studio photography

Light as a Feather

Feathering the light is using the shadow edge of your light to control your shadows.

Most beginning photographers seem to start out in the studio with their light pointed directly at their subject. And this works in many situations. You can keep doing that and all will be well. But if you want to take things up a notch and gain more control over the light on your scene you will need to learn how to position the light to control its coverage. And that’s what we are here for today. Control the stamp of light on your subject be feathering the light.


The first thing to learn about feathering your light is that it does NOT make your light softer. We know that the larger the light source as seen by the subject the softer the light. What happens when you feather the light? Take a look at the images on the right where we are looking over the model’s shoulder at the light. On the top the light is pointing directly at the subject. On the bottom the light has been pivoted towards the camera to point more across the face of the subject. In doing so the light has become narrower, which is smaller. If you think back to the post about shadows you will see this is more like a strip light where the shadow edge quality will be the same up and down (the long dimension of the softbox is still the same size), but the shadows from right to left across the face (the nose shadow) will be harder because the width of the light is narrower.

The light across the face is slightly harder, but it is more even. The coverage is wider. But it isn’t any softer.

We can also feather the light away from the camera, towards the background. This will make the light across the face narrower and harder with deeper shadows. It is more akin to a split light when you do this. Let’s look at examples.

Feathering the light using a hard light source (an 11-inch deep zoom reflector)

Here I am using a hard light source to emphasize the shadow edges. On the left the light is pointed directly at the subject. In the middle the light has been pivoted towards the camera to cover a wider area of the face, opening up some of the shadows while at the same time making the shadow edge harder and more defined. Over on the right side I pivoted the light towards the background for another look that is even more shadowed and contrasty. Again notice that the nose shadow to the side has become very hard edged due to the light becoming much narrower.

Feathering becomes an even more powerful tool when working with multiple subjects in the photo. Here I have two subjects and a hard light.

Again, with the light pointed directly at the pair there is a strong falloff in light from left to right with deep shadows on both faces. By pivoting the light towards the camera the light evens out between the two faces as seen in the middle. Pivoting towards the background makes the difference in exposure between the subjects even farther apart.

Now let’s look at it with a softer light, this time a 2x3-foot softbox.


This time I changed the order and you will see why in a moment. I started out the same with the softbox pointed directly at the subjects. Turning it towards the background exacerbated the problem of uneven exposure on the two subjects. Feathering the light towards the camera for the third image evened out the exposure. And in the bonus image I turned the light even more towards the camera and you can see that this lit up the subject farther from the light more than the subject closer to the light.

Here is a diagram to help explain.

There is your control via feathering.


When your big light just ain't so big

Lighting a group

We all know that a large light in close to the subject is a soft light. As we move the light back away from the subject a couple of things happen. First, the light gets deeper. Second, the light gets smaller.

When you move your light back the light rays are more parallel and fall-off in intensity slower. At one extreme we have sunlight. The sun is so far away that light rays reaching the earth are almost parallel. The same amount of light reaches you where you are standing as reaches someone else a block or two away from you (or miles away). So we know that if we have to light a group of people with a number of rows we need to move the light back so a similar amount of light reaches the back row as reaches the front row. If the light(s) is too close in the fall off will be rapid and the back row will be dark or the front row will be overexposed.

Smaller light equals more defined shadows. A small light cannot “wrap” around the subject to cause a wide shadow edge.

Diminishing Returns

(click to enlarge)

I feel that after a certain distance the size of the light doesn't really matter all that much. A 60-inch umbrella far away is just as hard as a smaller modifier. So, I gathered up the studio staff for a group photo and lit it three ways.

Have you met the staff? An interesting bunch. Over on the left we have our lobotomy patient, next is our exhibitionist, then the lowly photographer, and finally that guy who is just a shadow of his former self. Look for a new post about shadows coming soon to this blog.

