Creative Lighting For Portraiture

Einstein E640 Flash Unit From Paul C. Buff, Inc.

As a traveling and oftentimes "guerrilla" editorial and advertising photographer, I usually run into a ton of complications when it comes to getting the gear I need into locations, whether it be the need to travel light and get out quickly, or the lack of any source of electricity for 300 miles—all while trying to maintain great light quality.

Paul C. Buff Einstein E640 Flash Unit

I traveled out to the Salton Sea recently with my buddy Greg Lutzka to shoot new marketing images for Black Star Beer. This is a tricky location and kind of dangerous. It’s a no-man’s-land in the deepest deserts of California. There’s no sheriff, no laws and no rules. The place is filled with outlaw bikers and squatters alike, but it also provides some of the most beautiful terrain to shoot. I had to get in, get my shots and get out quick. We drove around, found our location, and we were set up and running with the Einsteins in less than three minutes.

With the sun setting behind my subject, I used the sun as a rim light, one Einstein with the Paul C. Buff Foldable Octabox softbox for a main light and another Einstein with a 7-inch reflector behind his left shoulder as an edge light. With the ability to control every feature of my lights via Buff’s Cyber Commander transmitter, it really streamlines my workflow and allows me to adjust power on the fly without ever having to move from my shooting position. The lights can also be controlled individually via this remote. Fifteen minutes from the time I pulled up, I had finished the shoot, was packed up and driving to the next location.
—Tyler Clinton

Even a very basic lighting setup can add a powerful punch to a portrait while providing far more control over exposure, shutter speed, image noise and aperture in your camera. What’s more, coupling a standard lighting kit with additional light modification tools like softboxes, reflectors, grids or snoots gains you even more leverage by giving you the ability to shape the quality of the light and the level of the intensity.

Deciding which kind of setup you need and which kinds of lights best fit your style of portraiture depends primarily on each image or series that you’re trying to construct and personal preference. But as you’ll see in this article, there are distinct kinds of lights and specific lighting setups that will provide stellar results that are repeatable and easily modifiable for even more possibilities. As your skills progress, and you can see what’s truly possible by mastering lighting, it will be simple to add on to your lighting arsenal as needed, growing new potential with each new tool.


The advantage to a monolight (also called a strobe) setup is that the light consumes less power than the long extended draw of a continuous light, while producing a very bright burst of illumination. This design means that they’re capable of a lot of light output for freezing action with higher shutter speeds.

Strobes also keep heat output minimal because they’re only lit during each successive shutter release, which results in a much more comfortable shoot for the model and everyone else on a closed set.

The disadvantage of strobes is that unless a modeling light is included, you won’t be able to see the effects of the lights until the picture has been taken, making monolights a little more complicated to use, though this is less of a problem with today’s digital previews. A variety of light modifiers can be added to lamp heads to give strobes directional abilities or to reduce, strengthen or soften light output.

FirstStudio Portrait Kit From Photoflex

It’s easy to go overboard with lighting for portraits, and I consciously wanted to keep the elements simple here. Rather than use a strobe system, I opted for the FirstStudio lights, which are continuous tungsten-balanced lights. You plug them into the wall and position them where you want them. So easy. And because they’re continuous lights, you can see the effects of the lighting in real time—no need for multiple test shots. One other advantage with using continuous lights is that you don’t have to worry about strobes going off, which can be distracting for young subjects, or having to shoot at slower speeds to accommodate recycling times.

Photoflex FirstStudio Portrait Kit

My lighting strategy here is in line with the way I do most portraits: one main light and at least two rim/hair lights. For Aidan, my son, I wanted the main light to be soft, yet directional, so I placed the first FirstStudio light with an umbrella fairly close and straight on, just out of frame. Next, I wanted to add a soft rim light to separate him from the chair and background, so I used the second FirstStudio light with an umbrella off to the side, slightly behind him. I’m typically resistant to match the angle of the main light, as I feel that technique tends to flatten out the dimension of the subject and ultimately becomes uninteresting. I like to have some shadow between the main light and the rim light.

