Setting up a strobe/softbox for portraits. : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I wanted to know some basics on setting up a portrait shot. I have polaroid film for tests, but I don't wanna waste a bunch!

Equipment: Photogenic 1500 with softbox 4X5 view camera and if I need them, reflectors and extra light stands.

What angle from the camera do I want the strobe? 30 I would angle the softbox to be perpendicular to the subject? then I would reflect on the other side just out of view of my lens?

When I use my flash meter do I ignore the reflector? (point the meter directly at the strobe) Or would I point it back at the camera.


-- Pete (, July 16, 2001


Angle: Your flash has a modeling light, turn it up to full power and once you have your sitter in place, move the softbox and light around until the lighting looks right to you. Move it from left to right sides, closer to your camera and away from it and towards the background, higher and lower, and closer and father away from your subject. Once you have a basic position established, try panning the box to the left and to the right and also up and down. Same thing with your bounce reflector. After every move go back and look at your subject from the cameras position.

The general rule to start with the Softbox or diffusers ios to start with the face of the box about as far from your subject as the length of the diagonal across the front ofthe softbox. Closer than this and the "ofter' or 'smoother' or less contrasty the light will appear. Farther than this diagonal distance and the more contrasty, or harsher the light will appear. This effect can be manipulated to great and creative effect. it is one reason why some professionals 9and very well equipped amateurs have several different size softboxes.

Metering: Some people think you absolutely have to point the meter dome at the light and some think you absolutely have to point it at the camera and others think you should point it at an angle that is somewhere in between. My advise to you is to do tests at all three angles and look at the results. All three aprroaches are valid, but what works best will be the one that gives you the result you want on the print.

Good luck!

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, July 16, 2001.

This is a really good time for:

1. Getting a book on studio lighting for some general ideas.

2. Using your 35mm or 120 camera to shoot a bunch of sample, to see what you like. One idea comes to mind: use 2 camera, one to take the portrait, and one to take a picture of the setup (camera, lights, etc.) since that's faster & easier than taking copious notes.

Angles & aiming the lights, & reflectors are all part of the art of studio lighting. It all depends on the results you want to achieve.

If you can get your room relatively dark and have modelling lights, use those as an initial guide.

If you are using an incident meter, hold it at the subject, aim the half-dome towards the lens, and meter; if you are using a reflected meter, aim from the lens towards the subject.

-- Charlie Strack (, July 16, 2001.

The placement of lights will determine your light pattern... classic or contemporary. 45 degrees is a Rembrandt, 90 degrees is a split, 25+- degrees is a loop light pattern (and there are several versions like a short loop, long loop ect) and over camera is a butterfly pattern due to the shadow under the noise. Usually the light is at least higher than eye level but not so high that you eliminate the catch light in the eye's. If you don't have catch lights in the eye, it takes away and your portrait is lifeless. For fill you could use a sheet of foamcore on the opposite side of the face but with a large enough softbox you will have alot of over spill maybe not needing the fill. When metering, to start off, meter the light with the dome. If you just meter towards the camera, your REALLY averaging the light. For a white person, I tend to open up so that the skin has more punch and looks 1 zone higher than zone V... neutral grey. You will see the light patterns alot better with a small umbrella rather than the soft light of a softbox. In fact for your own eyes (with a patient model) use straight modeling lights and just move the light around to see what your getting.

-- Scott Walton (, July 16, 2001.

Yes you should start out as the other post suggests, feeling your way around by attempting to do a few exposures going for the 'Rembrandt effect'. The light goes 45 degrees on the horizontal(O being the lens axis and 90 being straight from the side)and then 45 up(midway between the horizontal and the top of the subjects head) and the light will form a triangle on the opposite side of the nose from the light source giving you what many consider and call 'optimum portraiture'.

Just remember halfway around to the back and halfway up to the vertical and a triangle of light on the opposite side of the subjects nose.

This is just me, but I would suggest a lot of experimentation with the butterfly set-up(over and under with your key above the lens axis), the reason being that when you perfect this set-up, it is right and works, no matter which way you subject turns.

When it comes to B&W portraits I'd suggest some experiments with 'high key' or overexposure with and without a 25R which can produce some great results but in doing this you have to give careful consideration to wardrobe, backround, and key+fill to fill(in regards to skintone). You can experiment with 'high key' to lesser extremes with color(without the 25R of course!).

I've gotten some good results going with the butterfly set-up(with the main light directly over the lens axis) and 'high key'with a 25R filter overexposing as much as three to four stops, which has, in combination with printing on a FB warm tone paper with a creamy white base can gives you a porcelain type 'sheen' and smoothness to skintones which looks great when it works. It doesn't always work, and it's not for every subject/client but once mastered it's another tool in your pocket.

