Creative One Light Setup for Low Key Studio Portraits
I don’t often take self-portraits of myself (as I’m usually the one behind the lens) but I needed to update my website and social media handles with a current and professional looking headshot.
I thought it would be useful to share how easy it is to create this low key setup in the studio. I’m going to talk through my thought process and technical steps I took to achieve this simple lighting setup in conjunction with the camera gear/ settings used:
STEP ONE: ENVISAGE THE CREATIVE END RESULT
When first constructing a new or existing lighting setup in the studio it’s important to think about the creative end result you would like to achieve. We are lucky in that we have full control over all the elements of lighting ratios. For example, lights can be positioned, have increased or decreased output, and have an infinite configuration of modifiers added.
I first ask myself a series of questions and envisage where and what intensity I want the light to appear – both in the foreground (on subject) and on the background – whilst considering the overall ratio of highlights, mid tones and shadows. Do I want the quality of light to be soft or hard lit, or a mix of both? For example, if soft, I’ll want to grab a softbox, if hard, a reflector. I knew I wanted to create a low key darker effect as opposed to a high key brighter effect (which is typically used in eCommerce campaigns).
I also knew that I wanted one main large light source, preferably a softbox, which would provide emphasis on the subject’s face and hands. You can also give a punch to this one light setup by adding a hard rim light showing on the side of the face and shoulder. This is can be great to separate the subject, particularly when wearing black (which I was) from the black background.
STEP TWO: BECOME A LIGHTING ARCHITECT
Ok… this will take many years to accomplish, but no time like the present right! I have worked in the industry for a number of years and shoot part-time for a design agency on product and campaigns so I have learnt many useful hacks from some very talented studio photographers. By believing you are a lighting architect, you begin to confidently design and build any lighting setup you need to get the shot and meet the creative brief. If you want to work for an agency as a commercial photographer in a studio environment on a daily basis then you will need to be able to do this like second nature (otherwise you won’t stay employed very long).
I primarily use a standard product lighting setup each day, among other setups. Product is typically lit from above pointed down either directly or on a slight angle from the back or front with a large octagon softbox i.e. 130-150cm and includes use of polys (v-flats) or smaller foamboards used either side or in front to bounce light onto the product.
This allows the light to wrap evenly around the product and any excess is used to bounce light easily off v-flats, reflectors or scrims. Because we want their to be an even transition from the light to dark areas it is imperative the softbox be indirect. This means the strobe is bouncing off an umbrella, beauty dish or parabolic reflector and then passing through the softbox giving it a more diffused effect on the subject.
The placement of the edge of the softbox in relation to the product or subject is important as this allows the light to feather (see Lighting Diagram). Feathering is manoeuvring a light source’s area of coverage so that only the desired area of the subject is lit. This helps you emphasise the area in your photo that you want to highlight and not the entire area of your softbox’s potential, which makes for a better quality of light.
Direct softboxes are great for different effects, but can be too harsh because the bulb flashes straight through the softbox which can cause overexposure on areas of the skin or subject. The spill from this light source will also bleed onto the background where it may not be desired.
As you’ll notice a kicker (or hair) light can also be used behind the background – positioned on a 45 degree angle behind the subject. This light can be put on an exposure of around 8.0 on the Broncolor minicom 80 with a large reflector. You may need to decrease or increase this depending on the amount of highlight you would like on the side of face and around chin, hair, shoulder, neck and arm. Be sure to keep it well positioned and subtle and turn on the highlight alert in your editing software (I use Capture One) to make sure it is not overly blownout on the skin.
You can use any camera/lighting brands to achieve this setup. I used the following gear and studio equipment to achieve this two-light setup:
Canon Mark 5d III w/ Canon L Series 24-105mm f.4 lens @ 70mm
2 x Broncolor minicom 80 lights – 1 x key (Main) light w/ indirect octagon softbox and 1 x kicker (Hair) light w/ reflector
2 x Manfrotto light stands, octagon softbox w/ c-stand arm
2 x White V-flats either side
1 x Black V-flat as background
1 x Broncolor transceiver (radio trigger)
Tethertools tether cable
Capture One software
Let me know what you think about the article and how you went with this lighting setup, or if you do something similar or use/ position different light modifiers.