Tuesday, February 24, 2015


My epiphany was all about the size of the main light…Size Matters! I realized that when doing outdoor natural light portraits I was using the largest open blue patch of sky I could find near a tree line.  That patch of sky provided a main light that required NO fill--in fact I am subtracting light from the opposite side with the tree line.  Such as this…
So, how could I expect to get that smooth, wrapping, quality of light in the studio with a puny 4-foot soft box?  In addition the standard 36"x48" rectangular soft box combined with the traditional studio fill light, at the back of the camera room, introduced TWO annoying artifacts in my subjects eyes:

1) A rectangular soft box creates, by design, a rectangular catch-light. That rectangular catch-light is all straight lines, right angles and sharp corners.  Putting sharp hard angles in someones eyes didn't feel right--like putting the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
2)  The fill light traditionally placed, centered at the back of the camera room produced ghastly pinpoint catch-lights--even when bounced into a 40" umbrella--in the center of my subject's eyes. I now call these "Ice Pick Catch-Lights".

Enter the 6-foot, or larger, octagonal soft box.  Because of its size it no longer has to be as close to your subject to achieve the soft, wrapping, effect thus enabling you to do groups WITHOUT a fill light. In addition the octagonal shape of this soft box creates catch-lights that appear round when you view the portraits at normal viewing distance.

Below are my before and after studio setups cropped-in to show the catch-lights.  The portrait on top using my 4-foot rectangular soft box with the standard studio fill light has the catch-light artifacts I dislike, but worse, THE LIGHTING IS FLAT--it lacks dimension.  The portrait on the bottom using my current 7-foot octagonal soft box and NO FILL LIGHT has a nice soft shadow side on her face and the simple large catch-lights.

The bottom line here is that the fundamentals are the same weather you're outside or in the studio. You create natural three dimensionality with ONE light source coming from ONE direction.  Then if you like, you can build upon that with kickers or accent lights when you're in the studio.

LIGHTING PHILOSOPHY 101:  We only have ONE sun in our solar system so for the most natural, comfortable look in portraits our subjects should only have ONE catch-light in each eye.  Filling their eyes with catch-lights looks unnatural at best and very creepy at worst! And, don't get me started on ring lights for portraits!

Epiphany aside, I could not act on this revelation while my camera room existed in a studio that was only 12-feet wide.  That had to wait for a couple more years when we relocated in 2009 to Meridian, Idaho.  We leased a store front space in Eagle, Idaho with 1500 sq. feet that we split up exactly the way we wanted--being designed around the camera room.  I could finally put up a 10x20 foot background sideways; getting 20 feet of background for large groups.  On one session we photographed a father and son on their Harley Davidson motorcycles placed end to end across a sideways background!  What made that possible was also finally upgrading my main studio light with a Photolex 7-foot Octodome, soft box, that I placed on a Photogenic 8-foot, air cushion, cast iron base, roller stand.  SWEET!

Here's the Eagle studio set-up with my 7-foot main:

Here are a couple examples using this large main light with no fill light.  For this group of girls I wanted a little drama, so the light is at about 45 degrees:

With this high school senior I wanted major drama, so I rolled the light to 90 degrees:

After I set-up our Eagle studio and  fully tested this set-up I put away my studio fill light permanently.  Even today in our home studio the studio is set-up with no fill light and I still use my 7-foot soft-box on wheels.  My lighting philosophy is now consistent and my outdoor and studio styles of lighting are harmonious.  All is well in Idaho.

"The artiste who avoids the shadows may be said to avoid the glory of the art." Leonardo da Vinci

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Certified, Master, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

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