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3-light serious portrait setup

Portraiture, half-length portrait of gentleman shot in my photo studio, black and white. Photographer Stefan Tell

Most of my portrait photography features a smiling face, or at least someone working hard not to look too grim and serious. But, sometimes someone comes into my photo studio in Stockholm and does exactly the opposite.

The gentleman in this case works as a business consultant and he is a very nice guy, but he doesn’t smile for the camera. Nope. And I like that, you don’t have to smile. Most lawyers never do that, for example.

The lighting setup in my studio used three Profoto Compacts and I developed all portraits in Lightroom including the black and white conversion. And added some final touches in Photoshop.

This was the short version.

Three light studio portrait setup diagram

Studio Lighting Setup Diagram for Business Portrait using 3 Profoto Lights. Photographer Stefan Tell

Click on the diagram for more studio lighting setup diagrams

One large light source & a dark background

This must be my most often used studio setup when I shoot business portraits, with some variations not to do exactly the same portrait over and over.

A large octagonal softbox in front of the subject, in this case my 5 foot (150 cm) Profoto Softbox Octa, not pointed directly at the body of the subject, but slightly in front of him/her.

Two reasons, one is to minimize the light hitting the background (I have a quite small photo studio) and the other is to make the light a little bit more interesting by feathering the big soft light.

Portrait in black and white of a gentleman. Photographer Stefan Tell

Lighting just one plane of the face

This might be boring and a very traditional way of doing business portraits, but it works all the time. If the head and face is angled correctly towards the camera and the light is hitting the face at this angle, just one plane is lit.

If you ever have tried to sketch a human head (or modelling a head in 3D), one very good way of learning to do this is by dividing the head into different planes. The face is one, if you draw very roughly (links to free books on drawing in another post).

Without any reflectors in the studio, the Octa just lights the frontal parts of the face, wrapping slightly around the sides and the little fill in the shadow parts comes from the white wall a couple of meters away.

Gridded background light for separation

manfrotto-floor-standA Profoto Compact 300 with a gridded reflector standing on a floor stand (Manfrotto 012B Backlite Stand w Pole), maybe one foot above the floor, angled slightly up towards the medium grey background paper.

It might be easier in many ways to place the background light, if you want a gradient on the dark background, higher up. Placing it near the floor creates a shape of the light on the background that is harder to control. And the light is more complicated to adjust for different peoples height, compared to having it hitting the background straight on.

But, this was a single portrait, so that was not a problem this time.

Softer rim and hair light this time

I have been doing portraits for this client a couple of times now, and even if I document the lighting setups, they might differ a little bit every time. Mostly because the background light is a little too complicated to get exactly the same way every time.

The light I use as both hair light and rim light for the head was at first a gridded beauty dish (a white Profoto Softlight Reflector) but this time I wanted the effect from this light to be softer.

Here you can see the setup diagram and some example business portraits from earlier photo sessions and the only difference is that the gridded beauty dish has been replaced with a Strip Softbox fitted with a mask so it only gives away a small soft strip of light.

The result is that it doesn’t blow out the highlights completely in light or grey hair, or creates big areas with no detail on shaved heads or heads with no hair at all.

Black and white conversion in Lightroom

The portraits I deliver to this client is mostly used in a black and white version, and in many ways, black and white portraits are far easier to do. Especially when taking portraits of a lot of different people with different skin types and all that. Doing small adjustments in colour photos and at the same time trying to preserve the exact same background tone and colour can be very time consuming, it often involves Photoshop and a lot of masking.

My main goal was to create a portrait that had a lot of texture, but not overdoing it and making him look too old. Using Lightroom for the black and white conversion is very handy, I think.

I haven’t tried the plugins or filters for Lightroom lately, but using some free presets can be a good starting point, even if it most of the times needs adjusting before it feels right.

Before & After adjusting Black & White Mix


The same applies to the Auto-function in Lightroom, the left image above is the result of pressing that button and letting Lightroom decide how to mix the different colours for the black and white conversion.

The image on the right is my final adjustments, see settings below right.


I don’t have any specific method for converting colour photos to black and white, it is mostly a combination of getting different parts to look good as a whole. But, the first thing in this kind of portrait is making the eyes look alive. And that might depend on the colour of the eyes, of course.

photoshop-qiuck-mask-combining-different-black-and-white-conversionsAfter having pulled and pushed the levers a bit in different directions I found a mix that both made his eyes shine a little and the texture of the skin looked good. The only problem was that this particular mix made the background very grainy and with hard contrast, almost speckled.

The workaround for this was to make two copies from Lightroom, one with the right settings for the subject and another where the background was smooth.

Combining the two differently developed copies in Photoshop was very easy. Just place one on top of the other and mask out the top image with a quick layer mask in Photoshop.

Other ways of doing this

There are, of course, many different way you could do this. I guess I could have done it all in Lightroom (adjustment brushes and such) and avoiding the layer part in Photoshop. But, masking in Photoshop is for me still the best way of having control over what I do.

The end.

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