Tuesday, June 28, 2016


It’s a very easy case to make when advocating a No Fill Light - One Light set-up for portraits for individuals, but when doing groups—now that will make many photographers really nervous! Removing the fill light from most photographers’ studios would be like taking away a toddler’s security blanket! 

I must say that when I retired my 36x48” softbox, which I KNEW was incapable of group portraits without a fill-light, and upgraded to the Photoflex, 7-foot, Octodome, I was skeptical before I tested it. In fact, when I first set-up my new studio, 6 years ago, I put up my usual fill light, in a big silver umbrella, up high, behind me—just in case. I wanted my blankie near me! I found that when used properly, placing that big light as close to my subjects as possible (without being seen in my viewfinder) the results were fabulous! Of course, I tried it both ways—turning the fill light ON for comparison and the fill light just flattened out the light—making a boring two-dimensional rendition of my subjects.

Just to be clear when I say “One Light Portrait” I’m referring to how may lights are striking my subject’s faces. There are at least 3 and often a total of 4 lights being used on the set when doing groups: 
  1. You need a hair light to put some sparkle and separation of hair especially with dark backgrounds.
  2. You need at least one background light and often two-lights as the group gets larger because the group blocks light and makes the background much darker on the side opposite the main light.
  3. What I’m eliminating is the 5th Light—the Fill Light—the only light that is creatively destructive to the studio portrait.
As proof of concept I offer the following image. It was a Professional Photographers of America, International Print Competition, Loan Collection Winner in 2014.

 f11.0 @ 1/200 sec, ISO 100
  • One, 7-foot, Octodome Main Light
  • No Fill Light
  • One white reflector on camera right
  • the usual two background lights and one hair light
This was my first studio set-up with the 7-foot Octodome. Note the white reflector on the stand on the left. Most importantly notice that my main light is on wheels. You need to easily move your main light, otherwise it may take root, as I’ve seen in some studios, never changing position again!

Store Front Studio - Eagle
This next group portrait with 6 Adults and one child pushed my new studio to the limit. We’ve moved our studio into our home and made the two-car garage into the camera room, so with groups any larger than seven or eight people we go outside to the many beautiful outdoor Idaho locations.

This is the new studio designed in the garage space…

Home Studio
It does not look very big, but the background displayed is 10 feet wide and 20 feet long and the wall mounted Bogen support poles are 12-feet long. The 7-foot Octodome is placed in about the right position for a group, as is the single background light, to the right, on the little roller stand.

Here’s the group portrait in the new studio…

f11.0 @ 1/600 sec., ISO 200
  • One, 7-foot, Octodome Main Light
  • No Fill Light
  • Two silver reflectors on camera right
  • the usual two background lights and one hair light
The biggest difference between this larger group and the portrait of the girls is the spacing of the subjects—making the group wider—so with more distance between my main light and the people on camera right there’s light fall-off. That creates darker shadows on the people at camera right. 

I do several things to make the light even across a group:
  1. Stagger the Group: I set-up the seating so that they are not just lined-up flat to the camera. They’re on a diagonal with the people on the right closer to the camera than the people on the left.
  2. Increase reflector efficiency:  Instead of my usual white reflector I used two Silver reflectors to balance their facial shadows.
  3. Feather the Main Light:   With larger groups you can’t just point the light at the group or you’ll over expose the near people and underexpose the far people. So, I point the Main Light AT the Silver Reflectors on the other side of the group.
So, that’s all there is to it! Piece of Cake!  No, not really—this is the most difficult kind of studio photography; the more living, breathing, people or critters in front of the camera the harder it is!

In closing, I’d encourage photographers, as I mentioned in my prior Blog One Light Studio Portraits—Individuals, to study lighting outside the photographic community. The classic painters 350 years ago knew how to use directional light to create the shadows that made their subjects three dimensional.

Look up the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer’s portraits using window light: my favorites include “Woman Holding a Balance” and “Girl Interrupted at Her Music”!  His use of window light has been one of my influences in changing my lighting style in the studio. ( Here is link for you:  http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html#.V2Qs4xIrIlL  or the main site link is: https://www.artsy.net/artist/johannes-vermeer )

To quote another great artist, Leonardo da Vinci,
“The artist who can make his subject appear to be in relivo (made to appear to have elevation, with depth and dimension) is he who should receive the greatest praise.”

