I could use 2' x 3' softboxes with grids, this would help spill on to the background but I don't want grid catchlights... thoughts? Equipment options further below.
    • Hair / rim lighting: The subject has dark hair on a dark background, so I'm thinking to put my fourth Profoto D2 opposite of my key light near the background on camera left using a reflector and likely with a grid. My thought here is to raise and angle this light enough to grace her hair and shoulders, and adjust power so it just separates her from the background a bit.
    • Camera position: As close to the back wall as possible and shoot a little loose. Camera on a camera stand, parallel to the background, raising and lowering up and down rather than angling the camera up and down for height. Full frame camera, 85mm lens, ensure enough depth of field to keep the tip of the nose and the back of the ears in focus, my guess is f8-f11 but also want the background to blur a bit if possible.
    • The subject is my 9yo little lady :)
    • She wears glasses so I believe I may need to raise the key and fill lights and angle them down further, I cannot go any wider than about 7'.
    • From the few good examples I've seen, I'm assuming the subject is usually angled 45 degrees to either camera left or right, I'm choosing camera right (stage left) ... thoughts on this?
    • Should she look right at the lens? I've heard something about 'the head tilt'.
    • Tips on pose?
    • Tips on smile?
    • I believe a school portrait is shot a little looser than a headshot for post-production options, thoughts on this?
    • Any tips on making sure I have crop options for various print sizes and digital media?
    Below are specifics on space, backdrop, and equipment options.

    • Living room: 11' (7' usable due to furniture) x 13'
      • The walls are light cream
      • The floor is a light wood
    • Ceiling: 8', flat, white

    • Savage Painted Canvas Backdrop (5' x 7', mottled dark blue)
    Equipment Options

    Camera / Lens

    • Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR (full-frame)
    • Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
    • Canon Normal EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
    • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
    • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM
    • + more that may not be relevant to portraits
    • x4 Profoto D2 1000 AirTTL
    • x2 Profoto B1 500 AirTTL
    • x2 Profoto A1 AirTTL-C
    • Umbrella, shoot-through
      • x2 Profoto Deep Small Umbrella (33", Translucent), with backpanel
      • x2 Profoto Deep Medium Umbrella (41", Translucent), with backpanel
    • Umbrella, shallow
      • x2 Profoto Shallow Small Umbrella (33", White), with diffusion
      • x2 Profoto Shallow Medium Umbrella (41", White), with diffusion
      • x2 Profoto Shallow Small Umbrella (33", Silver), with diffusion
      • x2 Profoto Shallow Medium Umbrella (41", Silver), with diffusion
    • Umbrella, deep
      • x2 Profoto Deep Small Umbrella (33", White), with diffusion
      • x2 Profoto Deep Medium Umbrella (41", White), with diffusion
      • x2 Profoto Deep Large Umbrella (51", White)
      • x2 Profoto Deep Medium Umbrella (41", Silver), with diffusion
    • x1 Profoto RFi 2.0 x 2.0' Softbox, with grid and additional front diffusion
    • x2 Profoto RFi 2.0 x 3.0' Softbox, with grid and additional front diffusion
    • x3 Profoto RFi 1.0 x 3.0' Softbox, with grid
    • Profoto beauty dish, with diffusion
    • Profoto zoom reflector 2 (standard reflector), with various grids and gels
    • Profoto snoots
    • Profoto barn doors
    Grip gear
    • C-stands
    • Various extensions and booms
    • Very wide assortment of grip gear...

    - Thank you!
  2. Hey, nice beard.

    Re: background; if you don't have one yet you could probably get one with a lighter center spot - with this you won't even need a BG light; just position the subject's head in the right place. Or, if you wanna use a BG light, pretty much as you say. Put it on a low stand behind the subject, using a wide-angle sort of reflector. You probably don't need any diffusion, assuming that you can power down enough.

    I personally don't like that look - if the subject is looking head-on to the camera with a big smile it tends to put dark shadow lines under both cheeks - neither light can reach fully into the shadow. I'd use the main similar to what you say, but put the fill close to camera. With the glasses, like you said, you could raise both the main and fill to help eliminate reflections in the glasses. Better, so as to not raise the lights, is to to tilt the glasses by raising the stems up above the ears. If these methods don't do the trick you can have her face slightly toward the fill-light side (there's no lights over that way to be reflected). I'd generally prefer to have the subject face into the main, but it depends.

