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

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