King Sized Portrait Lighting: Going Big

Editors note: Long-time member and Craftsy Instructor, Kirk Tuck, shares with us his very favorite lighting set-up for creative portraiture. Have you visited Craftsy yet? Launched in 2011, Craftsy offers interactive online education shot on-location in high definition for many different categories from cooking to painting and of course photography! Be sure to check out the many photography courses Craftsy has to offer, such as Kirk’s Studio Portrait Lighting Course.

I’ve been taking photographs with serious intention since somewhere around 1978. In all the time I’ve had a camera in my hand, the only subject matter that really captivates me is the portrait. It doesn’t matter if it’s candid or meticulously planned and lit in the studio; the human face is endlessly interesting. I’ve always liked the process of making portraits of my friends but my passion really got clicked up a few notches when I learned to light.

All of a sudden I had control over how the light played across someone’s face. I could design a “look” or a style and control the end results. Once I learned to light, I was hooked. I’ve spent the last couple of decades shooting portraits for clients and for myself and in the process, I’ve used just about every modifier you could put in front of a light in order to make the final light hitting my subject do what I wanted it to. I’ve used the direct metal reflectors on my studio flashes, dozens of different types of photographic umbrellas and probably twenty five different soft boxes that ranged from little, pixie sized, one foot by one foot units up to enormous four foot by six foot versions.

Image of Heidi for a book on lighting. Shot with one of my enormous umbrellas (84 inch Lastolite). Probably the closest modifier in effect to my six by six foot scrim.

What I learned as I experimented with all sorts and sizes of modifiers is this: The bigger the better.

Let me back up for a second and talk about some basics. When I say “King-Sized Portrait Lighting,” I’m not talking about using some sort of giant light bulb or a flash the size of coffee table. In fact, I probably use a lot of the same kind of light units that everyone else does. I use some Elinchrom monolights, I use a couple of old Lowell Tota Light tungsten fixtures when I want to use continuous lighting, and I also have three or four fluorescent lighting banks that I bought to do video projects. Occasionally, I even light big with a speed light flash like a Sony HVL 60 (hot shoe mounted, battery operated TTL flash). Any of these lighting units can be great tools for big lighting if you match it with the right modifier.

Umbrella man. Author self-portrait.

When you are designing a lighting set-up, the quality of the light isn’t determined by the flash or light bulb you use, but rather what sort of diffuser goes between the light source and the subject. You probably know that a bare Nikon, Canon or Sony flash is a pretty harsh light source if you aim it directly at a subject and don’t use any sort of modifier in front of the light. That’s because the light source is about six square inches in size and can’t wrap around a subject very well. The light is also collimated; it comes to the subject in a straight line. When used at an angle to the subject in relation to the camera’s point of view, it looks sharper and shows off more detail because it is quite directional and doesn’t fill in shadows well, or at all. The contrast between a harshly lit middle tone or highlight tone and a black shadow is more extreme than we usually want when we’re making portraits.

If you take that six square inch source and back it up from the subject and then drop some sort of diffusion between the subject and the light source, it’s a whole different picture. If the light from a small flash evenly covers a large diffuser, then the diffuser becomes the final light source. It’s the medium which conveys the light. If you have a six square inch light source evenly illuminating a four by four foot panel, then all of a sudden you have sixteen square feet of light as the source. And since the light comes from all points of the diffuser, some of the light will wrap around your subject and create a smoother transition between the highlights and the shadow on their face.

The bigger the light source, the softer and more gradual the transitions between highlights and shadows. You don’t necessarily need to project your light or lights through a diffusion material; you can get a similar effect by bouncing the same small lights off a larger reflector. In fact, a white wall or white ceiling can give you a much more flattering light for most portrait work than a small light source. It’s really the final size of the source that matters most.

Lighting set-up for Noellia.

Finished image of Noellia.

Another interesting quality of light modifiers is that the closer you use a light source to your subject, the softer the light source seems. A large source used far away becomes more and more collimated and seems harder and harsher. There are practical limitations to everything, so you’ll be juggling the given power of a light with the distance of the modifier to the flash and the distance of the modifier to the subject. A small flash can only be used so far back from your diffuser and your diffuser can only be used so far back from from the subject before you are working at higher and higher ISO’s and bigger and bigger apertures.

A classic example of large diffusion lighting used very close to a subject.

After a lot of experimenting, I thought I had the whole portrait lighting thing figured out. I found soft boxes that worked reasonably well and settled in. Then I went to a talk by a Dallas photographer whose lighting work was amazing. Someone in the audience asked him how he was able to achieve light that was both directional and contrasty, yet soft and even. His advice was simple: Use the biggest diffusion source you possibly can. Use the diffuser as close to your subject as you are able. Finally, put your light source as far way from the diffuser (on the opposite side of the diffuser from your subject) as your studio will allow. When he was asked to elaborate, he described his favorite studio lighting with specifics. He used a 20 by 20 foot scrim (diffuser) on a frame as his modifier and he used a thinner than average material. In the movie industry, it would be called a “one stop scrim.”

The interesting thing about diffusion material is how different all the varieties of thicknesses and textures that are available. A thicker material—which is totally opaque—gives the softest light with the greatest diffusion effect. A thinner material that is less opaque actually combines a small percentage of light coming straight through the material and gives a contrastier effect while the majority of the light from the same source is more diffused. It’s almost a hard light wrapped within a soft light. Like a good wine, the effect is more nuanced and complex. And the light looks much more natural than the light you see coming through the front of a typical softbox, which tends to be much more homogenized and uniform.

