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Let me be candid here for a moment. I am not a professional portrait photographer and I am documenting this process for personal reference in my learning experience.

Portrait photography is one of the oldest forms of the art and there are mountains of information regarding the subject available. I recently attended a workshop put on by the Professional Photographers of America that helped explain some of the fundamentals of lighting that really helped me understand how to layer lighting to achieve depth and dimension in a subject. This was an epiphany for me personally. The missing piece to understanding artificial light that I had not seen in any tutorials.

Camera Settings.

To understand anything that follows you must first have a firm understanding of the three fundamentals of photography and their relationship to one another.

F/stop – How much light the lens lets into the sensor and depth of field (focus depth).

Shutter speed – How long light is exposed to the sensor.

ISO – How sensitive the sensor is to that light.

Understand that f/2.8 lets in twice as much light as f/5.6 and 4 times more light than f/8. This becomes tremendously important later on when determining lighting ratio.

Shutter speed works the same, 1/60 sec lets in twice the light than 1/120 sec does and 4 times more than 1/200 sec.

Same with ISO, ISO 200 records twice the light as ISO 100 and ISO 400 records 4 times more light than ISO 100 and so on.

That’s the short version. Why is this important? First, for me, I need to establish a base parameter for each type of photograph I take. Landscape/travel, sports/wildlife, portrait/product. Example: Landscape photography usually requires tremendous depth of field and a crystal clear image so that usually takes care of two of  the three paramaters, namely a small aperature f/11 or smaller depending on the lens and the near subject and ISO 100 or the lowest native ISO your camera supports. What is left? Shutter speed. Once you are locked into f/stop and ISO you are stuck with shutter speed. Since we are dealing with a subject such as a mountain that doesn’t move much,  shutter speed is usually not a critical factor as long as you use a tripod.

Sports/wildlife photography is just the opposite. Here freezing a moving subject is usually the most important aspect of the photograph not the background. That requires that you have a fast shutter speed and your f/stop will be somewhere around f/4-f 5.6 so that leaves ISO as the wildcard. (I have the greatest respect for sports & wildlife photographers!)

Portrait photography is no different. You need to assess what the important elements are. First, f/stop-depth of field, is your subject in focus front to rear? Is the background important to be in focus? One tool that I use is an app called SetMyCamDF (http://setmycamera.com/Products/SMC_DF/SMC_DF.html) This is an invaluable tool regardless of the type of photography you do. When doing portraits I typically set my f/stop to f/5.6 and this gives me decent subject depth of field and a nice soft background.

Next is shutter speed. Since I am shooting a static or a slow moving object 1/60 is usually sufficient even if I am hand holding the camera.

ISO, no one wants a grainy picture so the lower the better, typically ISO 100-200. With todays imaging software and advanced sensors I can be talked into higher ISO than in the past so this is the variable I am most likely to adjust if necessary.

So, my base camera setting is: f/5.6, 1/60 sec, ISO 200. This setting will not change throughout the process. Everything else will be controlled by lighting.



As you can see there is a fair amount of diffused natural light falling on my subject (Dionne; works cheap, works when I do and doesn’t take potty breaks ;-)) I’ve set the camera in landscape mode to show the settings. None of the photos in this tutorial have been altered or adjusted for exposure other than minor cropping. I am using a Canon 5D MKIII with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens.

The most important piece of gear is a good incidence flash meter. You can do this by trial and error but to be done quickly and precisely it should be done using a good flash meter. I use the Sekonic L-308S-U.


So now we are all set up to start shooting. First we start by taking a shot with the camera set at our target setting f/5.6 1/60 second ISO 200 with no flash. This will be the target setting for the highlights but first we want to make sure little to no light is being recorded on the subject so we have complete control of the lighting.  As you recall there was a fair amount of ambient light falling on the subject. Now observe “little grasshopper” this is very important.

CPP Flash Test-068

As you can see, even with a lot of ambient light in the studio as far as the camera is concerned none is falling on our subject. We control the light! Yep, that’s total black. F/5.6, 1/60 sec, ISO 200.

Now we start building our light. First off remember our final target lighting needs to match our camera setting of f/5.6 that is what we are building up to in the highlights. The first light we add is the main light set just above and to the left of the camera. In this case. It is 8′ away from the subject. I am using a Gary Fong (www.garyfong.com) diffuser to soften and spread the light. There are any number of alternatives on the market and even a bare speedlight will work in this example. Right now this is the only flash firing and is set to 1/8 power. Important: We are going for a 3:1 lighting ratio. In other words, I want my key light to throw 2X or one full f/stop more light than my main light. So with this first light our target f/stop is f/2.8. This will be the shadow portion of the image which you will only want 1/3 of the total light falling on the subject.

CPP Flash Test-069

As you can see, the image is quite dark. Remember, This is the shadow we are controlling now.


To get to the target f/2.8 I had to drop the power of the main light to1/8. Please see my tutorial on setting up your speedlights in part one if you have not done so.

Now I am going to set the key light to the target f/5.6. Remember, I am adding or building on the base light. Leave the main light on.

CPP Flash Test-070Now we’re getting somewhere! From here on out it is just adding spice to the soup. I have not touched the camera settings at all, only added light in the amount I wanted where I wanted it. I am using a Impact Quickbox diffuser and Yongnuo YN560 IV speedlights with the Yongnuo YN560-TX controller. The main light is about 8′ from the subject and my key light is 6′ from the subject. You can also fine tune the strength of the lights by moving them closer or farther away from your subject. Sometimes this is not an option so best to learn how to adjust the power in your individual lights.


Now let’s add a hair light to bring out detail in Dionne’s lovely coiffure.

CPP Flash Test-071

It’s subtle but it’s there. Experiment with the light setting and modifier. I used a white umbrella reflector at f/4. Snoots and grids work well too. MagMod makes a great versatile system. http://www.magnetmod.com

CPP Flash Test-072

Shadow side too dark? (look at her left cheek) Add a white reflector to lighten it. Move it closer to make it lighter or farther away until you get the effect you want. Try moving the main light to the other side of the camers as well, this will lighten the shadows for a less dramatic look.

Hope you have found this helpful. Please visit my website http://www.2can2images.com