For me, shooting portraits on-location is always a balance between time and flexibility, do I have time for advanced setups or do I want to be able to adjust on the fly to get more variety out of my session.
Often I chose the quickest and most flexible setup, and nothing is more easy to adjust and adapt than lighting with two large umbrellas. If you work indoors and have a large enough room, that is.
Checking the background first
If I arrive at a client’s office and are looking for a place to use as a temporary studio I want to know if the background will work. Setting the focus to Manual lets me see how it will look, and starting with an exposure (here it was a bit too bright at first) I can see how I can use it.
Working with minimal equipment, I want to know if there will be any other light sources (other than my lights) that might affect the portrait. In this office, I chose a spot in the middle of the room with no windows too close and no spotlights pointed at the place I would put the model.
Find the right starting point
Adjusting the exposure a bit, I got a darker background that I thought would work well as a backdrop. If I would have started with a brighter setting, it would be hard to light the person with my Profoto B2 and the two heads without risking to get too much light everywhere and no contrast.
Starting with a background too bright limits my options with the lighting of the foreground, and the ambient light in the room might be a problem if you don’t use flags a lot. A little mixing of ambient and flash is good, I think, as long as it something you control and want to be there.
A very flexible and quick portrait setup
Using a symmetrical lighting with a Profoto B2 and two large Profoto Deep Umbrella (white inside), it gave me the freedom to let the models stand in any direction they wished (almost).
The settings on the B2 is the same on both heads, as well as the angle of the lights and umbrellas. Using this method requires a bit of space everywhere, but you could do it with smaller umbrellas and try placing them closer to the model.
Using larger umbrellas, if you have room for it, is a bit easier as it is more forgiving in many ways. The model doesn’t need to stand exactly on the right place, and it will be a good photo anyway.
If you would chose smaller umbrellas closer, a smaller change in distance from the lights will change the lighting more (inverse square law, and all that). But it can be done, especially with controlled headshots.
With the two lights placed right, glasses will not be a problem, but if it is you can just adjust the angle a little bit and maybe move the lights more out to the sides to get rid of the reflections.
If you have a decent distance to the background, your lights will mostly hit the model so you can change from portrait to landscape mode if you want more of the background in the photo. In the photo above I moved the camera a little bit to the left to change the background just enough to create something different.
But I didn’t have to change the lighting at all.
One of the best things about this portrait lighting setup is that I can fit all the equipment in one photo backpack and one small (but long) bag for my lighting stands. The Profoto B2 is excellent for this kind of assignment. I can use Manfrotto Nano stands if I want to get rid of the other bag completely, but most of the time I use lightweight stands one step up from the Nano.
Using the Profoto B1 for this, I would have used even heavier stands, but why carry more when you can carry less?
One last thing
It is nice to use this setup for portrait as it is, but you can also use it as a starting point for a lot of variation. Just turn one light down a bit and the lighting will change a lot, or change the angle of one (or both) lights. Or turn one of them a bit to see how that affects your portrait.
Like the game Othello says; A minute to learn, a lifetime to master (or something similar). I have avoided umbrellas for a long time in favour of softboxes or a beautydish, but recently they have grown on me.
Just being able to unpack the bag quickly, setting up the lights and adding umbrellas for a quick portrait is very rewarding. And I can spend more time talking to the model or trying out variations of the same theme.
And with the catchlights, it looks even a bit like natural window light.