In the Portrait Studio with Syd


Recently I had a chance to photograph Syd in my portrait studio. With a majority of my portrait work happening away from my studio I thought this was a great opportunity to share some of my thoughts, some behind the scenes shots of my gear and how I like to set things up.

My Portrait Studio

My photography studio is truly a multi-purpose area where I photograph people, pets, children, food, products and so much more. With great views and lots of natural light from the three walls of windows I also like to use this area for photo editing and my writing. When I decided to use this area for photography work I needed lots of light control (I have heavy black curtains) but I also wanted to take advantage of the availability of natural light (I hang diffusion material over the windows when I want to soften the light.

When I’m photographing people I like to use seamless paper so I have a bunch of rolls ready to go in white, black, numerous shades of grey and assorted colors. For my shoot with Syd I used a 53″ wide white roll of seamless paper and I lit it with a single flash on a background stand. Here’s a look at my setup before Syd arrived:

You can see from the above shot that I also use a posing stool (great for allowing my subject a full range of movement) and that the background light is positioned to be out of sight when my subject takes a seat. For my main light I like to use octa-shaped softboxes and the bigger the better. For a seated portrait I prefer to use a 3′ shallow octa and for standing shots I use either the 3′ or a 5′ shallow octa. For a rim/hair light I use strip banks or my small octa. For my portrait shoot with Syd I used the 3′ shallow octa for a main light and a 1.5′ standard octa with an egg-crate grid.

To trigger my lights I’ve always preferred radio triggers for their reliability. Currently I’m using a CyberSync radio system from Paul C. Buff. For this shoot I used a Cyber CST for a transmitter and three CyberSync CSRB receivers.

I like to keep my camera close by using a tripod for placing the camera between shots (I like to take my camera off the tripod and move around when I’m photographing people). I also have a stand for keeping my laptop close by for capturing shots directly into Lightroom (also called: shooting “tethered”). I’ll talk more about my tethered shooting workflow in a future blog post.

Before I bring a subject into the studio I get my lighting setup. Each of my three lights are set to different power levels and I prefer to start by getting the background flash level set with the other two turned completely off. I’m looking for a nice hot spot with a gradual falloff to the edges of the background. To control the light I use a 6″ beauty dish. Here’s a look at a test shot I took before setting up the other lights:

Once I have my power (level) of the flash set I’ll make sure that the flash will be completely hidden when my subject takes a seat. If I have an assistant this is where they will take a seat. If I’m working without an assistant then I’ll use the self timer function of my camera and I’ll jump in front of the camera myself. The background light is still the only flash turned on at this stage. Here’s a look at what the background light looked when I took a seat for a test shot:

After seeing this test shot I moved my flash a bit and aimed it up a little to get the background light looking exactly the way I wanted it to look.

Next up I’ll bring in my rim/hair light. What I’m looking for is a nice outline of my subject as well as some highlights in my subjects hair. I’ll begin by placing the rim/hair flash behind, to the side of and above my subject with the flash pointed down around a 45 degree angle. Then I’ll take test shots to find a good level for the flash power. I’m looking for a natural look most of the time but I’ll bring the power level up for more stylized shots. Here’s a look at me sitting in for a light test with only the background and rim lights turned on:

For my shoot with Syd I went with a very low setting for my rim light. I wanted it to help outline Syd without making it look like I was using a flash.

I always set my main light up last. I like to use a position and power setting that will fill in my subject and give me soft shadows to help define the shape of my subject. Again, it’s super important to find a flash power level setting that cive good illumination without making it look like you used a flash. With all of my flashes placed and the power levels set I’ll bring in my subject.

Shooting Portraits

Whenever I’m taking studio style portraits I like to work fast and I try to keep my number of shots to a minimum. I might take a quick test shot to make sure my lighting setup works with my subject and if a change needs to be made it’s usually a really small adjustment. Here’s a look at the studio when Syd took a seat in my studio:

With the technical stuff done I then begin working with my subject to help them look their best. That involves making small adjustments to which direction they’re turned, how their head is positioned and where they should be looking so that I can see white on either side of their iris. Then it’s time to do whatever I can behind the camera to bring personality out in front of my camera. In the case of Syd it was super easy. She’s super happy and known for her huge smile. I had her finished in under 5 clicks of my shutter release.

With my camera connected to my laptop for tethered capture I was able to let Syd see my favorite shots instantly. For shoots where I have a larger number of captures I can tag shots as favorites before my subject leaves.

All that remains is a little time in Photoshop and I’m ready to upload images to my clients private gallery. Here’s another look at Syd’s favorite image from her shoot:



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