Ciao! and good luck

-- Jonathan Brewer (, July 17, 2001.

I just hate when people talk about lighting in fixed terms like "rembrandt" or "classic" or "contemporary." I just think that kind of jargon is too limiting , especially for beginners. The most important thing about lighting is to set your light up and then move it around till it looks right to you and then shoot a Polaroid or just contemplate it for a while. if you aren't satisfied with the Polaroid, think about what would look better and then movethe light to that position and test again. As you gain experience you'll find this process gets shorter and shorter and you'll develop your own vocabulary of light.

Here is another tip: start with one corner of your softbox (what size is your softbox?) over the camera and then, using that corner as a pivot point, swing the opposite edge of the box closer to and further away from your sitter or the object you are lighting. Then try tilting the box down toward the siter or object. Or raising the box to well over the camera or well below. etc.

The great thing about Polaroids is that you can make notes about the image directly on the print about what you just did. Start a notebook with these Polaroids taped to the pages and make further notes about the photo if you need too.

But please ,do yourself a favor and refrain from mysterioso jargon such as 'rembrandt", "clasical", "contemporary", etc. as much as possible.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, July 17, 2001.

Starting the softbox at the corner of the lens? I will be using a 203mm lens. And will probably be doing full length children. So I normally would back the camera up a bit. Don't I want to keep the flash closer to the subject?

Or should I read this as keeping the corner of the softbox inline with the lens axis, then pivot the softbox.

I can do practice runs in the basement. So I can have it lighted or almost dark. I can see the modeling lights better in the dark. Should I also keep the room dark when I take the shot? Or turn them on.

-- Pete (, July 17, 2001.

Butteryfly setup.....

Would I have the reflector under the subject, direct opposite the above softbox?

-- Pete (, July 17, 2001.

The main thing to remember about the Butterfly set-up is that if you position the main light or key light so that it is coming from the right of the lens axis, you would then position a reflector(or a softer lower intesity light than your key to work as a fill) to the left of the lens to catch and bounce some of the main lights rays back onto the subject as fill. If your key is right, your reflector is left, if the key is left position your5 reflector right, if the key is over the lens axis the reflector is under the lens axis and so on. When using the butterfly set-up, generally the reflector is a little closer to the subject than the key light in order to reflect the keys light back onto the subject.

You'll have to tweak this set-up a lot before you actually shoot and/or do a lot of tests. I believe the benefits of this particular set-up is worth the time and trouble.

Ellis, I respect your posts as thoughtful and reasoned, but I disagree with you on a couple of issues. Please do not take offense.

Sure when you talk about the Rembrandt effect, it sounds like needless jargon to a newcomer, and it sounded that way to me when I first heard it. I went out of my way to learn what it was, how it was used by Painters and Photographers and then I filed it away in the back of my mind as another tool to use when needed.

You cannot go wrong trying to expose yourself to the different set-ups/styles/tricks/variations that everyone else has used in the past. I'm not suggesting you learn this stuff to copy it, but to learn why. You can get this info by auditing an art and/or photography class, from art books, photograhpy books, seminars, anything you can find out. File all this away into your bag of tricks.

Having said this, I do agree with Elis about puting the light where you want, and this works a good deal of the time. All the other knowledge is valuable and comes into play when you need to be problem solver regarding a difficult set-up, when your normal way of working isn't working, as inspiration and as a springboard for new ideas and so on. The more tools you have, and the more concepts and styles you expose yourself to cannot help but make you a better Photographer.


-- Jonathan Brewer (, July 17, 2001.

Yeah..with all due respect to Ellis as well, I agree with you about the terms...I come from a trad. background and was taught in terms of butterfly, broad, short & rim lighting for portraits. These are really sort of the basics, and just about any lighting book from the last 50+ yrs. will use these terms. I don't see it as any more mumbo-jumbo than talking about GNs, or whatever.

As far as butterfly lighting goes, the trick is to keep the shadow under the nose the right size...if it gets too big and falls into the lips, this is wrong, and if it's too small it won't be right's a good lighting style for certain subjects, but with heavy faces it can flatten them out a bit....there are all sorts of styles to make certain faces look good as well, using highlights/shadows. My advice would be a good basic portraiture book, like Kodak's "Professional Portrait Techniques" or some of those old Focal press lighting books. Softboxes are really sort of a new thing in a way...I learned these styles using hardlights & diffused direct instructor would have thrown me out of the studio if I tried it any other way...but it taught me some important lessons, that I use frequently.