    The way I'd wanna be shooting is from some sort of camera stand, using a remote trip. You should be able to work from near the camera, on the main light side (there's room between the camera and main). This leaves you free to interact with the subject and use your hands to indicate which way to move, etc. And wherever you want them to look, you just walk over there. If, instead, you work with a handheld camera, then you are very limited in your ability to work with the subject.

    Regarding your other lights, there are a lot of ways to do things. I personally like the look of a weak "kicker" light, high and off to the side behind the subject, making a slight rim-lighting effect. Use a grid on the light so that it can't shine into the camera lens. I like more natural-appearing light, so would probably put it on the same side as the main. And depending on how things look, you might wanna add a hair light. I tend to like em subtle, but if you want a more glitzy look you can boost the power of the kicker and hair lights, and put at least one opposite of the main light. In any case, make sure that neither light is far enough forward to light up the subject's nose.

    Posing and getting good expressions is a whole 'nother thing. Something people tend to do when they sit on a posing stool, or whatever, is to slouch with their head tilted back. They don't realize they're doing it (and it looks awkward in photos), so it's up to the photographer to direct them; so ask them to sit up tall, back straight. From there the best simple advice I could give is to pay attention to the camera viewfinder, and try for a "balanced" look. If, for example, you want to tilt the head forward for a more "dynamic" look, you may also want to have the arm on that side moved farther out. So it doesn't look like the subject is gonna fall forward. At least this'll be a start. Good luck with things.
    Brian R. likes this.
  3. @Bill C

    Thank you so much for your response!

    Good point about the background. I did specifically find a background that did not have a center gradient so I could make my own, but I can see the advantage.

    Can you tell me a little more about bringing the fill light closer to the camera? This makes a lot of sense due to shadows. Should the fill be generally positioned at the camera or between the distance of the camera and key? Previously with the lights at 45 degrees of the subject, I can control background spill from both lights, but when I bring the fill closer to the camera I don't think I have enough distance between the subject and background for the light to fall off before it hits the background. In this case, 1) is this okay, and 2) might there now be a shadow on the background? I'm thinking the power of the background spot will be enough to counter a shadow and the fill should not compete...?

    Great tips on shooting from a camera stand. I forgot to mention I'll be doing this and also will be tethered.

    Another thing I forgot to ask about was pupil size. I think the idea is to use modeling lights to get the desired pupil size... not too big, not too small... I think I'll know when I see it, or hope so anyway lol.

    Do you have an example of what we're describing here so I can study and compare?
  4. Quite aside from the technical photographic details, there may well be standards set for pictures, especially portraits, to be acceptable - size, orientation, full face or.....

    Check with the school and, if applicable. the yearbook editor/class.(US schools typically have a senior class group making up the yearbook under the guidance of a faculty member (usually lots of details that are 'funny' as a result, of course)

    I would guess that the person hired to do the pictures may not be particularly eager to help, for reasons that are pretty obvious.
    Brian R. likes this.
  5. Hi, when I say "closer to the camera" I mean in an angular sense; not related to subject-to-light distance. So instead of the fill light being at a 45 deg angle from the subject, a much smaller angle. Obviously you can't readily get it right on the camera centerline, but I would put it as reasonably close (to on-centerline) as you can. And don't let it go below the lens (unless you have a specific purpose).

    I wouldn't worry too much about trying to have the fill light get more fall-off on the background because 1) it's a relatively weak light (compared to the main) and 2) if it's close to camera axis there won't be much (visible) subject shadow from it (the shadow mostly falls behave the subject). (Fwiw, a BG light can never completely overpower a shadow - you can use it to make the shadow become less and less obvious, but it never fully disappears unless you blow out the BG to white.)

    I also would not worry too much about this for normal portraits. "Regular" portraits are typically taken under more or less normal room lighting, so the pupil size is normal for that ambient condition. I know that some people try to set up their studio so that the modelling lights are the brightest thing in the room. I personally don't like to work this way because it puts the subject in an uncomfortable situation. They can't see what's going on, almost like under a police interrogation; they will also be inclined to squint. So unless you specifically need to use the modelling lights like so, I wouldn't do it. I'd generally just work under normal room lights, just using the modelling light to check for reflections in the glasses. And to confirm that the lights are actually powered on.

    Sorry, no examples. But these are just relatively standard setups. And you'll be seeing your own results pretty quickly, anyway.
    Brian R. likes this.
  6. @Bill C

    Thank you very much, very helpful!
  7. You're quite welcome. Hope you get good results pretty quickly.

