Step-by-Step Creative Portraits

Step-by-Step Creative Portraits

Step-by-Step Creative Portraits

No matter what our prime photo-discipline might be most of us camera junkies have at some point had the opportunity to take pictures of people. It may well have been a fashion shoot, a corporate headshot or even a hair campaign but the reality is that most of the time we are taking shots of people who need a portrait, whether it’s for a client, a friend or a family member.

Sometimes our shoots aren’t in the most glamorous of locations or assisted by a plethora of haute couture fashion labels waiting in the wings, so we have to work a little harder to make our images truly compelling.
Our challenge is to make whatever we have in our viewfinder as captivating as possible using the range of capture tools we have at our disposal.
Sometimes a classic clean and simple one light portrait is enough, and if lit correctly, a strong single light shot can look terrific. But if we want to build on that there a lot of things we can do to make a simple portrait substantially more engaging.

For this shoot I wanted to create a set-up that highlighted how I construct an image and explain the rationale behind some of the decisions I make. It's also important to note that each and every step of this set-up creates a perfectly useable image in its own right.

You could stop at any stage and feel content with the image as it presents at that point. This series of techniques simply seeks to illustrate how you can keep building on an image to add more depth and interest to your portraits.

Step One: Classic portrait lighting

To begin I position my first light directly in front and above my model. I then attach a 21" Silver Beauty Dish with a Diffusion Sock and angle it down towards the model at 45 degrees.
This dish is by far and away my most used key-light modifier as I love the soft and even lighting it gives on the model’s skin.

I use the diffusion sock to reduce some of the darker shadows by allowing the light to soften a little.
The beauty dish itself is about at arm’s length from the model and only just above eye level.
This will ensure the most flattering lighting by getting a lot of light in the model’s eyes and with those tell-tale large circular catchlights in the eyes to add sparkle. This simple and classic portrait effect is often referred to as 'butterfly lighting'.

One: Key Light

Building Blocks Image 1

Key light: Gemini with 21" Silver Beauty Dish

Building Blocks Lighting Diagram 1

Step Two: Add a little light

The next light to join my set is the fill light. This is a small Lumiair 60x80 softbox positioned at the model’s feet on a floor stand angled up towards her. It's important to note that I actually aim my fill light at the model’s chest. This means that the light actually falling on the face is slightly feathered, resulting in an even softer effect.

The power of this light is also crucial as it should never appear to be more powerful than your key light. I like to have just enough power to illuminate the detail under the model’s chin and eyebrows.
This extra detail in your shot will be vital when it comes to post production because you now have a lot more information to work with. If you decide to add more contrast later on you can increase it without clipping the black point, something that may not be possible without a fill light.

Key and Fill light

Building Blocks Image 2

Fill light: Gemini with Lumiair 60x80cm softbox

Building Blocks Lighting Diagram 2

Adding a bit of colour to your portraits can really help to exploit it to its full potential

Step Three: Adding depth

The third step is to add depth to the image by picking your model out from the background. Sometimes your portrait will be set against a plain studio background so the addition of hair lights can really help. Here I have added two gridded flash heads behind the model, pointing back towards the back of her head. I have positioned them just out of shot to the left and right of frame and raised them up above the model’s head- height and angled down.

Raising these hair lights up like this is key, as failing to do so can often cause unflattering shadows to form on the model’s ears. Another advantage of raising them is that you can often light the top of the head in addition to the sides.

Key, Fill and Hair lights

Building Blocks Image 3

Key light: Gemini with 21" Silver Beauty Dish

Building Blocks Lighting Diagram 3

Step Four: Introduction of Colour

This next step is a personal choice but sometimes adding a bit of additional colour to your portrait can really help to exploit it to its full potential.

Be mindful though of the other colours already in the shot. If the model is already wearing quite muted tones the addition of some coloured gels will certainly add some interest. In this step I have introduced coloured gelsto the back lights behind the model and the coloured effect can clearly be seen on the sides of the model’s hair.

Always be mindful, when using multiple coloured gels, that certain colours will always work better together, so employ some basic colour theory during that selection process.
As a general guide I would suggest that you start out with combining complementary colours - colours that are opposites on the colour wheel. For this shot I have chosen orange and blue as these two colours always tend to look good together.

Key, Fill and gelled Hair lights

Building Blocks Image 4

Fill light: Gemini with Lumiair 60x80cm softbox

Building Blocks Lighting Diagram 4

Step Five: Getting creative

As I mentioned earlier, a common problem with studio photography is the less than interesting backgrounds you have to work with and often in your portraits you will find these large blank areas of uninteresting backgrounds to the left and right of your model’s head.

To remedy this in the next step I simply added a diffusion filter to my camera lens. I have not changed anything else in the set-up. I haven't adjusted the power of the lights or moved them. All I have done is to add that lens filter to create the coloured lens flare effect on either side of the model’s head where before there were only empty spaces. What the diffusion filter does is to diffract the light that enters the lens.

with Diffusion Filter

Building Blocks Image 5

Key light: Gemini with 21" Silver Beauty Dish

Building Blocks Lighting Diagram 5

Step Six: The finishing touches

For this final stage I have introduced a specialist lens; a Lensbaby Composer Pro. This neat piece of kit distorts part of the image selected by the user. In this shot I have chosen to blur the bottom part of the image, forcing the viewer’s attention to the model’s eyes and face.
This is a useful trick, especially if your image is busy visually.  By blurring certain areas you can guide your viewer’s focus for a more engaging picture overall. Finally, I added the Jetstream wind machine to blow the model’s hair and add a sense of movement to the shot that matches the blurring effect.

with Lens Baby and Jetstream

Building Blocks Image 6 with JetStream

To conclude...

What's most interesting about this set-up is that the final image looks incredibly complicated. But by breaking it down step by step and light by light you can see how each and every stage is relatively simple.

The other great thing about the techniques used here is that so many of them of them can be used in combination (as we see here) or simply in isolation. The parameters of creativity are yours to set.

Feature Video

The photography in this post, unless otherwise specified, is copyright of the author and may not be used without written permission. Please respect photographer's rights.

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