Basics of Classic Portrait Studio Lighting

Larry Bolch

Well-Known Member

A tutorial that covers the basics of "Paramount" lighting and shows the role of each light in the setup, as well as how they combine. Once this setup is understood, fewer or different lights are easily chosen and properly used. This is a classic setup and few people now use the whole set of lights. However, no matter whether using just a single main or the whole set, the principles and roles of each light remains.
Virtual models are wonderful. Never moody, always calm and cooperative. They will give you any look you want. She sat through the long session under hot lights and never once moved or complained. I was put in contact with a video production house last week for a project doing virtual sets, and they requested a portfolio. In all the sets that involve people, I used virtual models. see the portfolio at

The people objects were created in the application Poser, and the sets were created in Shade3D. Shade is largely used for architectural visualization, since the virtual light works exactly like light in nature one can actually see building exteriors and interiors exactly the way they will look in the light of specific days and hours. Sunlight and interior lights blend just as they do in reality. The camera uses 35mm focal lengths, has full view camera movements plus can do panoramas, fisheye shots and even movies.

The project is built, and I am now matching the viewpoint with my virtual cameras to the camera positions and focal lengths used in the studio. It is all shot against a green screen, and once the cameras are matched, the set and presenter will be seamlessly blended in post production. The virtual set I designed will look 100% real on your HDTV screen.

For most people, doing 3D modeling and rendering has a horrendous learning curve. For a photographer, 80% of that curve is already surmounted. Virtual cameras work like real-world cameras, and virtual light works like real-world light. Basically it lets you photograph whatever is in your imagination and is capable of powerfully conveying emotion and mood.
My business partner (Greg smith on here) does a bit of 3d stuff... He used it for the logo on our site
He said something similar actually; that as long as you can grasp the idea that it's just cameras and lights it's quite easy... But then I saw the software he was using.... It looked a touch more complex... Lots of buttons etc... I might get him to show me a bit more... It does look fasinating!
Unless you are shooting your drunken mates in a pub with a phone camera which you are pointing back at yourselves - with no processing - photography is complex. After four pints of real ale, it is not. Just don't look at what you posted to Facebook the next morning.

3D only differs from real-world photography in that you are photographing your imagination. If you are a true enthusiast you will realize that art and media may be parallel, but are two different things. Being fluent in the medium - say, photography - is not the goal of an aspiring photographer, but is the prerequisite. Getting hung up on the process of photography will not make you a photographer. Content is everything, and poor image quality distracts from content - no matter if you are a painter, photographer of 3D artist.

Modeling and rendering is simply photography in cyberspace. I can render a story in tropical sunlight on the most dismal -40° winter day. However, I must have something in my imagination worth rendering. I can not just redo the shot that Ansel did of Half Dome for the umpteenth time and claim it as my own. 3D has the downside that it actually requires a shooter to think.

If you are a contemporary photographer in every way, you understand that Photoshop is the fume-room of old, just in the disguise of a monitor and the application. The process of creating a great image has not changed, only the tools have - and they work much the same. Everything you know about film carries over - including what you don't know about film. It is not about the camera, nor the software. It is about how well you can use the tools available to you to move, influence, inspire or enlighten the viewer. The medium is what you manipulate, art is what you create in the process.

This applies equally to the person who bought the first camera this afternoon or the person published world-wide, time after time.
Unless you are shooting your drunken mates in a pub with a phone camera which you are pointing back at yourselves - with no processing - photography is complex. After four pints of real ale, it is not. Just don't look at what you posted to Facebook the next morning.


If you are a contemporary photographer in every way, you understand that Photoshop is the fume-room of old, just in the disguise of a monitor and the application. The process of creating a great image has not changed, only the tools have - and they work much the same. Everything you know about film carries over - including what you don't know about film. It is not about the camera, nor the software. It is about how well you can use the tools available to you to move, influence, inspire or enlighten the viewer. The medium is what you manipulate, art is what you create in the process.

This applies equally to the person who bought the first camera this afternoon or the person published world-wide, time after time.

I absolutly couldn't agree more!
Larry is spot on with this, Today`s photography is very much about `imagery` rather than pure photography. Clients are looking for a particular look,they are not concerned about the way that look is achieved. We use the studio to get the basic image and then we `Produce` the look required with the tools available today. Larry is right it`s about art and perception and we all need to get into the groove of maybe changing our thoughts and actions with respect to manipulation and what is `right & wrong` with image `Morphing`.
The only area where I personally have an issue is Nature and wildlife where apart from `tidying up`things should be as taken. So much `Wildlife` photography these days is `captured`literally, Captive subjects being passed of as `Wild`,That`s`s wrong, no question, fine, capture an image of a captive animal or bird but have the sense and respect to mark it as that.

