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Portrait in fake window light

Portrait lit with two lights, one flash through window for hard sunlight effect. Profoto zoom reflector

Sometimes the idea how to light a portrait, on-location or in the studio, comes naturally. Mostly on-location, I must confess, as the studio often is the dreaded blank white paper that can induce some kind of lighter’s block in me.

Anyway, this was an assignment for a large Swedish publishing house and they wanted new author portraits, or headshots, of the famous Ulf Nilsson. He was kind enough to let me use his apartment in the Old Town of Stockholm as a studio for the day. He is also my brother-in-law (altough none of us are married to the ones we are living with, yet). The apartment is quite spectacular, and has a very special layout which made this shot possible. I didn’t even need a ladder.

Flat and boring ambient light


Only available light. 1/6 second and f/2.8. ISO 200, straight from camera.

The light in the apartment I was working in had pleasant light, with windows on both sides of the room. But it didn’t really work out as portrait light, especially when the sofa was in the middle of the room where the light was quite flat.

This apartment is strange, it stretches over two different houses with a small corridor connecting them. When I first got there, I noticed that I could stand in the tv room and look down into the living room, through the windows.


Profoto D1 250 Air with Zoom Reflector on almost full effect, 9/10.

Light modifiers from a distance

I started the lighting setup by placing a Profoto D1 250 Air near the window in the tv room, which is half a floor higher than the living room where the author would sit. The light modifier I used was a Profoto Zoom Reflector with barn doors, it would have been more effective with a Magnum Reflector or even a TeleZoom, but I had only brought the smaller reflector this time, and some other stuff.


1/200s, f/4 and ISO 200. One light only, and straight from camera.

Starting with the hard light

This is how just one light completely changed the flat light into something more interesting, the ambient is gone and the contrast is much higher. For the naked eye, it looked quite good but the camera needed something more. I wanted details everywhere, and skin tones in different brightness, not just light and dark.

My idea was not just hard light, I wanted something more like the light inside a room, near windows, in the spring when the sun is low but the hard light bounces around and adds fill light naturally.

With a Nikon D800 and a 105mm/2,8 using aperture f/4 was a safe way of making sure most of the shots would be in focus, and at the same time blocking out all or most of the mixed ambient light from windows and ceiling lamps. The shutter speed set to 1/200s helped as well.


One-light fill from a 5-foot Profoto softbox Octa camera left

Almost invisible fill light

I didn’t plan for any advanced lighting setups on this assignment, so I just brought my medium sized kit. But that always contains my trusted 5-foot softbox Octa which I used as fill in this portrait. I also had a Chimera panel and diffusion material, but the Octa did the job perfectly.

Placed camera left a few feet from the author and set to a relatively low effect, it alone created the light in the test photo above. It is always a good idea, if possible, to take test shots using one light at the time. That way you can see how they are involved in the overall lighting scheme.

This is the best type of fill, in my opinion. Just enough to lift the shadows a little so skin tones look like skin tones and not deep shadows. The shadow cast from this light is visible in the final shot, but also a bit hidden in the shadow side right of our model. I could have placed it more on-axis with the camera to minimize this, but in the overall picture, I think it worked fine.


Behind the scenes

This is how the room looked like with everything set up, the Profoto Octa left, the camera in the middle and the large windows/doors through which the light half a floor higher creates the hard sunlight effect.

None of the lights were gelled, and I think that looked good. Next time I might try to add a warmer tone to one of the lights to create something slightly different.


The final shot, cropped as headshot

I have still not really warmed up to the thought of having gigantic NEF-files to import all the time using the Nikon D800, but for this kind of assignment it is really nice to have so large files that I can crop them and deliver two different photos from one RAW file. This one is still as big as an uncropped file from a D700.

Another thing I must mention is the Profoto Air system, even with two old walls between me and one of the lights, the radio signals worked flawlessly. I am not an expert on signals and which ways they travel, so they might have taken the easier route through the corridor or the windows, but they got where they were needed. I don’t know if that had been possible with some kind of IR-system?

A bit like riding a bike, but better

This was my first big assigment after eight months of paternity leave with our twins, I have done a few smaller jobs in natural light, but setting the studio lights like this on-location have been a while since I did last.

The funny thing is that knowledge and experience tend to grow while you do other things, many years ago when I started learning snowboarding I was fascinated by the fact that I somehow had gotten a little bit better during the summer. Without practising. And it is the same thing here, I have been reading and thinking of lighting a lot during my leave and when I start doing it again, I start on a slightly higher level. Or maybe aiming for new kinds of solutions to problem?

That is also one of my goals for the remaining part of this year, to make a little bit more out of every assignment. Not just to have stuff for the blog, but to learn to use my equipment in different and new ways.

A final word on the post processing, it is almost only colours and contrast, I let his skin remain untouched, just removed some smaller spots here and there using Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC.

Thanks for visiting this blog, if you like this post, please share it anyway you want. Any question will be answered and comments are greatly appreciated, either here or on my Facebook page. Or just press Like. Thanks again.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Lanthus Clark September 8, 2013, 09:49

    Photography is very often about problem solving and in this instance you were really thinking “outside of the box” (or room)!

    I am keen to try the fake sunlight through the window trick, and just as keen to see if my Elinchrom wireless transmitter has as much success penetrating walls.

    Thanks for sharing your setup with us once again, I always learn something new!


  • Stefan Tell September 9, 2013, 13:37

    next time I think I will experiment with gelling one of the lights, and maybe adding a curtain to make it look a little more natural, and softer.

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