Cyber Monday with creativeLIVE and DPReview

Creating Portraits at Home

I recently had the honor of being invited by creativeLIVE and DPReview to be part of the DPReview Live Cyber Monday event to talk about making portraits at home.



Shawn Barnett (former Features Editor for DPReview) and I talked about a range of options for setting up your home portrait "studio" that might fit various budgets. We started with window light then moved to fluorescent lights. Then we worked with a speed light (on and off camera) and then used a studio strobe light. You can watch the segments for FREE any time on the creativeLIVE

I just wanted to do a little follow up here on the blog to talk a bit more about what we did, show the photos we took, and give the settings information. The camera I was using was the Canon 5D mkiii and the lens was the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 for all shots.

We started out using a frosted window for a nice diffused light that didn't cost anything. To fill in shadows we added a sheet of foam core from the dollar store (around 18"x24"). A piece of white poster board would also work. The exposure on this shot was ISO 800, camera in AV (aperture priority) mode, f/4, and +1 exposure compensation. This gave a shutter speed of around 1/80 of a second. I chose the +1 exposure compensation because I was metering off of a light-skinned model. Caucasian skin reflects around 30-36% of the light that hits it. As our meters are looking for an average around 12-18%, if I used the actual meter reading the images would have been much too dark. +1 stop fixed that.

White balance was set to Cloudy to add some warmth to the skylight coming through the window. Most likely, your windows at home are not frosted. In that case, you can hang a translucent white shower curtain over the window to diffuse the light. I suggest a cloth shower curtain in case you later try to use it to diffuse other light sources. Plastic might melt in front of a hot light.

I selected the f/4 aperture because I wanted to make sure to get both of our model Caitlin's eyes in focus. When filling the frame with the head of a portrait subject the depth of field is very shallow. I would actually prefer to shoot at f/8 for this, but that would have pushed my shutter speed too low to hand hold. Even at 1/80 I noticed that these images are not tack sharp from motion blur (the model moved a lot) and camera shake. I did not want to shoot the portrait at higher than ISO 800. I could have opened up to f/2.8 to get a higher shutter speed, but then might have had more focus issues as the model moved forward and backward in the chair. As with everything in photography, you have to make compromises and decide which aspects of the situation are most important to you.

When shooting portraits I like to work with a specific white balance. It can be a built-in preset (as we did here, selecting Cloudy), or it can be a manually set Kelvin temperature. I don't like using Auto in this situation because different framing of the scene (more face or more background) could alter the WB settings. As the light wasn't changing, having a specifically set WB would allow me to make batch changes to the WB setting during editing in Adobe Lightroom. Auto WB might have me having to make individual changes to each shot from the session. For ultimate control you would need to calibrate and profile your computer monitor and camera and use a gray card to set your white balance, but that is beyond what we are presenting here. Just remember that accurate color is not always pleasing color. We often want to warm up images of people.

Here are some of the window light images with various post processing effects and attempts at getting better color out of the JPG files... 


Next we moved over to a studio style set up where we had a gray seamless paper backdrop and a continuous fluorescent lamp set up. Again we used a piece of white foam core as a fill card. As photographic fluorescent lights are supposed to be daylight balanced, I set the camera to daylight. The images out of camera at this setting were a bit too green and too warm (yellowish) for my taste. I changed them as best as I could for a JPG in Lightroom. A gray card test and a calibrated system would really help with fluorescent lights. A raw file would have been much better to work with, too. 

As with the window light, I went with f/4 to try to keep most of the face in focus. Even though the light fixture had 8 or 9 bulbs in it, it still wasn't very efficient, so I kept the ISO at 800 and the exposure compensation at +1. This gave a reasonable shutter speed of 1/160 second. With all that, I still wasn't happy about the overall sharpness of the images. Our model was still rocking back and forth a bit (perfectly normal for a nervous photo subject) and the eyes were often soft. Again, I would have preferred to go to f/8 for the images. Here are some of the images from that segment...


Next we moved to using a speed light. For the first image I left the camera in Aperture Priority mode (f/4), but brought my ISO down to 200. In this mode the camera selected a shutter speed of 1/4 second, which led to a very blurry image. It was time to switch to manual exposure mode where I set my shutter speed to 1/80 (no particular reason, anything from 1/60 to 1/200 would have looked the same) and left my aperture at f/4. The flash was in E-ttl mode (automatic). As expected, this gave an image with a heavy black shadow behind our subject, showing why we don't want to use on-camera flash straight on to the subject.

To soften the light (which is accomplished by making the light bigger), I added a Gary Fong diffuser to the on-camera flash (a Canon 420-EXii) and pointed the flash 90-degrees to the side pointing at a shall sheet of foam core that Shawn held in place. This made a dramatic change in the image as seen here. You could do something very similar if you were to set up your portable studio in the corner of a room with white walls and ceiling and point the flash at the wall instead of having to hold the foam core up in place.

Next, I took the flash off the camera via the Canon Off-camera Shoe Cord 2. I also added a large Rogue FlashBender with diffuser. I attached the flash to one side of a Black Rapid double strap. I would normally attach the camera to the other side and use this for event photography, but I forgot to bring the lug for the bottom of the camera. This allows me to put the flash where I want, within arm's reach. Here are the images from the speed light session...


Our final set up was using a studio flash (in this case a Speedotron Force 5 monolight, but just about any studio strobe light would work. Popular brands are Alien Bee, Paul C. Buff Einsteins, DynaLite, Photogenic, Profoto, and more). This was placed in a 46" Photek Softlighter II, which is a combination of umbrella (for ease of set up) and soft box (for control). I mentioned that the 60" version of the Softlighter is my "go-to" or "desert island" flash modifier. 

For this setup I was able to lower my ISO to 100. The camera remained set to Manual exposure mode (as there is no way to use automatic settings in this situation) with a shutter speed of 1/80 (again, not very important with a studio strobe, it just needs to be fast enough to not let in ambient light to show shake and slow enough to sync with the flash). To be somewhat consistent with the previous photos, I chose an aperture of f/4.5 and dialed the power on the strobe to give me a good exposure. White Balance was again set to daylight.

The background for this set up was changed to be a Westcott X-Drop stand with a dark patterned backdrop they call Eminence (they offer around 30 different backdrops for the X-Drop system). The light was place in close to the subject, slightly forward of her so the light would feather or skim across her face. Instead of the foam core we use the white side of a 52" 5-in-1 collapsible reflector on a light stand.

During this segment (photos below) we talked a little bit about light direction or short/broad lighting. The basic thing to remember from that is for flattering short lighting have your subject point their nose somewhere between the camera and the main light. This works for most subjects. We quickly showed broad light (nose points away from the light), but with our beautiful model it wasn't as dramatic a difference as it might be on other subjects.

The final image was done using a "clamshell" set up with the large light overhead pointing down and a white foam core reflector below the model to fill in shadows. Here the light source is on axis with the camera, but large and diffuse to cast as little shadow as possible. If we had a little more time I would have tweaked this set up a bit more bringing the overhead light a bit more forward (towards the camera) to get more light in Caitlin's eyes.


With that we finished up our segment. I know we only touched lightly on some topics (light placement, posing, lenses). For more information about those you can tune into creativeLIVE for more in-depth classes from a variety of instructors. I also have two classes that cL sells from Photo Week on the Basics of Lighting and Basics of Lenses that you might want to check out on my creativeLIVE course list. A lot of this is also covered in previous blog posts, so please look around the site.

Also feel free to ask questions here on any of the things we discussed in the presentation.