(Thats me finished with my `Wildlife Rant` :)
Fiction has a place in any medium though some times the borderline is a bit vague. Henry VIII was aghast when he met Anne of Cleves in person - poor Holbein placed too much emphasis on her "better qualities" and poor Henry was smitten by her image. Sadly reality did no live up to art. The great Yousef Karsh did not care that the subject's family might not recognize his subject - he only cared that history would. Say "Winston Churchill" and the indomitable image Karsh created flashes to mind. In essence these are advertising pictures. They are the total opposite of the paparazzi - carefully made to sell a product, even if the product is a world leader and/or statesman.

I spent much of my life as a photojournalist, and my goal was to share what was in front of my camera with the viewers as I saw it. Yes, so long as we are humans, we bring our own perceptions with us, but at least they are our sincere perceptions. That is a basic requirement of being a journalist - to have won the respect of viewers for our not only honest, but wise, reporting. Only cameras used in scientific instrumentation or traffic cameras are purely objective. Even then, the output is subject to interpretation by the scientist or copper.

Now that I am no longer a photojournalist, I am creating for an altogether different constituency. If there are wires intruding into my composition, I zap them. I combine passage of time in still photographs in a way that is impossible to do without a good deal of fiction and like a fiction writer, I ask the viewer to suspend their disbelief for the moment. I am working on the final details of a TV science set with 3D modeling and rendering at the moment. It only exists in cyberspace and is purely from my imagination. Yet, it a cable company picks up the series, the presenter will inhabit this space freely walking around a virtual room. On your HD screen, the set will look as real as the real-world presenter. It is the difference between reportage and art.

The key is context. A great author of fiction work can make you believe at least for the moment. Dan Brown is so convincing that tourists go poking about Europe looking the the evidence he sites in his books. The same holds true of historical novels, they are fiction, but based upon real life. If you are gullible enough to believe them, that is your problem. Some of the most delightful architecture has been created during periods when fictional houses were the rage. The Gothic Revival period built little fairy-tale castles far more medieval than anything from the dark ages or just beyond. What fun!

Most nature shows are shot under some controlled conditions, since it is impossible to smuggle a camera into the den of a snark in the wild. (See Lewis Carroll for details) In the studio - a simulated environment - it is entirely possible to accurately film the den behaviour of a snark family. The location is fiction, but the reportage of animal behaviour is real. No one has successfully ever trained a snark to do anything. Another practical matter is budget. Nature shows have none of the budgets of prime-time hit shows. The snark is an elusive creature at best, and it is not practical to tie up a film crew in the wild for years in hopes of getting enough footage for the show. In essence, what you are seeing is an accurate ILLUSTRATION of the snark's life. Controlled conditions allow acquisition of hours of material over a relatively short time in order to make a show worth spending your time watching. (Reference John Cleese lampooning BBC documentaries: "The larch. The larch.") In the 19th century, illustrators, engravers and other artists chronicled nature through drawing, often from dead critters. Some - Audubon's work is considered very good art. Is this less disingenuous than nature revealed via the studio? Is a lion in a game park less a lion than one in the Ngorongoro Crater where it is native? We are looking at a lion, not the geotagging of the EXIF data.

