I use cheap and simple set-ups for my portraits. You can achieve most of these looks with one or two flashes ($350), some Alien Bees Cyber Sync wireless triggers ($120), a basic umbrella kit ($70), a foldable disc reflector ($40) or foam core boards ($2), and some coloured gels ($10). While some of these were taken with my pro-level Canon 5DMKII ($3500), many were taken with my old entry-level dSLR, the Canon Xti/400D ($350). You can take amazing portraits with any camera, the key is great lighting. Here are 18 of my favourite portraits and the details on how I shot and lit them:
For the above outdoor shot of Siri (the model, not your iOS girlfriend), I used a basic 2 flash set-up to liven up a dull location. I lit her face with one 580EX flash shot through an umbrella directly in front of her about 3 ft away. To fill the shadows on the lower right side of her face, I used a silver reflector to bounce the light from the flash. The second 430EX flash was shot camera left behind her to light her hair. The flashes were triggered wirelessly with the Alien Bees Cyber Syncs.
This was my very first shoot with my new 5DMKII. I photographed Nicole in a bus stop as it was getting dusky. Not the most glamorous location, but I noticed that the lights of the cars driving were making lovely bokeh circles in the background. I used a simple one flash set-up: One 580EX flash, shot through an umbrella above and slightly left of camera about 3 ft away from her face. The closer the light source is to the subject, the softer the light. Using a shoot through umbrella also gives a lovely catch light in your subject’s eyes. If you are not a fan of the reflection of the spokes you can always clone them out in Photoshop.
I used one of my favourite, easy set-ups on this shoot with singer, AJ. She was back lit with the sun through a large open window which gave her a natural hair light and a single strobe was shot through a large umbrella on 1/16 power to fill her face. The background was blown out and bokeh’d which I really like for this look. I used Photoshop to create a faux vintage cross-processed look. Click here for a video tutorial on how to create a similar look.
This shoot was quite experimental. I wanted to completely blow out my background and create lens flare that wrapped around my subject. I used back lighting with a bare strobe (580EX) at 1/16th power directly behind Kara slightly to the right. I played with different camera positions to get the extreme lens flare that I wanted. This shot was a bit of a happy accident because the placement of the lens flare was difficult to predict. To balance the light on her face, I placed a 430EX directly in front of her about 2 ft away & diffused the light through an umbrella. This was shot at a very wide aperture (f/2.8) so I had to make sure to get my focus tack sharp on her eye, as everything else was out of focus.
This summery outdoor shot was backlit with the sun and then lit from the front with a 430EX flash with a 1/4 CTO gel (orange to give the image warmth) which was shot through a 52 inch umbrella at 1/4 power and triggered using a more expensive wireless trigger, the Pocket Wizard Plus II. If you want to go with the Pocket wizards, the gold standard of wireless triggers, but way more expensive than the Alien Bees, I suggest getting 2 FlexTT5s. They are the most versatile and can be used as both a transmitter and a receiver.
This girl could be a CoverGirl. She was so natural and comfortable in front of the camera. Working with a great model makes a photographer’s job so much easier. She was backlit by sun with a 580EX shot through large umbrella 10 degrees to the right to fill. I shot this at f/5.0 which is slightly higher than I normally shoot at because I wanted to make sure I had sharp focus of her entire face and hair.
I actually shot this photo through a glass window, so it has a slightly hazy appearance. I used two off-camera strobes: One behind the subject (bare) lighting the background, one in front with a shoot-through umbrella).
My model was freezing during this wintery shoot, so we huddled in a back alley. I was almost ready to give up on the shoot because there was no light. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car coming slowly towards us. I asked Taravat give me a lost/mysterious expression and I snapped this. I lit her with a very simple set up: One 430EX flash shot at 1/8th power shot through an umbrella.
Sometimes all you need is magic hour natural light & white reflector. Easy peasy. I experimented with faux Redscale processing in post to give it a distinctive look and without the processing the background was lacklustre and uninteresting.
This was actually the first test shot of a shoot with lovely AJ. I was figuring out my camera & flash settings and the flash was dialed up too high so it blew out the top corner of the shot. I used a bare flash at 1/4 power, positioned behind her head, slightly right, triggered with Cyber Syncs. I am definitely breaking the cardinal rule of exposure, but I feel like it works here. It’s is blown out & harsh, yet blurry & soft. The subsequent shots weren’t nearly as interesting, and ultimately the artist chose this shot. Rules in photography are great guidelines, but as an artist you can chose to break and bend them to suit your vision. Plus, who doesn’t like breaking rules?
I positioned Shauna so she was backlit by sun creating a nice hair light. I use this technique again and again. Backlight the subject with the sun, front fill the face with soft, even light from a strobe and a shoot through umbrella. For this I used a 580EX shot through umbrella 30 degrees to the right to fill. The 85mm f/1.8 lens creates really nice bokeh in the background.
This outdoor dusk shot was lit with one 580EX 1/4 power shot through umbrella above & slightly to the right of Stephanie.
Again, the same easy one strobe set up: a 580EX shot through a large umbrella about 2ft from Jay’s face. Getting the light source close to your subject is the key to nice even, soft lighting. If you don’t have a flash, you can achieve a similar effect using a white bounce or foam core board that you can pick up in any craft store for $2. Just reflect the light source evenly on the subject’s face.
Another shot without any flashes. I was a bit nervous using stands and flashes around a pool and I had enough light to go without, so I just used the soft magic hour light and a silver bounce. If you shoot an hour before sunset you get beautiful light without any harsh shadows. You have to be quick though, it only lasts about 45 minutes!
I wanted to try a moody night shot with city light background bokeh, so I set up a cool strobey night shoot with model Bella on my apartment balcony in Vancouver. I used a 430EX shot on full power shot through window with blinds closed, camera left to hit the side of her face and body. Another 580EX at 1/4 power shot through umbrella held 50cm in front of Bella’s face by my assistant. Both strobes triggered with Alien Bees CyberSync Triggers.
I coaxed my more famous half, into being photographed with the same one strobe set-up I’ve been using during the windy, rainy spring months: A 580EX shot set on M at 35mm, 1/8th power, shot through umbrella placed directly infront approx. 2 ft. away. I added a lot more contrast and the blue background colour (previously boring and grey) through post-processing.
This final shot uses those little coloured gels I mentioned. I used a 580EX shot through umbrella directly infront of Siri and a 430EX flash with full CTO gel (orange) shot behind Siri, camera left to light her hair. I held a silver bounce infront and below of Siri, slightly right of camera to fill her face. The bokeh in the background is actually rain being lit by the flash. And yes, she was very cold!
I hope this helps inspire you to take some amazing shots! Once you figure out a few simple lighting techniques, you’ll be on your way to creating beautiful portraits. Feel free to share your shots below :)