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There are a million ways to take portraits. Almost any light source can be utilized and great portraits can be taken with them. Most folks utilizing a garage will be fine using Speed lights (camera flash units) instead of the larger more expensive studio units (although not always).  Some form of trigger system will be needed to use the external flash units, you can choose to use Nikon’s CLS system (or what ever camera brand you are using) or the built-in slave some flash units have or a wireless trigger / reciever system.  I use Photix Stratas and Nikon’s CLS controlled from my camera or on board SB800. I do not recommend buying optical slaves to attach to your flash units as I have found them to be mostly junk (unreliable and nowhere near as good as the built-in ones on my SB units)There are plenty of online how to sites for making your own budget studios, here is a link to just one article. http://nikonrumors.com/2012/03/28/guest-post-how-to-build-an-awesome-studio-on-a-budget-by-cary-jordan.aspx/  You can also get reflector type lights and stands from Home Depot that would work as well. Check out Adorama’s learning center too: http://www.adorama.com/alc/  and Adorama’s TV learning center: http://www.adorama.com/alc/category/AdoramaTV  There is a ton of portrait  videos at Youtube as well. You can learn all you need online to start experimenting on your own.

Here is the main Strobist websites to learn and see other photographers work, almost every photographer knows of  these sites. check the monthly archives for the last 5yrs.   http://www.strobist.blogspot.com/               http://www.flickr.com/groups/strobist/

In the example above my subject needed to have patience while we tried to get the R/L lighting to match: 5 lights. AB800 with blue gel on a green background, Goboed SB600s for left & right side lighting, SB800 in a gridded softbox above and one on camera Sb800 for a light fill. Nikon D90 and Nikon 70-300 vr lens. Getting the light just right can be a pain, since I usually use low power on my strobes I just keep popping the flash unit with the test button while setting it’s position, or I might hold a flash light on the strobe while positioning it. Once you have the capture then you can refine the look you want in post processing. The example above could be made to look very different depending on what your taste or goal is. One advantage of using studio lights is the modelling light feature that makes it easier to see what you get before poping the flash units.

I have taken good portraits with nothing but a $5 garage sale video light and a reflector or even using flash lights or just a reflector / foam core. Modern DSLRs can easily handle higher ISOs when working with hot lights (non flash sources). Hot lights make it easier to see what you will get in the image. Almost any lens will work fine at F8, in fact few people could tell the difference between cheap and expensive lenses in the final print when it comes to portrait work. Even the budget 50mm F1.8 lenses will look just as good as those $2,000 pro zooms at the same focal length. If your making huge poster sized prints and shooting at F1.4- 2.8 then you might see some differences in sharpness with the expensive pro lenses. Other then focal length almost any lens that will focus and is in good working order should work just fine for portraits. In fact when shot at F8 or so I would say the choice of lens is probably of least importance in your setup (sorry to the gear heads but I just don’t see much difference at those apertures between lens). If you want the background to be out of focus use a longer lens or larger F stop or create more distance between the subject and background. If you want the background to remain dark put the light source closer to the subject (added a grid helps too) and again increase the distance of the subject to backdrop. How much ambient you let in the photo will affect the outcome as well. The example above was taken during the day in my well-lit garage with the BG about 6ft behind the subject. As far a umbrella’s vs Softbox’s, for the garage type studio softbox’s and a grid allow more control of light spill.  Softbox’s can be had off ebay for cheap, I got a good 24″ box with grid and second diffuser that is made well for only $18 new at auction on Ebay, I use it all the time and it works great but is a pain to assemble so I keep it ready to go. I have about 6 umbrellas and in my garage studio I mostly use just 1-2 shoot thrus. My Paul Buff PLMs are mostly for location shoots in larger rooms or for outdoor shoots where they put out a lot of even controled light. The problem with umbrella’s  for use in a smaller space is the light spill that makes it hard to keep the background dark enough. I recommend using small umbrellas in that case unless your going for full body shots. The newer umbrella style softbox’s make setting up quick and easy.  Don’t forget the grid you will need that .Here is one example of such.  http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/62245-REG/Westcott_2334_Apollo_Softbox_with_Recessed.html


I just got one of these, fast to setup and work great with speedlights and if you only use the one diffuser it puts out a lot of light for on location work. At $134 its a good value for speedlight use.


