Eric Stoner
Eric Stoner

Eric's professional photographic career spans over 25 years specializing in portraits, weddings and commercial photography using everything from simple lighting to very complex.

The Dramatic Portrait

June 15, 2016

I used to consider myself a “natural light” photographer and I got really good at controlling the light that was provided to me to make beautiful portraits.  Speedlites were somewhat of a mystery to me for some reason because while using TTL (through-the-lens flash metering), I never knew exactly how much light I was putting on my subject.  For some reason, that was important to me, most likely because I learned on manual flash units that had three settings . . . 50 watt seconds, 100 watt seconds and 200 watt seconds.  Anyway, once the 600EX-RT was released back in early 2012, a whole new world of lighting control opened up to me.  I love these Speedlites for a few reasons:

  1. I have the reliability of radio transmission from camera to off camera Speedlites.
  2. TTL automatic flash is very accurate, more so than it’s ever been.
  3. With this system I had complete control over all units in up to five different groups with the ability of having some flashes in E-TTL and others in manual.

I’m absolutely a Speedlite guy because they are so darned reliable and portable.

While on a recent trip to ShutterFest, a terrific photography conference in St. Louis each Spring, I taught a class entitled Great light Anywhere, Anytime with Speedlites.  The goal of the class was to give students more confidence, something I didn’t have until 2012 when this Speedlite made its debut! 

During the class we made some terrific images of our model, Anna Elizabeth Truett, and I’d like to share some of them by walking you through the progression of how the final portrait was created  . . . all with Speedlites.

We came across the exterior walls of an elevator shaft located in the hotel we were staying at that were lined with wrought iron metal work.  With gorgeous repeating lines, when viewed at the proper angle, we could surround the model with black iron-work.

Here is the final shot so you can get a feel of the surroundings:

Figure 1 – Final image reveal

Let’s start from the first shot and take you through the “build” and some of the problems I encountered along the way to the final image. For the first shot, I wanted to start very simple to get a baseline image by just using one off-camera Westcott Rapid Box placed to the right of our model Anna.

Figure 2 - Westcott 26” Rapid Box Octa

Figure 3 - One off camera Speedlite in a Westcott Rapid Box Octa

Figure 4 - Lighting diagram for Figure 3

It’s not bad. The repeating shapes from the ironwork make for nice leading lines but there’s nothing that truly stands out to me as a unique image.

Adding a light from behind will give the model separation from the background so I added a Westcott Rapid Box Strip with a grid attached to accomplish that goal.

The light was angled back toward the camera lens, which was why I added the grid to the light to help control flare and prevent too much light spill around the scene.

Figure 5 - Two lights were used in this setup: One off camera Speedlite in a Westcott Rapid Box Octa as the key light and Westcott Rapid Box Strip with grid.

Figure 6 – Lighting diagram for Figure 5

After looking at the image, I decided that it wasn’t interesting enough yet AND I wasn’t happy about the white light reflection in the glass from the strip light behind the model so I changed it up. 

Figure 7 - MagMod with grid installed on 600EX-RT Speedlite

I removed the strip light and used a MagMod grid on a Speedlight with a blue gel and had my assistant aim it on the model’s hair from high and behind to also spill into the iron work for an interesting blue texture to the background. Here is that result:

Figure 8 - Two lights were used in this setup: One off camera 600EX-RT Speedlite in a Westcott Rapid Box Octa as the key light and a second 600EX-RT with a MagMod grid aimed at the model’s hair.

Figure 9 - Lighting diagram for Figure 8

It’s certainly more interesting to me however I wasn’t pleased with how the blue gel from the Speedlite reacted with the model’s platinum blond hair so I asked my assistant to turn the light away from the model and aim it completely into the elevator shaft. The grid also controlled the light from spilling onto the model. As you can see in the image below, now we’re getting somewhere but I still wanted to refine the overall look.

Figure 10 - Two lights were used in this setup: One off camera 600EX-RT Speedlite in a Westcott Rapid Box Octa as the key light and a second 600EX-RT with a MagMod grid aimed toward the elevator shaft away from the model.

Figure 11 - Lighting diagram for figure 10

I decided that the color blue was working behind the model and we were beginning to see a dramatic portrait come to life so I added a blue gel to the main softbox illuminating the model. You may think well that’s not going to look very good and you’re right but stay with me as it’s going to get interesting! Here’s what it looks like:

Figure 12 – All lights shut down with the exception of the key light with a blue gel.

When using gels, the intensity of the color is changed by how much light pushed through the gel.  A lot of power will result in a lighter color and a little power will result in a deeper, rich color.  I shut all the lights down with the exception of this one to adjust the power of the Speedlite until I got the color to my liking.

Now with all the lights back on, I need to remedy the blue looking model with some white light on her face with a MagMod Snoot.

Figure 13 - MagMod Snoot mounted on 600EX-RT Speedlite

The snoot focuses a small circle of light just on Anna’s face, cancelling out most of the blue light that was predominant in the last image.

Figure 14 – Three lights were used in this setup: One off camera 600EX-RT Speedlite in a Westcott Rapid Box Octa as the key light and a second 600EX-RT with a MagMod grid aimed toward the elevator shaft away from the model and one 600EX-RT with a MagMod Snoot aimed at model’s face. Notice the blue color cast on the model’s cheek.

Figure 15 – lighting diagram for Figure 14

Looking at this image, it’s much better than where I started however I noticed some blue light still contaminating the skin on her chin and cheek that I didn’t like. There was also something else missing that I couldn’t put my finger on right away and then it came to me with one solution. The model needed more warmth to her skin tone, but just on the face. With the addition of a CTO (color temperature orange) filter on the Speedlite with the snoot aimed at her face, I eliminated the blue color-cast on her skin and warmed up her entire face at the same time. The opposite color of cool blue color temperature is warm amber. I chose a 1/2 CTO filter for the snoot and viola! That was it! Dramatic portrait DONE!

Figure 16 – Completed portrait. Three lights were used in this setup: One off camera 600EX-RT Speedlite in a Westcott Rapid Box Octa as the key light and a second 600EX-RT with a MagMod grid aimed toward the elevator shaft away from the model and one 600EX-RT with a MagMod Snoot and ½ CTO gel aimed at model’s face.

Figure 17 – Lighting diagram for Figure 16

Sometimes you have ideas in your head of what you want an image to look like and once you get there, you may decide to take it in a completely new direction.  Originally I was looking for a fairly simple portrait against the black iron-work and it morphed into something much better as I worked through the technical problems that presented themselves throughout the shoot.

Working with Speedlites gives me the flexibility to change things very quickly and easily on the fly. Echoing that same sentiment, using light modifiers (mentioned in this article) that are portable and don’t slow down the creative process are BIG bonuses for me and I refuse to give them up! Portability is key for me as I travel and I can fit all I need to accomplish my goals in a small camera case.

Your creativity is only bound by your imagination!

 

Special thanks to the following:

FJ Westcott Lighting

MagMod Speedlite modifiers

www.sylights.com for lighting diagrams

Anna Elizabeth Truett - Model

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