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Soft light in portraits with off camera flash

Discussion in 'Talking Pictures' started by smedz28, Feb 22, 2017.

  1. smedz28

    smedz28 Active Member

    Hi all,

    Having only started out in the exploration of portrait photography I am always looking at how I can get the most flattering soft light with the tools I have. My main light source is my Neewer speedlight combined with a 32" softbox. I have read many tutorials, a few books and watched the usual youtube videos and understand the concept of size of light source in relation to the subject, light fall off but what techniques produce the most flattering soft light and the softest transition from highlight to shadow? For example feathering the light away from the subject? extra layers of diffusion?

    What are your top choices of method? Feel free to show example of how this has worked.

    Also from a more technical aspect, something that has always had me wondering.....when using off camera flash in a softbox, what zoom do you set the flash head to?

    I look forward to your opinions

    Here is an example of one of my first ever attempts at soft portrait lighting

    [​IMG]Mandy by Marc Smedley, on Flickr
  2. PhotoEcosse

    PhotoEcosse Well-Known Member

    It is difficult to comment upon lighting without knowing the full details of the set-up. Not only the lighting set-up but everything about space and background, reflectivity of walls, etc., etc., etc., etc.

    So just one comment. You do not have to rely upon lighting to produce a soft portrait effect (and your example picture is an outstanding candidate for a soft approach). Traditional portrait lenses were deliberately soft focus. Those who could not justify expenditure on specialist lenses for portraiture used to smear some Vaseline on a clear (or UV or Skylight) filter to obtain a similar effect. The thing not to do is deliberately mis-focus - that never looks right.
  3. PhotoEcosse

    PhotoEcosse Well-Known Member

    ....PS to above. Don't neglect the possibilities offered by negative settings of the Clarity slider in Lightroom.
    EightBitTony likes this.
  4. smedz28

    smedz28 Active Member

    I get what you are saying about the portrait effect, clarity slider and soft focus but the question was more specific to the quality of light, softness of light (transition from highlight to shadow) and how/what techniques others use to diffuse light to achieve that. As such there is no specific set up, just examples of what you done, what your circumstances were at the time of the shoot and how the soft light was achieved.

    Is soft light created solely by making sure the light source is much bigger in relation to the subject or are there other ways to soften light? bouncing light, feathering, using different equipment
  5. PhotoEcosse

    PhotoEcosse Well-Known Member

    I am not sure there is such a thing as "soft light". Light is light. It may show different colours according to which part of the visible spectrum it encompasses, but I don't believe there is any physical attribute of light that affects "softness". What may be soft or hard are the effects resulting from the way that light falls upon a subject - e.g. hard or soft shadows. We can see this when comparing the illumination from a spotlamp with that coming in through a north-facing window. But the light itself is neither soft nor hard.

    There are many ways of directing light to control how it falls upon a subject. Prisms and concave/convex mirrors are the obvious examples but, photographically, the techniques you ahve already mentioned are probably the most-used. What might be worth experimentation would be using several techniques in an additive manner, e.g. diffuser and softbox with the product bounced off a wall.
  6. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    For a first softbox shot, it is very good. However it could be improved in detail, so at the risk of being accused of art directing, as shot, I'd recommend:
    - The subject's fringe should have been shorter and a little tidier. Although you cannot see her eyes, the beautiful eye lashes with dark hair & black top become key components in this shot.
    - Lipstick colour - ideally - should have matched the rose colour
    - Fractionally wider smile may have given better 'toothline'
    - The leaf/leaves in the bottom l/h corner should have dark side to camera.
    - Rose could have been a little closer to the subject and some 'portrait' variations tried as well as 'landscape' format shots.
    Top tip: when getting people to look at things, eg. Brides & bouquet, tell them not to actually look at it, but past it. If necessary approach and put your hand in position where 'the look' looks best to the camera (which may not be where the subject can actually see the bouquet/flower/etc. and ask the subject to gaze at your hand, then quickly go back to camera position to take the shot.

    All that said, you have controlled sharpness and depth of field really well, the graduation on the background and light on hair have been well done for a low-ish key effect. All light spills have been well controlled - there's nothing 'stray' in there. Am sure the subject will love it and her family and friends should as well. Well done.
  7. smedz28

    smedz28 Active Member

    She's my partner and it was in our living room, Mandy is my test subject whenever I want to try something new :p
  8. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    Strictly technically you are sort of right with the first two sentences, PE. However, in the confines of a photo studio, where room is limited there is a difference.

    Then your argument falls apart a little bit; you are comparing different sources at different distances with a 'different' modifier used on each. Think of the source of light (1), the power of the light (2), the distance of the light source from the subject (3) and the reflectors/diffusers modifying it (4) before considering quality.

    The sun, on a sunny day after rain, through a clear atmosphere becomes (1) a point source (2) at full power with no (4) and despite its vast distance (3) from Earth it produces hard edged, dark shadows here. The light quality is hard. Foggy day, (1) (2) and (3) have not changed (at least significantly - there are variations!) but the effect is no shadows on Earth under the fog. The light quality is soft. Very! And, yes, its colour temperature may also be different.