Some interesting videos at the German SunBounce site: http://www.sunbounce.com/lighting-school You can do a lot outdoors with only reflectors instead of flash. You can make your own from a variety of materials, the Sunbounce reflectors are nice but very pricey compared to the offerings from Adorama for example. Purchase  the California Sunbounce products here or at your favorite online dealer: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/Shop-by-Brand-California-Sunbounce/ci/4/N/4294255798/phd/4194470294

Hard lights can make great photos just like soft lights can, it will just have a different look to them. I happen to like the old classic Hollywood style which was done with hard lighting ( the sun is a hard light because the source is small in diameter from our view-point). The larger the light source and closer to your subject the softer the light will show in the photos. Use your imagination and make do with what you have, you might be surprised what you can come up with.

There are a lot of boring photos out there taken with high-end equipment, it’s the setup and the look you can get from your subject that matters most not having the latest gear. Even if you were using a $50,000 high-end medium format digital camera setup  there would be very little difference at normal prints sizes and screen viewing. certainly not enough for a client to go gagag over. As you start to view closer to 100% and make really large prints then yes you should see a decernable difference but even then don’t be too sure. Check out this comparison by photographers that have and use high-end digital cameras, Hasselblad H2 & P45+ vrs Canon G10, you might be surprised: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/kidding.shtml  Of course this comparison is under ideal conditions for the Canon. Now after seeing this consider the new 36mp Full frame Nikon D800 that just came out for $2,995. Here is a new comparison of the D800 vrs medium format: Click on one of the two comparison photos to be redirected to the comparison page. http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=es&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http://www.dslrmagazine.com/pruebas/pruebas-tecnicas/mas-alla-de-los-30-mpx.html

True a lot of folks just want a nice photo of someone smiling and that’s fine, but while you have them there why not try something different. Think outside the box, get ideas from other photogs work just like any artist does. We all start out doing the basics but start to get bored unless we can infuse our ideas into a project, that’s goes for anything in life otherwise it is the same old same old. Often, as is the case we start out with an idea or try to copy some photo we have seen and end up with something different because that look just does not go well with our subject or lighting. The other posts and pages on this blog cover equipment and lighting as well as flash use for wedding etc which spill over into other types of photography. For portraits you don’t need a super sharp lens that is sharp from corner to corner, it’s the center that your most concerned with and at F8 or so they are mostly all the same in the center. Bokeh ( out of focus rendering) is more pleasant on some lenses than others when used wide open & particularly on faster lenses where it matters more when you use a large aperture. In the studio I usually don’t use the larger apertures but outdoors  or indoors in a casual situation I will be more likely to.

You can use a colored gel over a flash unit to add color to an existing backdrop, Black takes  color well as does my dark green backdrop as seen in the example above using a blue gel over the AB800 flash unit set on very low power right behind the subject.

Printing: These days with the cost of printing so cheap and quality that is excellent from places like Costco it doesn’t make sense for most of us to  do out own printing. Some things you should know though. Every printing machine will deliver slightly different results and the chemicals won’t always be just right. Costco provides printer profiles for each of its machines at each warehouse that you can download and use in PhotoShop’s Soft print mode check for color shifts before submitting a print. Also you should never select Auto Correct from the options when getting prints made as AC can really screw up your prints. The only way to be sure if you have had AC done to your prints or not is to look on the back of the print, you will see a series of N N N N then if you see NN, the Ns close together that means AC was used on your print. Some times even though your recent may say no AC or you may have selected no AC at checkout it was done anyway by mistake so check that out when a print does not look quite right to you. Always tell you clients not to use AC if they are printing files you provided to them. Also don’t forget to select “Full Resolution” when uploading to your account, if you know that you will only be making 4x6s then it doesn’t matter.