Intent and context. If all photography - or art for that matter - had to meet strict forensic standards of evidence, the world would be a much colder and more boring place. It is the "art" that enlightens and amuses, thus enriching our lives immeasurably.
Excuse my ignorance, but my curiosity has escaped my capability of understanding.
Basically, Im struggling to find a link between creating the perfect image via learning "Basic Lighting techniques" with a obvious view to further knowledge of lighting; and escaping the confines of Art.
Earlier in this thread, it was discussed that "properly used" lighting would create a certain image, that would be acceptable for portraiture photography. Would this then mean, that as a beginner; that if I strayed or totally deviated from a common professional practice that I would be doing it "wrong" in regards of Pro photography; or could I just make up some bollocks to pawn it off as Art? As it could be my interpretation of "A Model in Bad Light"
I'm just struggling with the concept that Art, in its vague entirety, is not only about what the viewer is precieving the image as, but as much as the photographer wants the image to be viewed as i.e A Model in Bad Light.
I suppose I'm trying to say that although we now have the tools to create the perfect lighting conditions and environments, does that mean that we shouldn't forget about it from time to time, and occasionally fire a shot at an inopportune moment; a moment when the model is looking away, walking away from the backdrop, not concentrating, lighting a cigarette or complaining?
If a model said to me "Barry, I want a portrait of me, with a 100watt bulb straight in my face, and I would like...a black backdrop". I could make that happen, and although I could meet that "artistic criteria" with ease, I would never be able to show another soul; or at least I wouldn't take credit for it! :)
The reason simply doesn't adhere to regular guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not. And it is this very idea with which I am struggling.
Again, excuse my ignorance on the issue; but the more I seem to read about the "proper" way to do things, the more I feel that there is restrictive rules that must be met before I feel like I could take credit for the "perfect" shot. Not because my image wasn't a perfect and brief explanation of a moment in time; but because the numbers just didn't add up.
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The medium is what an artist manipulates to create art. A degree of fluency in the medium is the prerequisite to making art. The medium is something that is learned. Making art is something that one develops from within.

As photographers, we learn the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity. We learn how focal length impacts upon perspective and depth of field. We learn how to take a RAW exposure from the camera and extract the best technical quality that it can provide. We learn how to best display the work on the wall or on the web. None of these things makes us a photographer - it only gives us the skills and techniques to employ in creating photographs. If we lack the skill and understanding, we struggle to achieve our vision. It is akin to trying to write poetry in a language we don't understand.

As we achieve fluency with the camera, processing and presentation, we have the tools to push farther and farther into the "art". In essence, we are expanding our command of the language - which is not a verbal language. To a beginner every bit as difficult as a Dubliner trying to write great poetry in Welsh. (Or anyone who is not Welsh.)

In the lighting tutorial, only one light is essential - the main light. All the others open shadows or add highlights or separation. In classic lighting, the main is generally in the vicinity of 45° horizontal and 30° vertical to the subject/camera axis. To a working studio photographer with experience, the main light may be a large soft-box just above the camera, or a sharp silver reflector at 90° to the axis. In one case the light is very soft and flat, in the other, it is sharp and dramatic. The effect is very different but both are "proper" lighting depending upon the goals of the shoot. For the most part, I regard on-camera flash as the ugliest light ever conceived. Since it comes out of the middle of your forehead, only miners see light like that. However, I have effectively used it because it is so ugly.

The great Brit shooter, Bill Brandt once said "A photographer can become a prisioner of his own rules. Unless he invents new ones, he will soon copy himself, and his work will become stale and repetitive." Which is to say, the less there are rules, the more freedom the artist has to push the edge when creating.

On the other hand, when you speak of the medium, if you don't get the necessary relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture in proper balance, you get lousy picture quality. Same if the lens is not properly focused, or the camera moves inappropriately. Technique is there to serve ones artistic goals. The more technically fluent you are, the more eloquent your art can become.

Good technical quality is transparent - poor technical quality screams for attention, and distracts from content.

However, technique is not a goal in itself - it is the means, not the end. Same in any other art form. If you don't understand music, nor how to play an instrument, poor old Beethoven comes off rather badly. If you are fully fluent in music and playing technique, you may find fresh ways to interpret the old master that will excite and move your audience. Even with Beethoven, there is no one "proper" way to play his music.

What is "acceptable" is what you can get away with. Truly great artists are often ahead of the curve, and often are not fully appreciated at the time. In 1910, Picasso may have had trouble trading an art-work for a meal and a glass of wine. In 2010, the same work may sell for millions at Sotheby's. Same work - different era - the world has finally caught up.

In Shakespeare's "Hamlet" old Polonius advises his son "To thine own self, be true..." without doubt the best advice that an artist can receive. Learn your chosen medium well and always continue learning. Even after a long life in photography, I am constantly practicing and trying to ever improve my skills. My goal has always been to produce the highest image quality under the given circumstances. Again, not an absolute. If I see the picture of a lifetime and the light is horrible and all but non-existent, I know that image quality will be really poor, but I will shoot because of content.

Art is not a sport. There are no rotund gentlemen sitting in leather chairs around polished mahogany tables in "athletic clubs", smoking Cuban cigars and quaffing French cognac while making up arbitrary rules for the sport to follow - and blind referees to enforce. (We saw enough of that in the past month!) If you hear of the "Rule of Thirds" - consider it the "Suggestion of Thirds" and ignore it if it does not fit. Sometimes the most effective shot is when the subject is in the middle of the composition and right in your face. If it looks right - it is right.

