The classic one-light low-key editorial fashion or portrait image. This lighting tutorial discusses how I use a single monohead and a white satin panel for a low key lighting setup. Again, we don’t need to blast the model with 1000′s of watt seconds. A 400ws or better monolight will work just perfectly.
Try this low key lighting setup for your next portrait shoot as well. Everyone loves the low key portrait look, especially the magazines. If you still doubt me, please take a look at one of the greatest portrait photographers, Albert Watson…..see, told ya, lol.
The designer left it up to me as far as how I wanted to shoot this. The studio cyc wall was beginning to look a bit faded and needed a fresh coat of paint, perhaps a dark gray might look nice. I took a piece of “Thunder Gray” seamless paper to the local HomeDepot and asked the paint department to match it with their groovy paint color analyzer. $30 later, I had a few gallons of inexpensive matte finish “Thunder Gray”.
I learned a long time ago, the photographer needs to make the subject comfortable in the first 5 minutes of entering the studio. I have music playing and the studio is clean, bottled water and fresh fruit in the refrigerator, kinda like having company over for cocktails.
A while back I shot this series of images for a local clothing designer and modeling agency. This was Hayley’s second time in front of the camera and she did an amazing job. Modeling agencies like to see images with personality, movement, confidence, and expressions in the eyes. Hayley didn’t require much posing instruction, she just looked at herself in the mirror and knew she looked great.
For lighting I used a single 5′ x 8′ white satin panel. I could have used 2 nylon fabrics doubled up as well, either way works just fine. Over the lower 1/2 of the panel I attached a black cloth, and this gave me the darker gradation below the knees. Power is a 500 w/s mono-head, set at about 250-300 ws…..F/5.6 has plenty of depth-of-field for the average person….not just skinny models, lol.
Matte paint is supposed to be flat and non-reflective…..but we may still have a bit of shine or glare…just like seamless paper. At any rate, the black cloth does a nice job of feathering the light and reducing glare from the floor area.
To control or adjust the lighting contrast, simply move the mono-head closer or further from the white satin panel. If the mono-head is 1 foot from the panel we have a small circle of light or a specular light source. But if we move the mono-head 3-4 feet away from the fabric, we now have a large circle of light or a large diffused light source.
If you have been following my lighting diagrams and articles, you may have noticed, the lighting modifiers are between 6-12 feet from the subjects or models. There is a simple explanation for this. I wish the light to be even when it strikes the model, regardless of whether it is specular or diffused lighting. I eliminate the hot-spots with distance. And yes, even softboxes have hot-spots.
Take a few moments and try this simple experiment at home in your backyard, works best at night or in a darkened room. Set up a softbox 45 Degrees camera left or right, about 12 feet from your subject and take a shot. Now move that softbox 4 feet from your subject, still 45 Degrees off camera center, and take another picture.
Open the two images, side by side in Photoshop, and you will notice a significant difference in hot-spots and contrast. Which distance has a more even light quality from head to toe?
Why do I use panels, well, here are a few reasons.
1) The panels allow me to adjust the image contrast very quickly by moving the mono-head back and forth. I don’t move the panels…just the mono-head to panel distance.
2) The circle of light that strikes the panel feathers slightly at the outer edges of the circle. This softens the light fall-off in the shadow areas or darker regions. In contrast, the softbox has a very crisp edge… where the diffusion material meets the black frame, and thus no feathering at all. This may be fine for many folks, I simple prefer soft shadows, lol.
3) I like the round catchlight in the eyes. The panels in the slideshow resemble the Sun on a soft hazy day. Skin texture looks natural and smoother than what I get with a softbox. I mimic the light quality of the Sun in the studio.
4) The fabrics are machine washable, light, and travel very well. For airline travel I leave the PVC frames at home, and just pack a few small & light 8′ stands and clamps. Stretch and hold the fabric between light stands with $3 clamps, done in seconds.
5) Expense, 5 panels cost about as much to make as 1 good quality XL softbox. I can also use panels as giant reflectors or to diffuse the Sunlight outdoors. For product and food lighting they are superb as well.
Don’t take my word for it, lol. I copied what the movie industry has been doing for 100+ years. Many well known photographers have adopted similar lighting setups, they just don’t discuss it.
As always, zero Photoshop post production on the lighting in these images. Only basic whitebalance, exposure, and a film curve.
This lighting is so easy, even a caveman could do it.
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