Light Source Size Differences: Why It Makes or Breaks Your Studio Portrait Shots

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When you are doing portrait photography there are a lot of variables. Some of them you have control over and some of them you do not. You need to learn which ones these are and figure out how to change the ones that you can and then how to live with the ones that you can not. It is a fine line and a balancing act but certainly something that you can do as long as you know what is happening and has an action plan for the various variables that you will encounter.

Size Really Does Matter

In some things you will find that the size really is more important than in others. This is a rule that is very true when you are talking about shooting portrait photography. The size of your umbrella or your light box is going to make a huge impact on the overall quality of your final portrait shot.

If you are just starting in the world of portrait photography it is very easy to waste a lot of money and still not get what you really need or want. If you can get the place where you are purchasing your equipment to either loan or rent you the gear that you are considering so that you can make sure before purchase that it will do what you want it to do, you will be infinitely better off than just going in and making a purchase.

When you get the potential components back to your studio you want to remove as many variables as you can so that the results that you capture show the true images of what the gear will do and you can easily compare apples to apples before you apply your money into the equation. Also try and use every piece of gear that you need at the same time so that you can gauge the ultimate end results. Keep either detailed written records or do what I find works best when trying out new gear, I use a digital hand held recorder and I dictate the information of who, what, when, where and why as I go alone. I find that this method will give me all the details I need and I can hear what I did and why so when I later look at the photo I know the reasoning and can decide it that works for me or not. Incidentally, I also do this on portrait sessions so that I have notes to myself if something worked extremely well or very poorly. It helps me to learn and improve as I go.

Five and ten inch reflectors seem to be some of the most used in the lighting area. That is because you can get a lot dome with them and they are very versatile.  The five inch is great for using as an umbrella light. It is small and as such will give you a very sharp shadow. The downside of this is that it will show off absolutely any imperfection on the subject’s face. Lines, blemishes all will be acutely apparent. You might also see that the light seems to spill over on to the back ground a little more than other source of light. This is neither a bad thing or a good thing it is simply something to keep in the back of your memory banks.

The ten inch reflector is (obviously) a tad bit larger than the five inch. It is still a whole lot more manageable than the large light boxes or umbrellas that people use. The larger size tends to make the shadow shorten a bit because the reflector is widening the light source and the result is that it wraps out a bit and makes better illumination and less apparent shadows in the recorded image. It gives you a difference but not one that is huge.

Popular Lighting Types

Umbrella Lighting

Umbrellas are the standard of the industry when it comes to shooting portraits. It is something that you need to have because the results are good and very predictable. The size of the umbrella that you choose is going to impact the final image greatly. That is because, as we noted with the reflectors, the more or larger the light source the more the shadows are softened or even eliminated by the reflected light. Some photographers love them and some of us hate them but we all tend to use them. The hate comes from the fact that even though they make a nice soft lighting they are a little hard to control the actual spread of light so you can sometimes get more lighting on the back ground than you may want. The love is because it can all but eliminate defects on the models skin in the initial image which means far less manipulation at the end of the day.

Strip Lighting

Another type of lighting that has been interesting if you have never used it is the strip lighting. These are a lot like you might see in the vanity in a lot of makeup rooms or even a lot of rest rooms in homes these days. The concept is the same, it can give you an interesting effect and can be used vertically or horizontally and both types will yield different results. It is not the first thing that I would get for the studio, but it is certainly worth looking in to as your studio and lighting needs grow.

Freznel Lighting

Another light source that people use is known as a freznel light. These are very bright and very directional and very unforgiving. They tend to be harsh and do very well if you are lighting up something like a food arrangement but not so much on people. The one caveat here is that if you are shooting a rugged or man or a weather beaten woman with years of wrinkles on their skin, you can bring these out with this type of lighting like no other light out there, a ten inch is the standard size.

Soft Boxes and Light Boxes

Soft boxes and light boxes are what most large scale professionals use when they are doing a high dollar portrait session. The reasoning is that the results are great. Especially when you add a little back and fill lighting, it is very quick and easy to get the results that you are after,

This type of lighting comes in various shapes but generally is round or square / rectangular. The sizing will usually range from smaller around the 19 or 20 inch range and can go all the way up to a whopping 64 inches.

Round units are what a lot of professional portrait guys use because the light that is reflected in the pupils then is round which is a far more natural look than the squares. However if you are doing glamour or fashion shoots then the square is certainly a good look because that is what most of the Madison Avenue style studios us. There fore the style of shoot might help to dictate the type of light that you sue for any given session.

One of the most popular units, bar none is the 39 inch round soft light box. It gives phenomenal coverage and light enough for almost any job and still gives that nice round reflections in the eyes that make everything look normal to the average viewer. As a society we have come to expect this through conditioning. Add to that the fact that the generated image is very soft and lacks a lot of the shadow problems inherent with moiré directional lighting and you have a winner here that will work in any studio.

When you move to the square box lights you enter another realm of lighting, you get into another whole set of issues. You really can’t go wrong with these regardless of the size. The thing is that the larger they are the better and softer the image is going to be. That means that if you plan on doing a lot of body photography such as bikinis or implied nude or even pun up style nudes, these will work very well for you because they smooth out the skin very well. It saves a ton of cleanup in post production but the down side is that these are large and heavy so you have to make sure that they are well supported to insure everyone’s safety. The results are well worth the effort. In fact in my studio I use one as an overhead light at almost every session that I shoot because of the results. It is a part of my style and part of what makes people chose me over the other guy down the road. It doesn’t work for everyone all of the time but it is something worth considering when you are setting up. The type and style of shooting that you do will largely dictate whether this is a worth while investment for you or not.

Keep in mind that this is not a science it is an art form and as such there are no really true wrong or right ways to get to the destination. What you use to light the scene is no different than the camera that you use to capture the image. They are both just tools and they are depending on you to use them to the best of your ability to get a great portrait.

Important Lighting Tips

Generally speaking though you can consider a few points as you embark on your journey into portrait photography and lighting. These can be considered as guidelines to help you get things clearly set in your mind.

The first thing to remember is that the smaller the source of lighting that you are directing on your subject, the more texture and harshness you will see in the image. This is reserved for shots that you want to show lots of character and not usually fashion shots or family portraits. This is a very dramatic lighting and these types of events require soft lighting to make everyone happy with the results from the photo.

The larger the lighting source the better you will be if you are looking at getting a smooth and flattering look. The larger light will fill in all of the many issues that the skin can have like hiding lines and wrinkles. This is usually the safe choice for doing photos that will be perceived as good quality. They are rather cookie cutter style and will almost always give you what you are after. It will yield predictable and rather boring results but that is what most people want when they pay for a portrait of themselves or the family. They want to know that the result is good and there will be no surprises.

Direct lighting will cast more shadows and be more controllable and a light box or a soft box will keep the light more or less diffused and stop reflections and bouncing from happening. And then a typical umbrella give you almost no control and you will end up with fill light everywhere, even in some places where you may not want it. It will be soft and smooth but it is going to go everywhere because of the size and shape of the reflector.

So look over the options and check out the sizes. There is a reason for you as a photographer to have many different sizes, styles and shapes of lighting because you never know what you might be called upon to shoot in a session. If you start with the basics you will be able to start shooting right away and as fiancés and job requirements dictate, you can add on the more exotic and lesser used lighting styles to enhance your photographic lighting arsenal. You are on the road to a journey that will be never ending and will be as rewarding as it is frustrating and you have the knowledge to make it.

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