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Three one light portraits on location

Publicity portrait with bokeh using one light (Profoto AcuteB 600R) and ambient light

One of my latest assignments was taking some portraits of the director of The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA). I have worked for them during the last three years, mostly documenting their winners visiting Sweden for the award week and ceremony. Now it was just some publicity portraits we did.

It is nice to get outside the studio and try to do simple portraits on location with as little equipment as possible. I brought only one light this time (a Profoto AcuteB 600R and a large 5 foot softbox Octa), but we managed to get good portraits from three different “stations” without having to spend too much time on setups and preparations.

Our first stop was in front of the reception desk, they have a lot of small lights hanging from a very special ceiling, it looks like copper. Whatever it is, it reflects light in a nice way, and together with the many small lights it makes for a good, out of focus background.

test-image-wrong-white-balanceGetting ambient right

The distance to where the background started was a couple of meters away, but to get the right DOF so the lights had some kind of bokeh quality I didn’t want to use to much power on the flash.

Starting with getting the light in the background right, I forgot to set the white balance to around 5200K which most of the time produces a nice, warm tone in portraits with this light and light modifier. On the image to the right, I think it was set to Auto, and everything but the lights looks really blue. Not exactly what I had in mind for this portrait.

I used 1/200s and f/4 for this test shot, and that was a bit too dark. Lowering the shutter speed to 1/125s and opening up the aperture to f/3.2 made the background as I wanted it.

Adding a light

Time to turn on the flash. The AcuteB 600R and the large softbox was placed camera right on a stand, aiming just in front of my subject, slightly from above. Feathering the light by not pointing it directly towards the face makes for a better portrait, I think.

To balance the light from the flash with the ambient light in the reception area, I set it almost as low as it can be. I don’t use a light meter for this kind of work, just relying on the camera display and histogram. After a couple of test shots, and increasing the light output a little, it looked like a good exposure. But the shadows were too dark.

One of the girls working there was glad to help by holding a large silver reflector, camera left, and that was all that I needed to add some light on his other side of the face. I did bring a stand and reflector holder for this, but if someone wants to help out a bit, why not?

Time to change location a couple of meters.


A portrait by the window, with rim light

Our next stop was just next to the large windows, where I let my model stand with his head turned a little towards the light. The light came in from the window, but was blocked by something outside. Most of the light hitting his face comes from indirect sunlight, if I would have tried to get more of him in the picture, the lower parts would have been completely burned out by the direct light, so I turned the camera 90 degrees.

I think this portrait could have been just fine without any studio lights, but as it stood there and I used a PocketWizard, it was no problem to use it as a rim light, separating him more from the background. Placing the light camera right again, far back, but aimed at the windows behind him defined his face a little better I think, making it more three dimensional.

And finally, going outside for the last shots


The spring has sprung in Sweden, but this day there was just a grey sky. The sunlight was quite hard, coming through the overcast. I would have loved a blue sky, but just being able to take outdoor portraits without the client freezing to death was good enough.

We chose a spot where we could get a little shadow from a large tree (just outside the picture on the left side). Having his back to the sun, and a little help from the tree blocking some of the light, I dialed in the exposure so no highlights were blown. There were lots of light around, so no reflector was needed.


1/200s and f/6.3 with more power from the AcuteB produced this portrait. If the sky had been blue, I think I would have chosen a different background, and used more flash to get more contrast. But, the background was not that interesting, so it was nice to get it out of focus. Just a little bit at least.

Trying to be mobile

I used a Nikon D700 with the 85mm/1.4 for all portraits. I packed a 24-70mm/2.8 as well, but it was never needed. Even if I really tried to use as little equipment as I could, it was still three heavy bags. One camera bag for the camera, two lenses, a PocketWizard and SB-800 just in case. The AcuteB has its own bag for the battery generator and the lamp head. And a big bag with a camera stand (good to have if I need to be my own test model to get the lights right), three light stands, some clamps, the softbox Octa and a Chimera reflector panel. And duct tape.

It might be possible to just bring a stand, a light and a light modifier, but I wouldn’t risk standing there needing another stand, a reflector or something else. The good thing is that with just this, it is quite easy to move around a produce three different looking portraits in about 30 minutes, knowing that I can use available light, or set up a really small studio if I need to.

The only thing I forgot was a large piece of black fabric, and white as well. It would have solved the problem with the strong sunlight from the window. Just tape it to the window, either black fabric to completly block it, or white fabric to diffuse it enough to work with.

Or hang it from a reflector holder when shooting outside, works just as well.

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