We've been dancing around portrait lighting for a while so I thought it would be fun to dig in a little bit....

Portrait of Michelle.

In this portrait of Michelle I cheated by using the perfect lens and camera for portraiture, available at that time. It was a medium format film camera with 4X the surface area of a 35mm, or full frame sensor. The portrait was also done with one of my favorite portrait lenses available then; a 180mm Zeiss f4.0.

I say that I "cheated" because I feel there is a difference that is more than just equivalent f-stops between formats, and is more about focus ramping, and by that I mean that trying to match f-stops between formats is a bit simplistic and it's pretty much impossible to match how quickly focus will fall off between formats even if you normalize the relative difference between f-stops. The formula is more complicated than a simple re-sizing exercise.

But to my eyes part of the charm of this image (for me) is how beautifully and completely the wrinkled canvas (not muslin) background goes out of focus. But it's not a sudden thing; the transition, and that sudden fall off of focus is what I tend to see when people use fast lenses on smaller sized sensors (like full frame or APS-C) when trying to emulate a larger format look. In those shots there is a discernible and more abrupt loss of sharp zone while the bigger formats ramp more gracefully but more quickly from sharp to gone.

For this portrait I used a very large soft box. It was 4 x 6 feet and I always used it in a horizontal orientation and over to one side so the light had more ability to "wrap" further around the portrait subject. The larger light source was additionally softened with several layers of silk that floated in several inches in front of the front diffuser of the soft box.

I use my light modifiers in much closer proximity to my subjects than I have seen other photographer position theirs. The edge of the soft box closest to the camera is just out of frame by a hair. It's also a close to Michelle as I can possibly get it.

Here's a quick illustration:

It's important to me that the face be lit well and that the fall off between well lit skin tone and deep shadow be a gradual effect with no hard lines. I try to get all of the front surface of the light box, or as much as possible, above chin level with my subject so the light under her chin goes into soft shadow and reinforces the line of her chin; the demarcation.

If you look at the play of light across Michelle's face you won't see conventional fall off as delivered from the inverse square law because all of the lit portions of her face are nearly equidistant from the front of the light source. Instead I'm playing with the angle of the light to create a shadow to one side of her nose. You can see that there is no light fall of (diminished intensity) on the lit side, or the shadow side of her face, because in the triangle under her left eye (on the right of the frame) and to the left of her nose has the same tone as the skin on the other side. But the bigger light source is creating a smoother and much more gradual transition from normal skin tone to dark.

The biggest mistakes I see from other photographers who might want to emulate this style are to use too small a light source and/or to position it too far away from the subject which makes the shadow transition more abrupt because there is less light surface wrapping around.

You might also notice that I tend to photograph portraits with the camera as close to actual eye level as I can. This is for several reasons. Lighting people from above makes them seem weaker, subservient or shy and I don't want to overlay a look on someone that isn't commensurate with their nature. The second reason is that "unnatural" angles tend to amplify the forehead and reduce the size of a subject's chin, which I find unflattering. What I imagine for most of my portrait sitters is what they would look like if we were sitting in a Starbucks or a café and we were looking at each other across a small and comfortable table. I'm only 5 foot 8 inches tall so I don't usually tower over most of the people I shoot. But I feel strongly that eyes at the same level as camera is the most natural and intimate way one can photograph a portrait sitter.

You'll note that I have a black panel positioned on the opposite side of the subject from the main light. This keeps stray photons from bouncing off the ubiquitous white walls of modern civilization and bouncing back into the shadow areas to undermine my beloved shadows. You may call it subtractive fill but it's just there to block stray bounces.

On the other side, just behind and out of camera range and behind my subject, is another black card which keeps excessive light from the main light off the background. I don't always need a black card there if the distance from the foreground to the background is 20 or 30 feet away but the closer the main light is to the background the more I want to subdue light coming past Michelle and degrading the shadows that edge the background.

The background almost always gets its own light and it's usually a small soft box with a light head that matches the color temperature and flash duration ( I like long duration flash, actually) of the main light.
If I want more undulation in the background I use the background light at an angle to the background instead of straight in. If that's the case I might also use a net to even out the spread of the light from one side to the other. The shallow depth of field from using the correct portrait camera and lens takes care of smoothing out what would otherwise be distracting glitches in the background.

In the days of film I would generally have the shoulder closest to the light be a little lighter than the rest of the subject and that would require me to burn down the tones in the region under the enlarger in the darkroom. I think I did a decent job blending the tones in this image of Michelle. It works best if there is always some detail there to begin with. Burning detail-less highlights generally just looks like shit.

