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Beginner's Guide to Portraits
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The Beginner's Guide to Portrait Photography

I've gotten a lot of requests to document how the portrait images were taken (see Friends and Family).  Now, I don't pretend to be an expert at studio photography -- far from it.  Most of what I know I learned through experimentation.  Also, if you want a studio perspective I'd recommend visiting the excellent lighting site, www.lightingmagic.com.

However, you can do a lot of great portraits without a huge investment in either equipment or knowledge.  Here's the basics of what I do (written from the perspective of using the Canon D30 and it's associated equipment -- you can do the same with film and/or other digital cameras, by substituting the appropriate flash units):

Equipment to make the process dead solid simple is one of the keys.  I use two Canon flash units, one 550 EX and one 420 EX.  You can use two of the same units, either the 420 (to save money) or two 550's if you've got the bucks.  You also get an E2 to control both of the flashes.  This unit stays on the camera and is triggered by the shutter, firing the other flashes.  (Note: you can also use a 550EX for a trigger but since you will have to turn it off it's kind of a waste of money).  This way you have the camera doing ETTL and taking all (or most) of the guesswork out of exposure (even though you have a digital camera and can adjust things as you shoot, it's nice to have an easy starting point).  This will give you wireless control of all your flash units -- if you're using a camera other than a Canon EOS system you'll probably have to use wired flashes and/or use slave triggers.

You must get your flash off camera.  The biggest mistake beginners make is thinking they can take nice flash pictures with either the built-in flash or an external flash mounted on the camera.  Wrong!  Your images will look like mug shots and the shadows will be all wrong.  You'll be amazed how wonderful your images start looking when you move that flash off the camera.

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To get the flash off camera, you'll need some stands for the flash.  Smith-Victor has been making lighting stands for decades, and they still sell the ones I use, the venerable S3 (around $30) .  You'll also need some hot shoe adapter to fit onto the light stand (and to hold the umbrellas): Photoflex has a really nice Shoe mount Multi-clamp that goes for $17 or so.

Umbrellas -- they're not just for rain.  These are theumbrella1.jpg (87363 bytes) devices that soften the light to give that wonderful Northern light sort of look.  There are lots of models out there but I like the Photoflex ones.  I have four of them: the 45" white satin ($16), the 45" convertible ($30), the 30" white satin ($17) and the 30" convertible ($24).  (I just don't have the studio space for the 60" models).

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You place your key light (your main light) off to one side of the other.  The key can be either shot through the umbrella (for a really diffused look), bounced off the umbrella (less diffused) or without an umbrella (very harsh for dramatic portraits). 

You put your fill light directly behind your camera, above you.  Normally the fill is just bounced off the umbrella.

For a background I use black material placed about four to five feet behind.  It isn't critical as to color, since it shouldn't receive much light (in our case all the portraits were shot in our TV room and the black material was just draped over our big screen TV).  Doing high key portraits (with a white background) will require either another background flash or to work very close to the background so your key light will fall there as well (I have a third 420EX for this purpose).

Your model puts her face towards the key light but turns her eyes back to the camera.  Turn the D30 on to manual.  Adjust your flash EV to around +1 to +1 1/2.  Now shoot.  Adjust your fill light (using the E2 for slave/master ratio) as desired.  You can even shoot without fill (some of the portraits on this site were done without fill).  Adjust your flash EV if the exposure is too hot or too dark (but it should be nearly right on).

That's all there is to it (but for full details, see Portrait Lighting).  The lighting stands and umbrellas will cost you less than $150.  Your biggest expense will be the flash units and the E2.  If you already have one flash unit you can pick up a 420 and E2 for around $400.  It's all wireless and automatic exposure so there's no easier way to go.

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