Creating a complicated light setup (next steps)

This blog entry is part 2 of a series about building up a complicated studio lighting setup one step at a time. If you haven’t read part 1 you can read it here. We already had a really good start that could have been the finishing point for this portrait. But we’re photographers and we are always looking for something better. Let’s see if we can improve the shot by changing the umbrella orientation to a shoot though to get even better looking light. And if you own a second flash we’re going to take advantage of it next by creating a rim light to really separate our subject from the background. But first, let’s turn that umbrella around.

By taking the black backing off of the umbrella and turning it around we’ll be getting a different look from our flash. Once the black backing is completely off we’ll move the umbrella in close. I like it to be so close that a small part of the umbrella gets in to a corner of my frame. With a little cropping (or content aware fill) in Photoshop the umbrella getting into the shot isn’t a big deal. Because we changed the orientation of the umbrella and moved it in close we might have to change the power setting on the flash. A quick test shot will tell you if the flash power is too high or needs to be lowered.

When working with shoot through umbrellas the light gets softer and will wrap around your subject more as it gets closer. You can see in the shot above that I’m within 12″ of Dug. Here’s a look at a final shot with the umbrella in close and being used shoot through style:

You can see that we’re getting more light wrapping around Dug and opening up the shadows. This is looking better. But remember, not all of the light is passing through the umbrella. Some is bouncing off the umbrella and going pretty much everywhere. That bouncing light may be hitting a painted wall or ceiling and spilling unwanted light on to your subject or your background. This is one of the ways a softbox can outperform an umbrella (and why they cost more money). I’ll talk about softboxes more in a future blog entry.

Do you want a little more control from your shoot through umbrella? Here’s a cool option I like to use. It’s called “flagging” (or blocking part of the light output from a flash) and it’s a great way to create a bright area from your flash and to have things get dimmer as you move away from that brightest spot (also called “feathering the light”). I use this method to get the face of my subject nice and bright (and bring the viewers eye there first) and then have things get darker as you move away from the face. A convertible umbrella can create this look by only removing part of the black backing. This is what it looks like when you remove half of the backing:

Up to this point we’ve gotten some different looks with just one flash, an umbrella and a reflector. Let’s take this shot to another level by adding in another flash.

Adding a Rim Light

Rim lighting is when you put a flash above, to the side or behind your subject to add a bright outline. A popular variation of this look involves having the light do a little more than just create an outline. I really love it when the light gets around my subjects and helps to define their shape. One thing you should consider when you use a flash this way is adding a grid to keep the light from flaring your lens (flaring is when you lose contrast because light is striking your lens directly). I’ll talk more about using grids in the next blog entry.

Here’s a shot of Dug after I added in the second flash (with a grid) to camera left:

I absolutely love this look. You can see the bright lines along the Dug’s right side (the left side of the picture) adding some shape along with good separation from the background and that’s the look I’m going for. I even like how the rim light is giving more shape to the posing stool (but that won’t matter much when you get a person into the shot in place of Dug). Here’s a look at the studio setup to get this look:

For this shot I have my second flash mounted on a boom arm and placed behind Dug. To control light spill I used a Honl Photo 1/4″ speed grid ($30 for the grid and $10 for the speed strap). You’ll need to play around a bit to get the exact placement of your rim light but when you get it dialed in it really takes your image to the next level.

You can stop right here if you like and you’ll have a really impressive portrait shot. If you’re interested in going further with this shot there is one more thing I like to do.

Taking This Setup To The Next Level

So far we’ve been working with a white seamless paper background. This kind of background is great because it can be neutral grey if you don’t light it, pure white if you do light it, or you can get really wild by using grids and colored gels. For the final blog entry of this series I’lll add in a third flash to create entirely new looks that will put the finishing touch on this portrait session.

You can check out the final blog entry here.

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