    Ps, it's pretty typical that people don't much care for their own photos, so don't be disappointed by her reactions. The real proof of your success is when other family members praise the photos. Or if your daughter's friends tell her she's lucky that she looks so good in photos (they think it's a trait that she just naturally has).
    Brian R. likes this.
  8. @Bill C

    Today I'm planning on working on this! I did some planning with software that's new to me as of today, this is what I came up with. It's a little different than what we've been talking about since after some experimenting I like the look of one catchlight, but wanted to know your thoughts. I'll try a smaller umbrella for a smaller catchlight and see how I feel about the slightly harder light at that distance. I couldn't simulate glasses, and this may not be exactly the pose as I chose a preset, and posing is fairly advanced for the first day. I'm thinking shooting a little loose like this will give me options with cropping for print and digital, maybe not loose enough?

    Renders below:


  9. I postponed the shoot to plan a little better. This is the second setup and render. I learned a little more about the program and found a virtual model with glasses to test reflections, and could make her the correct height.


  10. I should have take a pic of the setup they used at the high school.

    The Student ID pic / underclass yearbook pics were shot in production fashion. I think they shot about 1,000 students a day, for two days.
    There were 5 or 6 stations, similar to the pic below.
    Because of the volume, the stations were setup for fast shooting and minimal fussing with the setup. I think the average time was about a minute per student, maybe faster.

    This is an edited shot (to mask the student).
    I think I stood on a chair, to shoot over the photogs shoulder.


    As I recall they only used one light in an umbrella, high and I think to the right of the camera.
    I think the white panel on the left functioned as a reflector to lighten the left side of the face.
    As you can see, there was no background light used.
    As you can see, the camera is on a stand, so that the photog would not have to kneel down. The stand locked in the distance of the camera from the student, so that the pics were consistent from student to student.
    If you look at the pic, the height of the camera is close to the standing photog's head, so it is angled down a bit. IOW, the camera was NOT level with the subject's eye.
    I do not remember if the other stations had the camera at a similar height, or if the photogs adjusted the height to the different students.
    This setup is much simpler than in my day where I "think" they used 2 or 3 lights. But my day underclassmen was also production line shooting, with no adjustment of the lights for individual students. Even in my day, I do not think they used a hair light.
    Senior yearbook portraits, however, were shot in the studio, like a traditional portrait.

    This is a LOT simpler than what you are planning.
    You are doing something more like a traditional portrait shoot.
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2021
    Brian R. likes this.
  11. My personal preference is to have the camera level with the eye. Yeah I'm old fashioned.
    I think the posture is affected if the head leans forward to look downward.
    I do not like the camera higher than the subjects head.

    Kids (and adults) today have BAD posture, in part caused by so much time on the computer. So you have to coach them to sit upright, and not slouch.

    I would also shoot from a tripod or camera stand with a remote on the shutter.
    The reason is old fashioned portrait photography. You can maintain a relationship with the subject when you are looking at her, and she can see you. It is much harder when the photographer is hidden behind the camera.
    The old portrait photographers could really connect with the subject.
    Brian R. likes this.
  12. @Gary Naka

    Thanks so much.

    I have many, many years of experience with product photography, but this is my first studio portrait... and it's for my daughter so I want to do it well. I've put it off for too long trying to make sure I know what to do.

    I've done a lot of reading and watched a lot of videos so my goal here is to put all the pieces together and make the shot. I got a lot of practice virtually by simulating setups in software and came up with the above. It's what I can do in the space I can make in my living room, and it sounds like I'm going in the right direction based on what you said above.

    If I'm going about this more like a traditional portrait shoot, do you see anything wrong (or right) with my last posted setup?
  13. @Brian R.

    It's always good to take good, well-lit portrait photo's of/for your children if you can't get them done by a portrait photographer.

    As @JDMvW says, if the photo is intended for a school/grade yearbook, it's worth checking whether the school or grade has chosen a 'theme' (or style) for this year. I'm from the UK and live in NL and I have no experience with a 'school yearbook'. Since many photos will be shot at home this year and sent in by e-mail, I read online that some yearbook publishing websites (now in the UK too) offer tips on creative 'themes' for distance-learning yearbooks. Photo suggestions include Zoom call screenshots, pyjama theme, photo with pet theme, etc.