None of the things in the illustration are hot glued to the floor at the beginning of the session. We're moving stuff all the time.

Many years ago I posted a time lapse video of me shooting a portrait for advertising at Zach Theatre. There was a giant scrim, I lit with hot lights, and there was a big, passive file on the other side --- but pretty far away (I want those shadows). I needed some fill because the space we were shooting in had black walls! Anyway, the time lapse covered the time spent shooting one person. I could count 25 times, at least, when I stepped away from the camera and made adjustments to the lighting, to the fill, to the background light, etc. I guess what I'm saying is that portraiture, done the way I prefer, is not a passive process in which one only stands stationary and barks commands to a compliant model.

When I feel it's needed I get in front of the camera and even mimic to my sitter what I'm looking for. It's easier for people to SEE what you imagine than to try and explain it to them in hundreds and hundreds of words.

This is just the way I like to do portraits. You prints will vary.

distillation: big lights, big modifiers, get everything on the front side of the subject as close as possible. Keep the background as far away as possible. Control the highlight to mid-tone to shadow transitions as you see them aesthetically. There is no "ratio." There is no formula. We work on a clean slate for almost every shoot.


Anonymous said...

What? Nothing about a Fuji? Everything Okay?

Bruce Bodine said...

Thanks for this post Kirk, this information and your great results is what I find very educational.

Frank Grygier said...

You need to rent a GFX with the GF110 F2 for the next portrait you do. Just sayin,

Anonymous said...

A beautiful portrait for all the reasons you wrote about.
The quality of light seems, to me at least, to look like the
lighting the old masters captured in their paintings.

Anonymous said...


Thank you. Wonderful distillation of portrait 501 (grad school). For the portrait of Michelle above, you used flash. Do you still use flash or do you use LEDs? Or does it depend on the sitter and what the two of you want to show ?


Kirk Tuck said...

You are very welcome. Thanks for taking time to comment!

Kirk Tuck said...

I'll see what I can rummage up. Thanks.

Kirk Tuck said...

That's very kind of you to say. Thank you!

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Jay, As you know I have the consistency of winning a lottery. I'm shooting a portrait tomorrow and if it was scheduled in the evening I'd probably shoot with LEDs. Since it's in the middle of the day and I am too lazy to cover all of the windows around the studio I've gone with flash. Sometimes I'm like water and just look for the path of least resistance. But I've made good portraits with each type of lighting so I never feel I'm compromising if I go one way or the other. But I do think I'll use a square format tomorrow..... now that I have them on tap...

Dave said...

I'm just going to say that this is a beautiful portrait. Perfect.

Michael Robbins said...

glad u wrote this piece. i like to set up light the same, v close,,large softbox, i find the catchlight too large in the pupil, yours look smaller and perhaps more to one side, any tips?

Kirk Tuck said...

Don't ruin the look of your overall light just to get one thing corrected. Re: catchlights. It's okay to retouch and make them smaller. Also, if the real issue is that the pupil is too large and shows off the catchlight too much you can pump up the ambient light in your studio space or add brighter modeling lights, or an "Obie" light (a light directly on camera to add eye sparkle) which will cause the pupil to close down giving you less "black space" in which to accentuate the catchlight's size. I had one friend who was an amazing portrait/fashion guy who hated, just hated big pupils (open, dilated, whatever) and he would bounce two 1,000 watt tungsten lights into V-flats just to get the models' pupil stopped way down (smaller) he used flash for the ultimate exposure but the more intense ambient lighting gave his subject's compact pupils which did a killer job of showing off the irises. It's a technique that works best with a combination of tungsten for focusing and "pupil management" and flash for the actual exposures.

Kristian Wannebo said...

Thanks, Kirk,
A very interesting lesson, and more so with the comment on pupils, irises and catchlightas.

( Especially for an amateur who has never been closer to doing portraits than trying to catch natural light candids of friends - often releasing the shutter with the camera held at the side at a suitable height in order to keep the subject unaware (handy camera & wide margins essential).)

And (indirectly) I hear you describe the art of managing light - and contact with the subject! - so that the result is also so natural looking that the "normal" uninitiated viewer doesn't immediately realize that it was a portrait session.

Also the art of doing the continuing adjustment in a way to keep the subject interested, and as a part of the interaction with the subject!

- or it wouldn't have become such a lovely portrait!

Kristian Wannebo said...

A question, Kirk,
I have suspected that the approximation of equivalent aperture isn't enough, as you conclude.
But I wonder if another aspect might be part in your lens comparison.

