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.