The light was set up 9-feet away from the group and flash power was adjusted to give f/7.1 in each photo. The first photo is with the 60-inch umbrella. The second photo is with the 7-inch dish. The third photo is the same 7-inch, but with a sheet of diffusion material taped to the front of the reflector.
Looking at the three photos, the big difference between them is in the shadow density. As I expected, the 60-inch has the lightest tone shadows, followed by the diffused reflector. They each allowed more light to bounce around the room to open up the shadows.
But what about the light on the faces? Surely the big umbrella is going to be the clear winner here. Or is it? I see very little difference in the light on the faces in these three photos. It just took a lot more flash power to light with the umbrella than with the smaller, more efficient reflector. And that can be a big consideration if you are going out on location to make the group photo, especially if using battery-powered flashes. However, the umbrella or the dish with diffuser will cast a wider area of light that you might need for a very large group if you want to stay with a single light source.
Of course, if this was to be a portrait of one or two people, I could have the big light in much closer and could be more creative with lighting patterns, and separating the subject from the background, and on and on, etc., etc. But for groups you need to pull the lights back. And, in doing so, you might find that you don't need as large a light or as much strobe power as you thought you would.




Many aspects of photography are related and many of them deal with distances. Here are some ways you can apply knowledge about one aspect of photography to learning another. First we have depth of field and depth of light. As you move your camera back away from your subject your depth of field (the area of the scene that appears reasonably sharp) gets larger. Taking that to lighting, as you move your light back away from your subject your depth of light gets larger. The closer the light is to your subject, the darker the background will be. The closer your camera/lens/aperture combination is to your subject, the more shallow the depth of field.

Next is perspective. The closer your camera is to your subject, the smaller the background will appear. Conversely, as you move back away from your subject the background gets larger. This is often mis-labled as telephoto compression, but it is the physical act of moving back that causes the change. You just tend to use a longer lens when farther back to magnify the subject to fill the frame, which makes people blame the lens.

Very much related to this is how a face looks in a photograph. The closer your camera is to your subject the more pronounced their features will appear. As you move back away from your subject their features flatten out. In close your subject’s nose looks bigger in relation to their eyes and ears. But as you move back the features flatten out as the nose, eyes, and ears get relatively closer to each other than to the camera. When you move back you can switch to a longer focal length lens again to fill the frame, but like before it is the physical moving back that changes the depth of features of the face. As in the lighting situation above, there is a point of diminishing return. Once you are in the range of 12-15 feet away from your subject I don’t think that moving any farther back will have any more effect.

How do you like to light large groups of people?

How do you apply what you know about one aspect of photography to other aspects?

Thanks again for following along!

Umbrellas andSoftboxes and Dishes, oh my!

Choosing the lighting modifier to use for portraits

You have probably grown as tired of looking at me as I have. So this morning I hired my friend, Ny, to come over to help with more comparisons of light modifiers. For this series I used an Interfit S1 battery powered studio light and a variety of modifiers in different shapes and sizes. I photographed Ny with each modifier and with and without a white fill card on the shadow side of her face. The camera (Canon EOS 6D) was set to the Daylight color balance preset. You can see that some of the modifiers are very different in color temperature than others. The flash power output was adjusted for each modifier to give the same f/5.6 meter reading. Ny was seated about 4-feet in front of a white seamless paper backdrop. The lens was the Canon 85mm f.1.8 set to f/5.6 and ISO 100.

And without further ado, here are the test results.

Comparing the look of the 46-inch Photek Softlighter II with no diffusion (umbrella only), with a single diffusion panel, and with two diffusion panels attached. The softlighter is mounted on an Interfit S1 studio flash.

And for good measure, some full-length photos on the white seamless paper with the light at camera-left and no fill light or bounce cards.

Not the most exciting hour of photography for myself or for Ny. But very useful. If you find these comparisons helpful please consider helping to support this blog by purchasing my book Anatomy of a Studio Portrait or by purchasing lighting gear directly from Interfit Photographic where you get a 10% discount and I get a small commission if you use the code CORNICELLO10 (in all caps) during the checkout process.

