I recently had the pleasure of photographing the six winners of the Etsy Design Awards 2016 in their homes and studios around Germany. I snapped a few behind-the-scenes shots along the way, so I can explain my lighting setup and approach to shooting portraits on location.
Shooting on location can be challenging, especially when you have no idea what the location looks like, and travelling by plane adds another level of difficulty. Over the years I've managed to pack my kit down to be as portable as possible, to deal with those strict size and weight restrictions.
My portrait gear consists of a Profoto 3' Octobox with grid, Profoto B1 strobe, Canon 5DIII, Canon 85mm f1.2 and Canon 50mm f1.4. This is all carried in a Think Tank Airport International V2.0 wheeled case, so it passes as carry-on luggage. I don't mind checking my tripod and light stand into the hold, but my camera, lenses and light are always with me! I've heard too many horror stories about kit being lost, stolen or broken during flights to ever risk putting it in the hold.
Composition and Styling
When I first arrive at the subject's space I spend a few minutes walking around, trying to find the best spot to shoot. I'll take a few photos, working out the best composition, and once I have this, I'm ready to set up. It's my goal to create the best images possible, so I may move pieces of furniture and add or remove elements to style the scene.
For a shoot like this I'd always use a tripod to steady my camera and make sure the images are as sharp as possible. Once the composition is locked in I don't need the freedom that comes with hand holding the camera. In fact, with the camera locked in position, I am able to look at my subject and really try and connect with them. The aim is to make people feel relaxed and to have fun!
Before I turn on any extra lights, I want to get my scene at the correct exposure. I'll fire off a few shots until I'm happy that the ambient light is at a good enough level so that when I turn on my strobe, I'm only adding a touch of light to fill in the shadows.
I also look at where the ambient light is already coming into the room, from a window for example, and place my strobe at this angle to mimic the direction of the natural light. I use a grid on my octobox because I want to be able to control the light and avoid washing out the whole scene with the strobe.
Above is the first exposure with no strobe light. The subject is too dark but I couldn't increase this exposure any more without blowing out the window. Also the rim light on the side of my subject’s face will be too overpowering if I push any further. Time to add the B1 strobe.
Here you can see just how much of a difference there the strobe light makes. The subject is bright and sharp and pops out from the background. Because the light position is coming from the right side near the window, it still feels natural. Often you need to play with your settings, moving your shutter speed up and down to find a natural-looking balance between the ambient and the strobe. The final settings of the shot above were shutter speed 1/160, aperture f3.2 and ISO 400.
For another subject, the space was quite tight and the best composition would mean the subject was facing into the room and away from the window. The light couldn't come from the angle of the window because that would be behind her and throw her into complete darkness! I have to use my strobe to light the subject from the front here.
Thankfully because the window is not so much in the scene and is being diffused by the curtains, I can really slow the shutter speed to raise the ambient light in the room, and use my strobe to add a pop of light on the subject. The final settings for the below image were a shutter speed of 1/15, aperture f3.2 and ISO 400.
You may be wondering why I didn't lower my ISO to 100 to get the least amount of grain possible. This was the first time using my new Profoto B1 and, as I was shooting all day, I wanted to make sure the batteries didn't drain too quickly! If I up the ISO a bit, the grain isn't going to be so noticeable with a camera like the Canon 5DIII, and I'm going to give my strobe lights a bit of a boost. I barely made a dent in the battery power of the B1, so next time I'd feel confident with ISO 100 :)