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


A single large main light with NO Fill Light is simply the best lighting technique for portraits.  Our goal as portrait artists should be to create portraits with depth; to make our subjects appear three dimensional.  The only way artists, who make two-dimensional representations of their subjects (be they painters or photographers), can do this is by creating shadows using directional light. Every light we add, that strikes our subject’s face, weakens the directional quality of our main light.  All too often I see photographers add so much fill that the lighting becomes totally flat.  That’s fine if you’re photographing a stamp collection, but with people as subjects I consider that lighting malpractice, Painters know this because the masters they study, like Vermeer and Caravaggio, have left a legacy of their classic portraits that have been studied for 350 years. 

Few photographers study anything outside their immediate sphere of influence, be it the many photographic speciality associations (ASMP, WPPI, PPA, etc.) or going right into the gutter; Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Flicker, Snapfish, ad nauseam.  Photographers need to break free of these incestuous “educational” influences and study how the masters of classic art saw and used light.

Do a web search of Vermeer — Look how he uses window light, as a large, soft, single source, in his painting titled: “Woman Holding a Balance” (#15 in the Vermeer Catalog) — it’s stunning! Also look at #11 in the Vermeer Catalog “Girl Interrupted in Her Music”, a great example of “short Lighting”. Here is a link to the catalog:  http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html#.V2Qs4xIrIlL

So, my goal these last seven years has been to unlearn the studio portrait lighting dogma I was taught 20 years ago and reinvent my lighting style to emulate the soft window light look of the masters using the largest soft box I could find.  This is how I light my subjects now:

Lighting: One 7-foot Octodome @ 45° — No Fill
  1. Notice the soft light that wraps her face transitioning smoothly to a light shadow.
  2. Note the catch lights in her eyes (Only One in each eye!) that are large, soft, and round.

This is how I was taught to light my subjects:
f11.0 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 160
Lighting: One-36”x48” soft box @ f11.0 and One-40” silver umbrella @ f5.6 (placed behind & above me).
  1. Ten years ago, when I did this, I made lots of money with this lighting set-up: A two-stop difference between the main and fill giving me a 4:1 ratio. Compared to what I do now this portrait looks pretty Flat. At least I wasn’t doing the totally flat stuff the Mall photographers were doing with ratios at 2:1 or even 1:1 !
  2. At the time I thought my soft box was adequate, but look how Hard the light is compared to my previous image. (The main here is 4-feet away; it’s all about size and distance.)
  3. Her catch lights are small and sharp edged (caused by the rectangular soft box). I particularly hate the pin point catch lights in the middle of her eyes (caused by the distant fill light); I call these “Ice Pick” catch lights!
So, why should our studio portraits be any different than our window light portraits that we do on most weddings? I wouldn’t dream of turning on my hot-shoe mounted speed light when doing a window light portrait of a bride! Would you? Then why use a fill flash in the studio? Is it a lack of confidence? I think it’s a crutch you don’t need. Throw your crutches away!

Another old Master that I study, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote:

“The artiste who avoids the shadows may be said to avoid the glory of the art.”

In Part Two of One Light Studio Portraits I’ll talk about using One main light with No fill light on groups…

“You can’t do groups with one light!” you say? Watch me, next time!

As usual should you have questions please don’t hesitate to contact me.  ’Till next week~!

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


There is no need to add light in outdoor portraits when the sun is above the horizon. There is always plenty of light (usually too much) one or two hours before sunset if you place your subjects properly. The key is controlling the excess light on your subject(s) by subtracting light from one side with either natural light blocking features (like trees, bushes, or buildings) or, when doing individuals, using a Gobo—Like my 42” Black Flag - to create a shadow side on my subject’s face.

With the Subtractive Lighting Technique you can create beautiful true natural light portraits—never needing so much as a reflector and most certainly NEVER polluting the scene with flash!

So, let’s go on location…
 f6.3 @ 1/100 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 125mm
This family portrait was done two hours before sunset on the edge, of the common area, of a new housing development. I like this spot because it has several layers of trees all along this lawn, on camera right, blocking much of the ambient light to that side. Next I have a BIG patch of clear sky creating my key light on camera left. And finally, the icing on my location cake, is that nice glow, from the backlight, of the setting sun as my background. 