-- DK Thompson (, July 17, 2001.

I'm with Ellis. Learning only the traditional lighting set-ups can be limiting. It would be far better to learn about the properties of light in general (e.g fall-off, angle of incidence = angle of reflection, point sources vs large sources, etc...). Then you are properly armed to realize your pre-visualization of the image or perform a well informed exploration. Once you know how it behaves, light is very predictable stuff (well energy actually). Learning about how light behaves and WHY the traditional lighting setups look the way they do - instead of just how to copy the traditional lighting set-ups will bring you much farther in creating the light that you personally want!

This kind of knowledge can be had from a good lighting workshop or course... and lots of experimentation - of course!

Good Luck

-- Dominique Labrosse (, July 17, 2001.

Okay...well, it's just a thought...what I was trying to say was that was how I learned to doing the standards, whether it was on a tabletop, or in a portrait may be boring or repetitive or copying a style, but how is it any different than learning camera movements, or running film speed tests?? I agree that it's great to learn your own inner style or whatever, but for portraits, the client usually wants to look a certain way, or they at least want to be flattered by your broad light a certain type of face, a heavy one let's say would just look bad...unless you wanted to accentuate your client's broad face...

But this has nothing to do with Pete's, as Ellis says what size is your softbox?? You said you're shooting full length shots, so what is your background like etc.

-- DK Thompson (, July 17, 2001.

Pete, don't try to learn only one thing, expose yourself to it all as I mentioned in my earlier post. I also mentioned earlier not to learn something to copy it, but to know the why, behind the set-up. You learn about what has come before you, the traditional rules, the different philosophies, the basics, and yes the terms. In order to break the rules, you've go to know what the rules are.

You are able to break a rule when you come up with something new that is just as good or better than what was being done by an earlier convention. Nobody gets into Photography just to do what's already been done and do it only that way, that would be ridiculous. We all want to come up with images that are new, fresh, innovative, that's the whole point of getting into Photography.

The 'old school', the traditional set-ups, the conventional wisdom, were at one time the state of the art and become popluar because they broke another rule and produced a better or more interesting image.

If everybody does the same thing, the same way, over and over, it gets old, it gets tired. The first time a I saw an image of a spectacular sunset as kid I said WOW! but after about a million of 'em who cares.

Pete, don't shortchange yourself, you can gain something valuable insights, inspiration, starting points for going in a completely new and innovative direction, by going over the basics and traditional set-ups.

I believe D.K. brought up an interesting point which pleads my case. An 'old style' or traditional set-up would suggest key, fill(from a softbox), kicker or rimlight, and a backround light as you main components. The idea of using a softbox is nothing new but for a long time if you suggested using a softbox differently than the way it was normally used in a traditional set-up you'd be considered crazy.

Photographer now use softboxes as the main or key light in a set-up, but the fact remaints that softboxes were part of traditional set-up but are now being used in a different way. THE OLD BECOMING NEW.

Check it all out Pete, you'll be better for it.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, July 17, 2001.

I am in about the same situation. I'm using 4x5, medium, and 35. But concentrating on 4x5 for now. I will start with one light, basically following Ellis's approach, with a good sized reflector. I only want to buy more lights (if ever) after I think I've mastered one and find things I can't easily do with it. I'm doing everything from head and shoulders to environmental portraits. Would very much appreciate 1)How much power for my one light?, and 2)Size/type of softbox that would make sense...conventional, "octabank" etc. I know there are multiple right answers here...I just need to narrow things down and start trying it.

-- John Sarsgard (, July 18, 2001.

John, How much power? An adjustable, preferably an assymetric, 2400 w/s pack is the minimum I'd take out it I am shooting large format portraits. I might not use it at full power but it is always easier to dial the power down than to create power that isn't there. You might want to consider having two 1,000 w/s packs anda bi-tube head (as well as a couple of standard heads) for versatility and backup in case one pack fails.

Size of Softbox? I have and use everything: 16x20 Chimera, 30x40 Plume Wafers 40x50 Plume Wafer Worldbank, to a 54x72" Chimera. The one I use most is the 40x50" Plume Wafer. This gives me the best general quality of light for single portraits in a reasonably sized package.

I like the Plume Ltd ( products because of the quality of light the quality of the construction and the design. The Wafer banks are about half as deep as similarly sized Chimeras (and the god awful Photoflex chimera knockoffs). This is important if you have a small studio or are travelling. Not cheap but very much worth it.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, July 18, 2001.

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