Comparing Light Modifiers

Comparing Light Modifiers

Click through to the full post comparing various photographic light modifiers and how they work with studio strobes and speed lights. Comparing 7' parabolic umbrellas, shoot-through umbrellas, soft boxes, and more. What is your go-to light modifier for portraits?

Read More

A Quick Addendum

What about silver?

This has to be one of my fastest follow ups. After a few Facebook comments, I decided to try a similar test with a silver 7' parabolic. Here is a link to the initial blog post.

Again, I used a speed light at 105mm, 24mm, and with the built-in diffuser. As the silver is somewhat "focusable," I also tried with the flash at two different distances down the umbrella shaft from the umbrella, 32" and 21". Then I followed up with the bare bulb Speedotron head at three distances, 32" 22" and 14". I didn't bother trying the 7" reflector, as I don't think I would use that in a parabolic. Here is what the light patterns looked like.


The next test would be with a shoot-through, but I don't have a shoot-through umbrella. So I'll leave that one up to someone else.

Again, I encourage you to go and test your own equipment to make sure it is doing what you think it is doing.



It Is More Than Just Size

More than just the size, it is what you put into it

A big rage the past couple of years has been a proliferation of low cost 7' "parabolic" umbrellas from various manufacturers. I'm not going to get into the arguments of who created the first one, or who stole who's design. My concern is more with how they are being used.

By now we should all know that the size of the light relative to the subject determines the quality of the light. Large lights give a softer, less-shadowed look. Smaller lights give a harder, more contrasty look. So, the immediate thought about a 7' umbrella would logically be that it is a very soft light. And it is. Or at least it can be. But it also to depend on what light source you use with the big umbrella.

I see a few kits offered with the 7' umbrella and a  bracket to use your speed light/lite with it. Speed lights are normally a small and hard light source. So, if you bounce it into a gigantic umbrella it should become a big and soft light. Makes sense, no? 

Maybe not!

Below is a set of images of such an umbrella with a speed light attached and bounced into the umbrella. The flash is a Canon 430EX II in manual mode. The three images across the top row were taken with this combo. In the first one, the flash was set to the 105mm zoom position. There is hardly filled any of the umbrella. Yes, the light will be larger and softer than direct flash. But probably not what you were expecting. So, for the second image the flash was zoomed out to the 24mm position. Uh-oh! That isn't all that much wider than the 105mm position when the umbrella is so close to the flash head. Additionally, we see that the flash bracket doesn't come close to pointing the flash into the center of the umbrella. What to do?

The third image was taken with the flash head's built in diffuser panel popped out and over the flash. It does a much better job of filling the umbrella, but I had to open up 3+ stops to get enough light into the umbrella. And it still doesn't quite fill the umbrella evenly, note how dark the bottom portion of the umbrella is.

I imagine that a bracket to hold 3 or 4 speed lights with the umbrella shaft centered around them would be a big help, but also a big expense. Unfortunately, I only have one speed light and a single bracket, so can't test that one out.

Just as a way of comparison, I took two more shots using a studio flash head, a Speedotron 202VF. The first of these images has the standard 7" umbrella reflector. Even with this combination, the umbrella isn't quite filled by light, but overall it is much more efficient. To get the umbrella to fill with light, for the last image I took the reflector off the strobe head. With the bare tube the umbrella is finally filled. It is not quite as bright. And you need to be a lot more careful if using the umbrella rig off to the side that direct light from the bare tube doesn't hit your subject causing very distracting shadows.


Take from this what you may. I just wanted to make sure you understand that just having a super large light modifier doesn't mean that you have a super large light source. I encourage you to do a similar test with your own lighting equipment to see what it is really doing.


PS: I also tested out a silver 7' parabolic. You can see those results in this post.

PPS: I then pulled out all the modifiers I could find around the studio and compared them all in action in a new post.


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.