NOTE: When I am in control of picking the location, these three elements must be present for me to use a location—especially for group portraits. But, if the backlight glow is absent, even if the other two elements are there, I won’t use the location.  Weddings or other events would be the only time I would be forced to break this rule.

This is exactly the kind of location I teach my students to look for.  I tell them to look for light (sky light; without direct sun) at the Edge of Something to have Directional Lighting on their subjects.

Masters Tip Source: One of my early teachers, Leon Kennamer, THE Master of the Subtractive Lighting Technique, taught me that, “The Light is at the Edge of the Forrest!”

If you take anything from this blog, think about that statement…Now Go out and Look, and Use this simple bit of wisdom! 

I see “Professional” Photographers, ignorant of this knowledge, go marching INTO the forrest, all the time when I’m out on my sessions, making this fatal error in lighting (they say, “well, isn’t that where the shade is?”). When you go INTO the forrest all you get is FLAT DULL LIGHT — You lose proper direction of light, because the dominant light becomes TOP Light — not a good light for portraits.

 f4.5 @ 1/320 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 155mm
Now it’s 45 minutes until sunset at the same location and the glow is getting nice and warm in the background. We moved their son to get that glow all around his head and I opened up my lens to f4.5 and zoomed to a longer focal length to really blur-out that background.

I moved him a little closer to the tree line (now on Camera Left) for a more dramatic lighting pattern—making sure I had light in Both eyes.  No reflector needed (it would only flatten the lighting) and, of course, no speed lights needed or wanted to pollute this gorgeous light!

Don’t hesitate to ask questions for make a comment…’Til next week…

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Conventional “wisdom” on the forums is that the ONLY way you can create good Bokeh is with apertures of f1.2,  f1.4 or at lest f2.8 and that you MUST use the 85mm or a 50mm to achieve the best results.

As a professional photographer, with over 40 years experience, I’m here to tell you they are wrong on ALL counts!  Because I really like bokeh, being a portrait photographer, I must control my depth of field to the benefit of my subject.  The Bokeh is not my subject—it is the background behind my subject.  Therefore, I can’t risk using the razor thin depth-of-field I would get using f1.2, f1.4 or f2.8 for portraits.

So, to create really nice bokeh I use my telephoto lens, usually 200-300mm, and proper placement of my subject; keeping my subject far from the specular highlights in the background for the look I want.
 f2.8 @ 1/15 sec., ISO 400 Lens @ 200mm
n the example above I used f2.8 because the small subject requires little depth-of-field. But, what makes the big bokeh here is my lens being at 200mm. In addition that long focal length knocks the background so out of focus the you can’t see the source of the bokeh. 

The following images dramatically show how the focal length affects Bokeh at the same f-stop.

As you can see not only is the bokeh smaller in the left image, but you can clearly see the source of the lights; the Christmas tree.

To further prove the power of focal length over f-stop for good bokeh…

 f8.0 @ 1/1000 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200
That’s some pretty nice bokeh for an aperture of f8.0! It’s all about focal length and distance of those specular highlights from the subject.

NOTE:  When outdoors your specular highlights are usually created by backlight. If there’s no backlight (best towards sunset) you’re not going to get bokeh that is alive with light; if there’s no light in the background it’s a dead background, which is useless to me.

So, this is what I make a living doing—Portraits of People (mostly outdoors) by natural light one or two hours before sunset.

 f4.5 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 160mm

The most useful aperture for individual portraits that will also give me nice backgrounds is f4.5 . At that aperture I always get both eyes in focus even if I have my subject turn to a 2/3rds view of their face.  In the above image my focal length was only at 160mm, so the background is nice, but not as soft as I usually prefer. 

 f4.5 @ 1/320 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 280mm

Now this is what I’m talking about!  So, I could really compress the scene—bringing the background and the little girl together—I mounted the Canon 1.4x extender on my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens giving me a maximum of 280mm to work with on this session.

My basic rule in portrait photography is to use the MOST telephoto lens I can when photographing people because compression distortion ALWAYS makes people look better than the extension distortion created by any short 50mm or less lens. And, my backgrounds look way better at 200-280mm than those popular lenses in the 85mm range can create.

As usual, have a question don’t hesitate to ask….

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