    It might also be worth finding out how parents of your daughter's classmates are planning to take photos. And discuss these with your daughter along with your plans. I'm sure all kids want to look good in a yearbook, but my daughters also didn't want to stand out too much from their friends.

    Good luck!
    Brian R. likes this.
    • The umbrella will throw light all over the room. If the walls are tan and the floor is dark brown, some of those colors will be reflected onto your subject. I would take a test shot with a Color Checker to help adjust the color in post production.
    • I would experiment with the location of the main subject light. Bringing it closer to the subject will result in softer light if that is something you like. I often put mine in front of the camera, i.e., closer to the subject than the camera.
    • Looking at the height of your main subject light, you may need to lower it to get a nice catch light.
    • I would experiment with the f/stop. A lot of portrait photographers like shooting with the lens wide open to reduce the depth of field.
    Good luck.
    Brian R. likes this.
  14. Heck no. Go ahead and do it like a portrait. In my mind so little of that is done today. Many places, including studios, take the easy way out with an umbrella. It makes me miss the old portrait guys who knew how to work the lights.

    Personally, as @brian_niemi|1 said, I would not use the shoot through umbrella, the light is too uncontrolled, especially in the confines of a house (vs a studio). The regular umbrellas may work, but I would rather use the softbox, since you have them, for better control of the light.

    As brian said, the main light in your diagram seems kinda high. 6-6.5 feet is pretty close to the ceiling. But it depends on the look you are trying to get. And the issue of reflection off her glasses.
    Food for thought. Some ideas of main light position, is to simulate the angle of a low sun, or an open window.
    There are MANY different portrait lighting methods.
    Play with it, and try different lighting setups, to see what works for YOUR daughter, the outfit(s) she wears and the look(s) you and she want.

    Read some of the old portrait photography books.
    Just because a portrait book is from 1980 (or earlier), does not mean the content is obsolete.
    Portrait photography is real old, and there are MANY good books out there on the subject.
    I personally think some of the better books are the old books. Cuz the guys back then really knew how to work the lights to create a look.

    Today some/many seem to take the easy way out and use an umbrella. Go in, sit down, and shoot. Little or no adjustment of the lights to match the subject. GOOD lighting seems to be a lost art.

    Find some portrait pics/books so you can show her what you are trying to do. Sometimes showing people a pic, makes it a lot easier than verbally trying to guide them into a pose that they don't understand. I am really bad about verbally giving posing instructions.

    Get her involved, as you shoot together as you try different ideas.
    Make it a family thing, If she thinks of something new or fun that she wants to try, go ahead and do it. That way it isn't "a chore to do for daddy."
    Tip: Get one of her dolls, to "stand in" for her, as you work on refining the shot. I got a mannequin head, so I don't subject my wife to dozens of flashes in her face. There is only so many flashes that someone can take before it stops being fun, and becomes a chore.​

    Portrait photography is a "rabbit hole" of styles, ideas, etc.

    Take LOTS of notes of the different setup that you try. What worked, what did not work, what changes need to be make etc. What ideas you and your daughter have and tried. And what things she and you want to try later. Seemingly minor but important stuff like, "popped the circuit breaker for the living room, so had to run an extension cord from the bathroom to power the fill light."
    A pic of your setup is a good idea, as it may record something you forgot to write down.
    The better your notes, the easier it will be to set up, a year from now when you take her pics next year.

    At some point, you, your wife and your daughter might want to try photo makeup.
    Example, some people (like me) have oily skin that reflects too much light, creating a hot spot on their face. Makeup can dull or kill that reflection.

    Gud Luk
    Brian R. likes this.
  15. I was just thinking that when I was a kid, portraits were shot in black and white and hand-colored like this. Wouldn't that be great. I bet you could sell a lot of pictures. (PS That's my sister 70+ years ago.) Do you want to see me too? :)

    Marilyn024 jpeg.jpg
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2021
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  16. Of course!
  17. There ya go.
    Alan and Marilyn Klein010 reduced jpeg.jpg
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  18. Thanks to every for your help!

    Okay, my first portrait, here's what I came up with. Only very minor processing in Capture One and did some dog hair removal in Photoshop.

    I learned quite a bit, and mostly that I need more practice with portraits!

    3 light setup with a reflector on camera left:
    • Key, Profoto Deep Large Umbrella (51", White)
    • Rim / Hair, Profoto RFi 1.0 x 3.0' Softbox with grid
    • Background, zoom reflector 2, no grid but focused
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