Generally guys like to be made to look macho (exceptions would be family photos) and women like to be made to look pretty. Women also don’t mind a little thinifying, skin smoothing, hair tidying along with a tuck here and there, easy to do with Photo Shop and software like portrait professional. Some folks say this is cheating but just show the before and after shots to your clients and see which one they want ( haha). We guys could often do with a little help too. In fact women who know that you will do touch up for acne and other inperfections will feel more comfortable having their photos taken and posted. This goes for teenagers in particular. You will have a more relaxed subject if you let them know up front.

Outdoor portrait sessions can be more demanding on your skills and lighting equipment depending on the look your after. These days with the younger kids its the grunge look they want and that usually means underexposing the ambient light and using high power flash to overcome the sun and ambient lighting much more than you would usually do. For this you need studio strobes and a power source. as the sun goes down you can get away with Speed lights instead and use a larger aperture too if needed. The rest will be done in post processing. You might be able to use a speedlight if you put it really close to your subject.  Here’s a video on overcoming ambient light with flash: http://www.profoto.com/us/cantrell?utm_source=Luminous_Landscape&utm_medium=Banner&utm_campaign=Bambi_Cantrell

Checkout her blog as well.

If your on a budget  and have speed lights you can focus on over cast days and evenings. You can also make your own power pack like I did or get the new compact power pack from Paul Buff ( Alien Bees, recommended) for studio lights, I recommend at least the AB800s power level for outdoor use, see my other pages for links on the subject. Don’t forget to bring a color checker or gray card to add into one of the photos so later you can get an accurate color balance to start with. Don’t get stuck doing the same thing all the time, even if your setting up for the same old thing try to get something different in while the subject is there in front of you.

Modeling and giving instructions yourself takes talent, no doubt about it. Some folks will almost find the right poises themselves while others will totally depend on you. Either way it takes work to come away with something special.
Although many don’t use on  camera light modifiers for studio work  there  are times you may want to.  I don’t recommend flash brackets anymore as I think there are better alternatives depending on your shooting style. For me that would be a BBC (better bounce cards that I have made up) and Spinlight 360 for flash bouncers. If you’re a straight on flash shooter than some sort of diffuser to which there are a ton to choose from. http://neilvn.com/tangents/about/spinlight-360/      http://www.abetterbouncecard.com/    http://www.garyfongestore.com/ at least the BBC will cost you almost nothing to make yourself. I use velcro for attachments. The spinlight will probably be my next purchase for an on camera light modifier since it provide such good results for Neal.

I recently camer across this guy’s website and really like his work, He is a well known photographer. Check out his pricing too. http://www.kvphoto.com/

I want to stress again that having  higher end  equipment is nice but it’s your talent (your equipment must be capable enough to get the job done) that matters. Only upgrade your equipment when it starts to hold you back in some way or when you just need a new toy to get motivated ( We all do that from time to time). People often think it’s the fancy camera gear that makes the photo and its true that it helps but give a high-end camera to someone using a low-end one and the results will most likely look exactly the same as before (except under certain circumstances like sports and action were a good AF does wonders and high shutter speeds, or clean very high ISO capabilities). On the other hand give a much more capable camera and lens to someone who has out grown their current camera and they might just produce better results. Often it the motivation that a new camera gives that causes the photographer to go out and take some great photos not  so much that the camera is doing something the other one couldn’t.

Don’t forget your portrait touch up software. Portrait Professional works great and can be had for only $29 when on sale. http://www.portraitprofessional.com/

Just to show that when it comes to controlled lighting indoors or outdoors you don’t need a high end camera of any kind. Here are some videos showing awesome photos taken with an iphone when you have some control over lighting. Hot lights and reflectors.

As this guy named Pi from SLR lounge.com shows in this video its about understanding lighting not having expensive gear that makes the photos (although it helps sometimes) . If he can do this with a camera phone and 2 $30 reflectors anyone can make great photos with what they already have.


Same goes for video. Here is a video of a wedding done soley with an Iphone (other lighting equitment was used on this one though, as well as good weather for photos).


Still not convinced watch this video to prove it. He does use pro lighting equipment but almost any type of lighting can be used