    The same things happen with studio flash but constrained by the dimensions of the studio, we photographers use a variety of reflectors & diffusers & modifiers as well as light sources and types for different subjects and effects. Cheers, Oly
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2017
  9. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    A lovely lady portrayed very well! Good work all round. How many lights on used on this?
  10. smedz28

    smedz28 Active Member

    Thanks....Just one speedlight in a 32" softbox
  11. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    Good work. Less is more, as they say. Some great photographers have been one light experts! (Maybe with using reflectors, too.) Keep at it.
  12. Terrywoodenpic

    Terrywoodenpic Well-Known Member

    Excellent I love it.
    Plenty enough directional to give lovely modeling to the features, but soft enough not to emphasise wrinkles and defects.
    Love the dark toned and graduated background which sets off the face and blends perfectly with the dark hair and jumper.

    The pose, angle of the head and rose all work perfectly.

    The only improvement I can imaging would be a little more ( but not much) selective light illuminating the back and interior of the rose.

    Had the rose been fixed in position while the portrait was taken, a second exposure could have been taken of the rose alone with a reflector placed where her face is, to throw back a little more light, and the two shots masked and blended.
  13. Terrywoodenpic

    Terrywoodenpic Well-Known Member

    Your question about the amount of Zoom to set on the flash , Might be best answered by taking some shots of the Soft box with the flash at various zooms. You will most likely find that the wider the zoom the less the hotspot. but as the flash is so close to it, it will not vary by much.
  14. PhilW

    PhilW Well-Known Member

    Late to this sorry

    Soft light or hard light describe the shadow to highlight transition. At it's extreme hard light has a very crisp transition it's lit until suddenly it isn't, so the transition is no existent effectively.

    What effects this is the EFFECTIVE size of the light source. so a pinprick of light very close to the subject might just give us that extreme hard transition. At the other extreme imagine your 32" soft box 12 inches away from a big football. because the light is so much bigger than the subject there will be a very gradual drop off of light from the bit of the ball closest to the light, all the way down it's side. And probably half way down there won't be a hard shadow, the transition to completely unlit will continue, maybe 3/4 of the way down the ball.

    That is soft light (for the person above wondering if it existed)

    Two things determine the nature of the shadow to highlight transition

    1. The size of the light source
    2. the distance from the subject of the light source

    where large sources very close to the subject give the softest light

    distance is key! The sun is an enormous source, but it is so far away it gives crisp shadows because it's EFFECTIVE size is small.

    So to your question. feathering has no effect on softness. Extra layers of diffusion won't either unless they are making the source bigger or closer. So light a 1 2n square white sheet with your softbox, and you suddenly have a much larger source.

    So the key when shooting for soft light is to get the biggest light source you can as close to the subject as possible. For head shots I use a 1.5m box that is just out of shot, so within a couple of feet of the subject.
    PhotoEcosse and Fishboy like this.
  15. Terrywoodenpic

    Terrywoodenpic Well-Known Member

    There is a second way of achieving hard light.
    That is still used in the film industry, But far less today in Stills photography... that is by the use of Focussed light.
    This is normally done with the use of large Fresnel spots, any thing up to about 3ft in diameter and 7000 wats. When I worked in a glamour studio we only used Spots, and most were 30" diameter. we also used little bashers which were about 10" 500w spots and used head on to eliminate wrinkles. Large directional spots give that Hollywood look so popular in glamour work. as strange as it might sound they are always used at least slightly defocussed.

    Also rare to day, was the forerunner of what we now call the beauty dish. These were large "Focussed" flood lights that gave a near parallel beam of light. and could be very large indeed, and required equally large and heavy stands as they were solid dished metal.
    Focussed light gives both texture and modeling to a subject.

    Focussed light also has the advantage of being able to be used well away from the subject as it does not suffer from the inverse square law in the same way.
  16. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    Phil and Terry are both right although Phil is really re-posting what I had previously written without mentioning understanding of the Inverse Square Law and its use in contrast control. I was thinking about getting on to that in more detail. May do so when I have more time although readers of this will do better ;) to look it up in a good photography 'How to' book by people like Michael Langford, John Hedgecoe, Mike Busselle, etc..

    In the confines of a photo studio (compared to a film studio/sound stage) a 'deep dish' reflector, used fairly close to the subject, will suffice if you want to replicate the vintage movie-style lighting outlined by Terry.

    I'm struggling to remember the name of the Hollywood stills photographer (think he is now deceased) who used only one light and reflectors and who had a major lifetime retrospective at The Photographers Gallery in the 1990s. Took a fantastic photograph, IIRC, of a standing Frank Sinatra, ciggie in hand, smoke curling upward while he leans back on the front of a large desk, window in the background showing the daytime view beyond.

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