Finished portrait of Dani.

The photographer mentioned that his giant diffuser might be as close as just a foot or two out of the camera’s frame. And that the light unit (usually a powerful flash head attached to a strobe generator ) was generally placed thirty or even forty feet away from the back surface of the diffuser.

When I got back to the studio, I started to experiment. I used a big white bed sheet to start with but I realized that I would need to take my lighting “on the road” for client jobs on location, so I bought a six foot by six foot frame and several thicknesses of diffusion material. My studio wouldn’t accommodate a bigger frame and I didn’t have the space to put a light so far away.

This is my favorite light modifier. It’s a six foot by six foot diffusion screen. In this set up, it’s being illuminated by a 1,000 watt tungsten light source.

I started to play around and I found that I really liked the look of the lighting. I got a nice soft transfer across my subjects’ faces and at the same time, because of the inverse square law, the closer I used the modifier the more dramatically the light would fall off across my subjects’ faces. If I chose not to fill the far side of a person’s face, I would get a dramatic effect that I really liked: a well lit face with beautiful transitions that ends in a deep and mysterious shadow.

The photo of the light modifier above shows the large panel set-up for this portrait of Martin, which is a publicity shot for a regional theater.

Here’s how I light my favorite portraits now:
1. I start with my background. It’s the anchor for the entire shot. When I’m shooting personal portraits, I like a nice deep gray background that I can toss some light onto and not worry that the background will burn out. I want just enough light to ensure separation between the hair and dark clothing of the subjects and background. I generally use a small softbox or other soft source so that the edges are soft and the transition to darker areas at the edge of the background are very gentle. I center the small soft box or light behind my subject.

2. Once the background light is in place I figure out—based on the focal length of the lens I want to use—just how far I want the subject from the background and how far I want the subject from the camera. I like longer lenses so I’m generally always bumping into the dimensional limitations of my small studio.

3. At this point, I start lining up my shot. Since I like to be prepared to shoot when my portrait subject walks through the door, I often use myself as a stand in, using the self timer or the “smile detection auto focus” of my Sony a99 camera to snap self-portraits of myself in place. Once I’ve got the distances and the framing figured out, I add my main light. For some reason I generally like to light from the left hand side of the frame.

Finished portrait of Lou.

4. I’ll then set up a six foot by six foot frame and cover it with one or even two sheets of diffusion material, depending on the effect I’m going for. The frame is angled so that the light hits my subject at about a 45 degree angle, more or less. Most of the diffuser is in front of the plane that the subject is on. That means more of the diffuser comes into play in delivering the light. I know I have what I’m looking for when I have a nice shadow just emerging on the edge of the cheek opposite the side of the light.

A lot of it is just not science at this point. The way you light with a big frame is less about formula and more about your personal taste. Turning your subject into the light makes the portrait a bit less dramatic and supplies a softer wash across the face; less of a short light. Moving the giant scrim to the side gives me a more contrasty and dramatic look to a portrait. And there are an infinite range of points in between….

5. At this point I look carefully at the images to see what I can control and improve. My first move is to generally tamp down the fill light that comes from the main light bouncing off the white walls and ceiling of my studio. I add black cards or black panels to block the fill. If I want to add fill, I also want it to be controllable. So, I might add back just a little by using foamcore cards cut to four by four foot sizes and then angling them until I get just the right amount. If the image is for me and I want to do it totally in my style, I forgo the fill altogether and let the shadows fall into black.

Behind the scenes shot of Jana’s portrait session using LED light fixtures in a six by six foot scrim.

Jana, finished pose.

6. The final addition to my set-up might be a back light to provide even more separation, but this is something I rarely do. While it can help a portrait, I generally think too much backlight is the number one killer of a “believeable” portrait image.

One note of caution: While the LCD screens on the backs of cameras have gotten really good over the years, one place where they fall down is in your ability to assess really dark areas of detail. Many times shadows will look blocked up and without detail on a camera screen which almost always moves us to add more file. But when we see the images on a well calibrated monitor, we realize that we have filled too much. It’s a process of trial and error unless you routinely shoot tethered (which I avoid). I suggest doing tests to see what the difference in rendering is between your camera’s viewing options and your final post-processing screen.

Kirk Tuck is a working, commercial photographer in Austin, Texas. He is the author of five books about photography which are published by Amherst Media. He is also a
instructor. He’s never met a large diffusion screen he didn’t like. A lot.

Sign in or Sign up to post response

    • Lot of work to get the effect of a cloudy day. :) Actually, I wish I had the space to try this, 'cause for once I get the idea. (I'm a dimbulb when it come to artificial lighting.)

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Beautiful work! Thanks for sharing your secrets, especially the bed sheet option for a low-cost option. Love your class on Craftsy!

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Great work!  Thank you as well for the simple and direct explanations of how you have gotten these great effects.


    • To post a reply Sign In
    • His big light modifier idea is good, but the light is harsh, could be warmer color, and not as

      bright as it is on a few of the shots. Then it would look more natural.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thanks for sharing your tips and knowledge of portrait photography.  Well done.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Wonderful article. Dean Collins would smile.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Sold me. All the shots look exceptional.

    • To post a reply Sign In

Sign in or Sign up to post response