How many lights do you need to make a great portrait?
This is a bit of a trick question which I raised only because it is something I have been thinking about for a few months now. This is not because I am believe it is a question that actually needs answering. As with most things in life that are subjective the number of lights that you need to make a great portrait is based on the eye of the viewer. However several months ago I was browsing the web sight of a portrait photographer who felt the need to explain that one of the reasons that he was successful as a portrait photographer (and thus charged a fair amount) was because he shot his portraits with five lights.
This assertion has really stuck with me and I have been tempted to write about it for sometime. Why? It isn’t because the photographer in question is a bad photographer (and I am not naming names) because they are quite honestly quite good at their specific niche and have been in business for sometime which I think is very impressive in this day and age.
That said the assertion that five lights makes for a good portrait worth paying for is simply ludicrous and here is some reasons why this has been nagging me…
There are scores and score of amazing portrait photographers who use a single light and just as many who rarely use more than three. There are thousands of amazing photographers who make a living off of just using the light provided by the sun (you will see them advertise themselves as “natural light photographers”).
Your clients don’t care! If you never told them how many lights you used they wouldn’t even take notice.
At the end of the day the number of lights you use to capture a portrait only matter to you as the photographer. Clients won’t pay you more. They don’t care what kind of gear you use (except for in commercial photography when clients might look for photographers with specific types of gear and skills) only what your images look like.
How many lights do I use? I am glad you ask!
I use exactly as many lights as I can squeeze into the space I am working in. Just kidding.
For the the image that kicks of this post used three lights: A strobe in a beauty dish above and directly in front of the subject with a silver reflect below and in front to lessen the shadows, and two strobes in soft boxes in the rare on either side pointed at 45 degrees towards the subjects back to help him pop off of the background (kickers or rim lights). The background is actually a white background but without light directly aimed at it the background falls away to gray.
In the image below I used I used the same beauty dish and reflector setup I used in the first image without the additional strobes in the rear.
These are two very different images but their look has more to do with how I placed the beauty dish and reflector than how many lights I used. Ok, and also how I edited them in Lightroom/Photoshop.
So in closing… don’t hire a photographer because they use more lights than another photographer. Hire a photographer because you like their images.
I am sure that you have heard the old saying, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Never has this been more vividly demonstrated to me as last night at the start of a family portrait shoot. It wasn’t actually all that hot out at 6:45 PM when we scheduled the shoot. The temperature had already dropped into the low 80s which is really mild here in Virginia in the middle of August. The problem was that earlier in the afternoon we had a torrential downpour and my camera had been sitting inside in cool dry air all day.
Long story short it took nearly 15 minutes for my camera and lenses to acclimatize and stop fogging over and I learned a painful lesson. What is that lesson? Always make sure to pay attention to the weather from a gear perspective. When you are under a time constraint to get the shot in you need to make sure that your gear is ready to go on time.
The good news is that we still managed to capture some great images of the family that I hope will end up hanging on their walls for years to come.
Sometimes a photographer has to get on the other side of the lens.
This is me. I don’t pose for a lot of photographs willingly.
Last night however I got a new haircut. Because of Covid I have been getting my hair cut at home by my 15 year old daughter and a pair of clippers. Last night she might have gone a little too far… so we had to grab a photo of the outcome.
This particular photo was captured using my Canon 5D MK IV with the Canon 85MM 1.8 and a single Godox MS300 light with a reflector below to fill in some of the shadows. I did post processing in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Shooting portraits outside of a studio can be a real challenge. You don’t always get the conditions you want and when people know that you are planning to shoot a portrait there are high expectations (even more so if you are getting paid). In this case I had the opportunity to shoot Helen who at 96 years young is quite simply an amazing woman who I am proud to have in my family.
For this portrait I knew that I would only have a few minutes and limited options in terms of the setting to shoot it in so I spent some time reviewing the options in my head before I ever got to Helen’s house with a goal of optimizing my chance of success. After thinking about it for a bit I realized my best option was to shoot the portrait in Helen’s sun room. If the weather was good (sunny) the room would be full of light and the interior walls would act as large reflectors to help me evenly light my subject. Instead of posing Helen against a backdrop my plan was to shoot her with her back to the outside world and let the outside world wash out to keep the focus on our subject.
This final image was one of only 20 frames I shot. If you are numbers orientated they are: 1/320th sec, f 2.8, ISO 500 shot with my Canon 6D and EF 70-200 f2.8. In Lightroom I did some very light retouching and converted the image to black and white.
Luck really is (almost) everything when making images outside of the studio. In this case I had a willing subject (look at how her eyes have that perfect squint that let you know she is smiling under her mask), wearing a highly photogenic outfit in front of a background that worked for this composition. For my part I did direct the pastor into the shade (it was full sun and mid-afternoon with very harsh sunlight) and into a position where I could turn a large bush in the middle of parking lot into a dreamy green background by shooting at F2.8 with my EF 70-200mm f/2.8L.
The real luck in this portrait was that my wife said to me, “Hey you should get a picture of the pastor!”
I am a naturally introverted person and I struggle to approach people for portraits when I am shooting in public. Fortunately there are a lot of wonderful people in the world willing to pose if you ask nicely. In the case of Katrina she almost volunteered for me.
Last Saturday while exploring West Virginia my family stopped in Charles Town, WV for a quick tour of the downtown and its shops. When we passed Abolitionist Ale Works and saw they had a sour sampler (4 X 16 oz. cans) to go I had to stop and give it a try (they are excellent by the way in case you were wondering). Katrina took care of my order and then asked me what I was out shooting (it is really hard to hide the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM). That’s when I realized that Katrina would be an excellent subject for my Portraits of the Pandemic series and she very graciously agreed to pose.
A couple of lessons I learned from this experience:
You can get great beer in West Virginia
There are friendly people out there that will help you out if you give them a chance (and ask)
And the 70-200 lens is a model magnet (people seem so much more willing to pose for you if your camera is large)
A really good portrait does more than capture a person’s likeness, it also tells you something of their story. Who are they? Are they warm or are they aloof? Have they lived a life of hard labor or a life of leisure? Portraits that tell you a story are more compelling then portraits that are just attempting to show you a person at their best at that one particular point in time.
As a photographer its my goal to make interesting portraits. Sometimes you get really lucky with a subject.
I met Charlie outside of a restaurant (domestic – http://wvdomestic.com/) in Shepherdstown, WV just after lunch. The restaurant’s owner was sitting outside taking a break and I asked him if I could take his picture (that’s another post for another day). He graciously accepted but he also said that I should really be taking pictures of the other gentleman sitting outside, Charlie.
Charlie wanted to have his picture taken. He had a story to tell and he made it easy for me to tell it. As a photographer there is nothing better than having an interesting subject who wants to be photographed and is completely comfortable in front of the camera. In this case Charlie, a now retired photojournalist, loves meeting new people and talking photography and this image tells his story.