Strive to always extend your technical skills and knowledge. Use them to make the best photographs you can - under the circumstances. "To thine own self, be true..."

What a great reply!
Indeed the Rule of Thirds has come up in conversation once or twice, and again with the same outcome, Suggestion of Thirds".
As an Irishman, I gladly take your point about welsh poetry;) and I think you are very right in your references. I think the most important thing for a beginner to learn, is indeed the complexities of his basic tools, i.e. Shutter, Aperture, ISO; and discover his/her way of mastering these tools.
But also, as one tries to expand and gain further knowledge of the "trade", He/She can become lost (as I have) in the myriad of techniques and styles that are out there. Some of which have been taught, others which have been invented and some which have just been "made to work".
Maybe I was looking for validation that IT IS okay to expand my horizons a little bit further, once I have gained a little more experience...and yes...there will be critic's, but there will also be those who appreciate. And surely, only trial & error will constitute what will become my style or form of "Art".
Maybe we look at so many images that we have taken ourselves and thought why didn't I do this or why didn't I do that, and have become so critical about every aspect of the image, instead of just acknowledging the subject matter and walking away!:confused: As a layman of course...
Although, I am aware that a photographer who doesn't question or want to inspect an image is either very, very good...or very, very bad!:)
Again, Cheers for the great reply, I have learned alot from your site and I think the information contained on its pages will be hugely beneficial to many beginners to photography; once, of course they have gotten themselves all confused as I have;)
Indeed a very insiteful reply! Larry you are very welcome here, it is really good to have someone who can articulate such reply here!
On the subject of Picasso and his genius, I would say, like Warhol, his genius was produce art that was ahead of its time, bit only a little bit! They both changed the world within their lifetime... And got very rich doing it! That's true genius ... Although I could perhaps live without some of the western culture Warhol is partly responsible for, you gotta give him his dues ... Changing the world whilst you are on it is no mean feat
As a side note larry, barry is basically a beginner ... He started working in the camera shop I used to work in... On the first day I tried to teach him the relationship between shutter aperture and sensitivity ... Within the week he had got the basics within 6 months he is taking photos I'd be proud of and I have been trying to master this photography milarky for 20 years. I'm even hoping to be able to offer him work within the year.
This sort of conversation is exactly what i was hoping for on here ... Barry the beginner with promise and larry the long time pro... It's good stuff! :)
:eek: Schucks,
Indeed I have taken to Photography in a big way, I am 100% sure that without the constant rantings of Hamish, in my forst months; it would be a lot more difficult for me to have achieved the advances in knowledge.
Oh yes...many a good night out seemed to be lost to conversation about Sunny 16 or the Rule of Thirds, which would have taken me months/years to figure out on my own.
Without access to so many various DSLR's, Acc's and old magazines, I would be fairly stuck, moreover (without gaying things up), without Hamish's help and knowledge, I would definitely be lost.
What a great thread and a good read, I wish I was eloquent enough to be able to join in:)

Larry I loved the shot 'Finish Line' such a story
I missed all this last month, must have been pre occupied with something else. Having studied Fine Art (Painting) and Photography (to a much lesser degree) I can really appreciate what is being said here. I read in a book some where that there exists a dipole. Photography of a high technical accomplishment at one end and Photography of a high contextual accomplishment on the other. Sadly these seem for the most part mutually exclusive, not because that have to be but instead because Photographers tend not to appreciate Fine Art and Fine Artists can't be bothered to learn Photography properly. The point is that you need to be skilled in both if you want a chance to consistantly produce excellent photos with great context. However that's not to say that you cant produce something great applying only one aspect. This last sentance my seem a complete contradiction to what has been said before but what is sometimes most striking about something is absence or understatement. When that absence or understatement is concience rather that by disregard it shows, sometimes to powerful effect.

However there is still a grey area. Composition is an important part of any photograph and composition is a Fine Art principal. The Rule of Thirds has its origins in Fine Art Painting. On the other hand how can it be possible to have any image that has no meaning? It is possible to have an element of an image that generates no meaning and this is called a Punctum.

(Note, if anyone is aware of the term punctum my explanation of it is proberly on of the worst. However a better expalination is outside the scope of this post. A good book to read is Camera Lucidia).