There was the tradition of portrait lenses designed with a certain amount of spherical aberration to give a very light softening wide open and a very gradual transition to out of focus.
Now rumours say that modern lenses are usually (?) designed mainly for sharpness.

So I wonder if there is some difference of that kind between the 180mm Zeiss f4.0 and the APS-C and FF lenses you compare it with?

MikeR said...

Thank you for the tutorial. This July we will be spending a week with my wife's large family at a lake house. Since I like what you do, I've been thinking of taking some gear there, and look for family "volunteers," or conscripts, to be subjects as I try my hand at portraiture.

Edward Richards said...

Focus ramp - perfect. You are exactly right that just using a faster lens on a smaller format does not give the same overall look as a larger format. This was a religious issue in the large and ultra large format world, who would look down on mere 4x5. (The issue was not sharpness because all the confounding factors washed out the potential higher resolution of the huge formats outside of very narrow studio conditions.)

Matt Kallio said...

They are all beautiful portraits. I like how your subjects are always engaged with (me). But your subject has to be a bit special to sit with a 4x6 panel looming inches away, i.e., experienced with that sort of thing. I've tried it, sitting that close to a big source, and my impulse is to lean away from the big thing. Is it different between strobe and LED? Do you have to keep LEDs further away?

Kirk Tuck said...

Ah Kristian, the 180mm f4.0 Zeiss for the Hasselblad was one of the sharpest lenses they made for that format. Had I used an earlier Sonnar variant then spherical aberration might have been a contributing factor but I think the effects in this image are a result more of the very soft lighting.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Matt, All the people in the images I've shown over the past few days are friends who had no previous experience posing in a studio setting (perhaps other than school photos and the like). I think it's more about the photographer setting the stage and normalizing the experience for each sitter. Some come to regard the big soft box as a nice, warm and comfortable light source. I would use the LEDs at the same distance but they might need more diffusing....

Ash said...

Hi Kirk,

I know your site isn't a textbook on portrait lighting (your minimalist lighting book is), but its great to see the setup diagram with the resulting picture. Very interesting post.

Do you ever yearn to shoot with the medium or large format look these days, or is it just too impractical?

MarkL said...

This is genuinely one of the most beautiful portraits I have ever seen.
Thank you for sharing this with us

Kristian Wannebo said...

Thank you Kirk, for clarifying!
( When you wrote "..cheated by using the perfect lens..", I thought perhaps you meant perfect *portrait* lens.)
- - -

You write "..it's pretty much impossible to match how quickly focus will fall off between formats even if you normalize the relative difference between f-stops.".

Have you perhaps had the chance to do such a comparison with lenses of the same optical formula?

( I'm just curious how bad an approximation equivalence of aperture is, or if different lens design is the main factor.)

Kirk Decker said...

You asked earlier about what kinds of posts your readers like. These are the ones that I like. Cameras, swimming, Austin, hippie chicks, and the occasional rant make for complete picture of you as a person and that sort of depth is what I would suspect attracts an audience. The portrait posts are always my favorite.

Brat Pix said...

A thoroughly enjoyable and informative post. Would you agree to write a similarly detailed post on some of your secrets for available-light portrait (unless you already did this, in which case a link would be appreciated) ?

Anonymous said...

Jeez, I like those portraits! I like Michelle's arm behind her head, as though she's adjusting her hair, which is something you see in women all the time. It's a subtle (and non-photographic thing) thing, but it seems to further enhance her femininity. Did you do a whole bunch of shots with her adjusting the pose, or was the arm plotted out in advance?

John Camp

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks John! As to the arm, it was happenstance in the moment but when she made the gesture I did ask her to hold the pose for a few more shots. I like it when models move slowly, or not much at all. No advance work on most portraits other than the broad strokes.

garyB said...

Beautiful work Kirk, I'm on board with your comments about the falloff with a 2-1/4 film negative. Most people who never shot tons of film really never will understand. Having had a commercial studio in the late 80's through the 90's in Dallas we could swap our work and no one would know.
I'm still at it i'm in California now and at 66 starting to slow down a bit:) I've been of the Fuji bandwagon for quite some time. Love your stuff and your blog.

garyB said...

Kirk, 20 years ago I used to used a Colortran 2000 watt tungsten in my studio for that very reason pupil constriction. It was a little overkill and i had to place it at a distance, but a night it made a great reading light 20 ft away and bounced into the rafters lol.

Unknown said...

If I had to pick my favourite portrait of all time, this might be it. Even if I thought long and hard and took a good look at my portrait book shelf, I am certain it would figure among the TOP5 or so. I never tire looking at it.

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