Getting a simple lighting setup is the key to having a successful event. If you use only on-camera flash, you get very flat lighting, which isn’t doesn’t make people look very good, plus it creates harsh shadows behind them. What you really want is good directional lighting from one side, with just enough fill light to reduce shadowing on the other side. Since I’m often asked to take portrait shots during local charity events, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to hone this — so this week, we’ll look at the basic lighting setup I use for these types of portraits.
My setup consists of a seamless paper background suspended on a background stand. To the right of the camera is a 45-inch Westcott Halo with a Westcott StrobeLite Plus, which is very similar to using a shoot-thru umbrella. It provides a good key light, but is big enough to provide a soft transition between shadows and highlights. To the left is a 28 inch Westcott Apollo softbox with a Westcott Strobelite Plus, which is primarily used to light the background and soften any shadows that fall on it. It also spills onto the subject slightly to soften the shadows caused by the key light. The camera I use is a Canon EOS 50D with a Canon 580 EX II flash mounted on it along with a Lumiquest 80/20 diffuser. The key here is that the 580 EX II is set to manual mode and dialed down to 1/32 power. This means the light from the flash is fairly insignificant to the exposure and is really used only to fire the optical slaves on the StrobeLites. I prefer this to having PC Sync cords. It’s also more reliable than using cheap radio slaves in some conditions.
Using the Lighting Setup
If a subject is facing to his right, I get a nice broad lighting effect. If looking to the left, I just pull the subject slightly away from the background so that the light from the Apollo to the right of the camera provides a short lighting effect. Given a perfect setup, I would use a backlight on the background, but there isn’t always enough room to work with when working these kinds of shoots. By using the Apollo and the Halo in this configuration, I am able to get enough light on the background to give it a type of gradient look that keeps the background from becoming boring.
Having a versatile lighting setup means you can run people through very quickly and still be able to get a variety of looks without ever having to move lights around.
Avoid Issues With Glasses
Having the lights set off to the side rather than straight on to the subjects also minimizes issues with glasses.
Lighting is basic geometry. The light will bounce off an object at the same angle it hits. If you angle the lights so that light does not bounce back to the camera, the lenses in the glasses will show almost no reflection from the light source. The only time this lighting setup presents any issues with glasses is if someone has a tendency to raise their chin during pictures. Simply suggest that they lower their chin to solve the glasses issue.
Getting Group Shots
The biggest problem you might run into in this situation is a large group. This is the only time I move the lights. I pull the key light back toward the camera to reduce shadows on people caused by standing behind or beside someone who is blocking the light. The bigger issue is squeezing people so that the frame doesn’t exceed the edges of the background. You might have to get creative in placing people to keep the group width narrow enough. I take the 9 foot wide rolls since they will (barely) fit into my car. The 12 foot rolls are better for groups, but they are harder to transport and are available in fewer color options.
Don’t overthink a shoot like this — a simple lighting setup is very effective. The more complicated you make it, the more problems arise; the more time it takes to setup and tear down; the more it costs to acquire equipment. Keep it simple. Position the lights in good spots. You will be able to just fire away all night.
Photo credits: Kerry Garrison, qhphotography.com