Finally, I set up a bare FirstStar head (hard light) on a background stand and positioned it on top of our bookcase, angled at the back of his head. I’m a big fan of mixing soft and hard light for a more dynamic look. This third light further helped to separate him from the background, which makes him pop forward.
—Ben Clay


Traditional continuous lights often are used in a portraiture session because you can see the effects on a set or scene as changes are made. Continuous lights are affordable and easy to learn. Because they’re constantly lit during a shoot, however, traditional continuous lights tend to build up a lot of heat in only a short time. They also pack less power than a bursting strobe is capable of. To address this, moving a light closer to the subject gives more light (since light falloff quarters as the distance from the subject doubles), but that also can make subjects hot under the collar, which can ruin makeup, wardrobe and hair.

28-inch Recessed Front Apollo Softbox From Westcott

Looking at these two images, their stark contrast is apparent: the location, people, treatment, mood. The subject matter alone ranges from a tattoo artist in his shop all the way to a model in the studio. What could possibl
y pair them? There are unifying factors in both of these shots—the modifier I used to light them and the reasons I chose this particular product.

Westcott 28-Inch Recessed Front Apollo Softbox

Both images were lit with a Westcott 28-inch Apollo Softbox and a Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlight flash. This softbox is unique for its recessed front, allowing extra control of where the light goes and—more importantly—where it doesn’t. This directional source allowed me to beautifully light both of these portraits from above, feathering the light off of the front of each person’s face without spilling onto the rest of the scene. This served to isolate each subject in the image by selectively lighting them and allowing the background to go slightly underexposed.
—Erik Valind

Continuous light sources have made a comeback, as well, thanks primarily to LED technology and video capability in still cameras. Video requires constant illumination as opposed to a strobe or flash burst, and LED technology has improved to the point where LED lights can output enough throw to fully light a scene while producing very little heat and drawing very little power compared to traditional continuous lights. They’re almost entirely flicker-free for a constant, unwavering quality of light, important when shooting video, and better LED models also allow you to dial up or down the intensity of light output. A few LED models even let you shift the white balance to match ambient conditions or for unique color temperature effects in an image. You can find LED solutions from ikan, Litepanels, Lowel, Manfrotto, Rosco and others.


Portable flashes have become so powerful and capable that many photographers are using on-camera flashes to light entire scenes, whether on location or in the studio. Newer flagship models and more expensive flash units include robust wireless abilities as well, allowing control of multiple units straight from the camera within line of sight or remotely with reliable radio triggers and radio flash units from companies like RadioPopper, PocketWizard, MicroSync and Quantum Instruments.

Add any variety of flash light modifiers like umbrellas, reflectors and softboxes from companies like ExpoImaging, Harbor Digital Design, Gary Fong, Honl Photo, Interfit, LumiQuest, STO-FEN and others, and you have practically endless lighting configurations that will fit right into your camera bag.

Rogue FlashBenders, Rogue Universal Gels & Rogue Grids From ExpoImaging

Looking at these two images, their stark contrast is apparent: the location, people, treatment, mood. The subject matter alone ranges from a tattoo artist in his shop all the way to a model in the studio. What could possibly pair them? There are unifying factors in both of these shots—the modifier I used to light them and the reasons I chose this particular product.

Rogue FlashBenders From ExpoImaging

I’m always looking for better ways to do things, which includes finding tools to make my work more streamlined and effective. The Rogue light modifiers have become some of my favorite tools due to their "pack flat and small" portability and their effectiveness in softening, shaping and diffusing my light.

I often shoot in tight spaces on location, such as this 8×10-foot space, and the FlashBenders’ ability to take a shape and remember it helps dramatically in controlling the direction and contrast of my lights in those situations. The ease of mounting and use is also a major plus for me, especially on those "get in, shoot it and get out" location shoots.

This set is a great example of why and how I use them. The "how" was a truly simple three-speedlite setup with a small reflector with a diffusion panel providing my main light in front, a Rogue Grid on a speedlite (back, right) providing a lovely hair light and a blue Rogue Gel with the Bounce Card/Gobo across the gray background turning it blue while shielding my subject from any stray color. The "why" is obvious: great skin tones, excellent separation and depth, and pure ease of use in a challenging environment. The final result would never give away the simplicity of the setup, nor the fact that it took only three minutes to set up the entire light scene.
—David Guy Maynard


Gary Fong
Harbor Digital Design
Honl Photo
ikan Corp.
Interfit Photographic
Lowel Light
Manfrotto Distribution
Paul C. Buff
Quantum Instruments
(Leap Devices LLC)


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