The easiest way to get a good portrait lighting that works for a lot of people, I think, is to reduce it to a very simple setup. One light that comes slightly from above and the side. And maybe one light to act as both rim light from behind as well as lighting the background (depending on the type of background of course).
Easy to set up, shoot and shoot again
I shoot a lot of portraits for different companies, corporate portraits and ordinary headshots of employees, and sometimes portraits of authors for book publishers. Very often I find myself wanting to create something new, some lighting setup I haven’t used before. And, when trying to recreate that look next time I shoot for the same company, even with my lighting diagrams, it is often more work to get that same shot than it should be.
More examples and studio lighting diagrams after the jump…
Going back to a very basic portrait setup
It may sound like the most natural thing in the world, but still it continues to surprise me. That every person I have ever shot differed in some way from all the others. Some people have big hair, others have shaved heads or no hair at all. Some people are tall, some are short, some have big eyes, some have small eyes and some always seem to squint and showing almost no eyes.
One light fits all
Fat or slim, dark or light skin, setting a light that creates shadows and define the face in a simple way is always a good thing. If you ever have tried learning to draw, the basic principle is to be able to draw the face with a couple of well placed strokes, focusing on the eyes and mouth.
Have a look at the excellent illustrator Andrew Loomis and his very instructional anatomy books for artists, for example Drawing The Head and Hands (available as public domain) and you will see that most pictures uses the same light, the simple ones that is.
A shadow under the nose, a little shadow in the eye sockets and more shadow under the chin. As the light comes a little from one side, there is a little shadow on the side of the face to define the cheekbone and the underlying bone structure.
If it works for him, it might as well work for me.
Basic portrait lighting setup diagram
The portraits above I shot with this simple two-light setup. One Profoto White Softlight Reflector (beauty dish) as main light, and a medium softbox from behind as rim light and background light.
A lighting setup for small spaces
Another thing I encounter a lot when I shoot portraits for companies is that the room that was supposed to be large enough to convert into a temporary photo studio turned out to be quite small. After setting up a couple of lights and light stands, maybe together with a background, almost every room seem small.
If the ceiling is too low, you can always try having your model sit on a chair, if you only need a headshot or head & shoulder portrait. Using a white table as a reflector can also be a solution.
With a setup this simple, there are things that are hard to avoid. The spill from the background, for example. If you light a white paper background this close to the model, some of the light will bounce back and create a thin rim light on the side of the head, as seen from the camera. For people with more hair, this might not be a problem at all.
A black flag of some sort might help a little, but the effect will be hard to remove completely from the picture. Adjusting the angle of the rim light can also change how the spill behaves, but not much.
Different skin types and rim light
A light from behind hitting the skin from this angle might be very revealing for the structure of the skin, and not always in a good way. I like this effect, but in some cases it might be good to try to reduce the effect a bit, changing the angle of the rim light or diffusing the light even more.
Again, for people with longer hair, the light will only act as a hair light on the side of the head. The side of the face will most likely just be a shadow if you don’t use a reflector of some kind to add some light.
Watch the ears
The ears are small and mostly thin things that sticks out from the head, and they are full of blood vessels. If the light from behind “shines through” the ears, they will light up brightly red most likely. And that might not be something that the model would want.
Just look out for the angle of the head together with the angle of the light from behind and this will not be a problem. Trying to remove the redness in post processing is very boring and time consuming (I have tried it more than once, just because I had to) and it will probably look bad.
Equipment used for basic portraits
The camera was my old Nikon D700 with my favorite portrait lens, the 85mm/1.4. Light came from one Profoto AcuteB 600R fitted with a Profoto White Softlight Reflector (beauty dish, no grid) and a Profoto Compact 600R in a medium softbox (2×3 feet/60×90 cm). And a roll of white background paper.
Very similar results could probably be achieved, Strobist-style, with camera flashes, umbrellas or other types of light modifiers.