Before you read any further, please note that this post is a repost from FStoppers. I am NOT the author of this post – I am simply sharing valuable information that I personally have found useful and would like to share it with my fellow photographers and in doing so, hopefully boost the exposure of this article. I hope you will all find this article as interesting as I did.
How to Take a Portrait With Shallow Depth of Field and Studio Strobes
Many photographers rely on their 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.4 lenses to give that dreamy, narrow depth of field look to their portraits. These two lenses have become a staple for portrait, headshot, wedding, and boudoir photographers who enjoy the soft look that comes with a narrow depth of field and natural lighting. But what happens when you want to create a similar effect in the studio, where your strobes are often too powerful for shooting wide open? Today, I’m going to share with you a fairly unconventional lighting technique that will allow you to shoot your lenses wide open in the studio.
The main problem with shooting wide open in a studio setting is the sheer amount of light that is released from a studio flash. Most mono heads like a Profoto D1, Broncolor Siros, or a Paul C Buff Alien Bee release a ton of power with each pop. These studio flashes release so much light that you are often forced to shoot at f/8 or higher, even at ISO 100. Some of the bigger power pack versions of these lights produce even more power so you can light up huge locations for commercial work. Most of the studio images being created for catalog, fashion, and advertising are in fact shot with super small apertures on DSLRs and slightly wider apertures on medium format cameras; so, it makes sense to use the high intensity studio flash units. But what if you don’t want everything in focus and you want to create a more dreamy portrait shot at f/2.8, f/2, or even f/1.4?
Shooting With Your Modeling Lamps
It is no secret that the easiest way to shoot with your lens wide open in the studio is to use lights that are much less powerful than your studio flash. Many photographers, like Peter Hurley, use fluorescent lighting like Kino Flos, while others use similar sized LED panels. These constant lights work great for portraits and headshots because they produce light that is much less powerful than a burst of flash. However, the one major problem with most of these lights is they are nearly impossible to use with your classic light modifiers. If you want the same quality of light found from a bare bulb light, gridded or snooted light, or beauty dish, Kino Flo and LED panels are probably not going to be your choice of constant light. Luckily, there is a very simple constant light source that works well with wide open lenses and you probably already have a bunch of them in your studio!
Modeling lights are the small LED or halogen lights that come built into most professional studio strobes. Since you cannot easily see strobe lights as they fire, these modeling lights are used mainly as a guide to help you visualize what your lighting setup looks like before you actually fire the strobe filament. It might not have crossed your mind, but these low-powered lamps are the perfect alternative to flash if you want to shoot with your aperture wide open in the studio. Another thing that makes these lights so useful is you can maintain all of your creative lighting options by using all the light modifiers you already own.
There is a common saying among photographers that I’m sure you have heard before: Light is light. While this statement can seem a bit ambiguous or overly broad at times, the heart of the matter is true. No matter what type of lighting source you are using, the overall lighting effect will be both predictable and reproducible based on how light behaves. This basically means that regardless of what actual bulb you use, small lights are going to appear harder than large light sources, the inverse square law is still going to behave the same, and all of your modifiers will produce pretty much the same light output if they are used correctly. There are a few nuances that you will have to account for when switching from flash to constant lights, which I will address below, but for the most part, you aren’t going to be in some alien territory when you switch between the two types of light.
In the two test images below, one was shot with flash at the lowest possible power level and the other was shot with the modeling lamp. Both images have the same exposure at f/1.4, ISO 200, 1/50th of a second. Can you guess which one was which?
A Few Things to Consider
When you are shooting with hot lights, whether it be your strobe’s modeling lamps, LED lights, or common incandescent bulbs, there are a few things that you will need to consider in order to produce the best results. It is important that you do some trial and error testing first, because some of these factors will vary depending on which camera you use, the types of light you use, how many different lights you use, if you mix different lighting sources, etc.
Overall White Balance
The first issue you will need to address deals with color temperature. Every light source you use is going to vary in color temperature because each one of them replicates a slightly different band of frequencies in the light spectrum. You can even observe different colors from the Sun depending on what time of day you are shooting, what time of year it is, changes in the atmosphere, and differences in weather. Since almost all modeling lamps are much warmer in color than your highly calibrated flash tubes, you are going to have to set your white balance much cooler to produce “correct” white tones in your final image. For the two images above, the white balance was set to 5800K for the image on the left (shot with strobe) and 3000K for the image on the right (lit with the modeling lamp). In some cases, you might find that your camera doesn’t allow your White Balance to go cool enough to correctly balance the warm color; so, you might have to resort to Lightroom to push the white balance even further towards the blue scale. There have been some extreme situations where even 2000K wasn’t cool enough, but that’s pretty rare (Adobe, can you expand the WB sliders even more please?).