Many photographers struggle with creating a bright white background for portraits, because they either create too much light spilling from the background onto the subject, or they manage to keep the background source off the subject, but they can't get the ratio right and it isn't pure white. This task gets trickier when you've got to see each subject from head-to-toe in an interesting, energetic pose and universally flattering light. Combine that with a fast-paced shoot full of long days and overtired subjects…Well, even the simplest tasks can become daunting. So, here's how I tackled a recent assignment to create a winning combination of white background, flattering lighting and a totally comfortable subject.
ESTABLISHING THE BACKGROUNDFor starters, I like to set the scene. I did a test shoot a few days prior to taking my studio on location in order to make sure I could get exactly what I wanted. (The photo above is actually from that test session, a few days prior to the client's shoot.)
To begin building a bright white background, I know I will want a lot of distance between subject and background. In this case, I had nearly 10 feet from the background to the subject's mark. This allows you to do something I feel is very important: you can light in layers. Layers allow you to light the background totally independently from the subject. This is helpful to spot any stray light from the background that might be spilling over onto the subject.
With a gentle sweep in the background, I taped it to the floor at the front edge and then placed a large sheet (about 5x5 feet) of white plexi on top of the paper. Not only does this provide a firm surface on which the subject can stand (rather than staining, wrinkling and ripping the paper itself) but it also creates a fairly reflective surface that will pick up highlights from the bright background and help keep the floor from becoming too dark.
The subject's feet are likely to be in a fairly under-lit area in general, but this was especially true on this assignment because I used large "floppies," or big black flags to block the background lights—two large softboxes, one at each side of the subject—from spilling onto the subject. The side effect is the subject's feet aren't especially well-lit, but this natural vignette is much better than the reverse. Too much light spilling from the background onto the subject looks amateurish and it's just too hard to control. Don't fret about the floor too much; a light gray surface can be easily brought to bright white in post, or a few reflectors (even another fill light) positioned just so, can bring up the floor during shooting if you're concerned about the problem.
The other reason flags are great is that they also block extraneous background light from reflecting off of the white paper and into the camera. With my camera set to overexpose the background by a stop-and-a-half (to ensure that it's rendered as a very bright white), you can easily create flare if you're not careful. After all, you're pointing your camera at a white background that has essentially become a big, white softbox. Big black flags help to minimize the chance for flare; I just made my flags do double duty, flagging both the subject and my camera.
LIGHTING THE SUBJECTAs much as I have a tendency to re-invent the wheel with every shoot, I do like to keep things simple when it comes to lighting. So, to that end I only used three lights—two on the background, one for the key. What kind of key light is perfect for flattering subjects, remaining flexible and still showing shape? A large, soft light source, positioned just right. In my case, that was a large Octabank with a white diffusion front, positioned about eight feet from the subject at a 45-degree angle to camera right. Here's why.
I wanted soft light so that it would remain flattering for the subject's skin. A harder source has the tendency to make stronger, darker shadows, and that can make for enhanced skin texture—which brings out wrinkles and lines and blemishes. The soft source softens skin, but it can also make for overly flat lighting if you're not careful. By positioning the light at 45 degrees it creates enough shadow definition to not only show pleasing shape, but it can also have a bit of a slimming effect. (If you need to thin a subject, in general try split lighting—from the side—to create a pleasing shadow-based optical illusion.) I also added a touch of gold via a zip-in panel inside the main light to warm it up just a bit. A little warmth never hurts a portrait. And while I could have probably gotten away with no fill, I did use a soft silver reflector positioned to subtly illuminate the shadow side of the subjects' faces. But, just a tiny bit. Too much fill flattens the scene and makes things look boring.
Another way to add shape to a subject—especially a person photographed on a white background—is to position those two black flags on either side of the subject in such a way as to create negative fill. A flag that is perpendicular to the background and very close—maybe even just a few inches from the subject's cheek—will create a very strong, dark shadow on the edge of the subject, deliberately separating them from the bright background.
MAKING THE MOMENTAs much as technical matters of lighting and equipment are the foundation of a great portrait, it's the photographer's ability to connect with a subject that's really the difference between a success and a disaster. Not all portraits require a smiling, happy, energetic subject, but this assignment did, and that meant I would have to be as much of a performer and entertainer, as photographer. You see, portrait subjects are often tense and nervous in front of the camera, and the more a photographer can break through the nerves and the "protective shell" that so many subjects put up, the more likely he is to capture a real moment—a natural smile, a sparkle in the eye, a veritable glow. There's unfortunately no gear you can buy to help this, and no formula for subject connection success. But what I can tell you is that it gets easier the more you do it, and the more you can get a nervous subject's mind off of being photographed and onto anything else that makes them happy, the better off you'll be. Talk to them, and find a connection. If nothing else, ask about where they're from, or what hobbies they have, or anything you can find that will let you briefly bond—even if it's fairly insignificant.
In my case, for this assignment I needed to pose subjects in such a way as to create casual, relaxed body positions without relying on the same old "arms crossed" shot that's all too easy to churn out. I also needed variety from subject to subject, so I used a bit of a cheat sheet: a printout of pose options I could refer to in a pinch. If a subject couldn't find a comfortable pose naturally—which is actually fairly difficult—I referred to my guide to help them get into a new position. It also helped to be able to show the subject what we were trying to achieve.
Lastly, to be sure that I could capture the perfect moment with each subject, I shot a lot. And then I shot some more. I set my strobes to recycle rapidly so that I wouldn't miss the perfect smile, and when a subject was totally "on," I made sure to fire quickly. In the end I made hundreds of portraits of each person, in multiple poses and multiple outfits. But one thing remained constant: I removed as many variables as possible, so that I could concentrate on connecting with the subject and capturing a great moment. The background, the lighting and the posing were all designed to remain consistent and professional in order to maximize my chances of repeated portrait success.