I have plenty of snapshots of my dad, but no portraits. So when he came to visit, we agreed to spend a little time on Christmas day between the eating, drinking and chatting to make some pictures.

Lighting diagram

Figure 1: Lighting diagram

I envisaged a dramatic, low-key portrait with a dark background; side lit and with a subtle hair and rimlight to provide separation, as shown on the lighting diagram.

The weather was typical English – solid grey cloud cover, misty, cold and miserable, so even though I wanted the background to go dark, we ventured out around mid-day (in order to not upset the rest of the Christmas schedule too much). To get the background as dark as possible, I picked a shutter time of 1/250 sec (my flashes’ max synch speed) and took a test shot at shutter-priority. That gave me f/2, so I set the camera to f/5.6 to get the background underexposed by a few stops.

The keylight was a SB-800 in a brolly-box. With the basic exposure already determined by the background, I adjusted the flash intensity until the histogram showed the brightest part of the picture getting close to clipping. It ended up with the flash being set at 1/2 power.

Setup shot with only the key light on

Figure 2: Setup shot with only the key light on

I haven’t worked with hair lights and rim lights before, but there has to be a first time for everything. So I put a bare flash on a boom, placed it behind dad, and aimed it downwards so it would hit his head and shoulders.  With the key light being set at 1/2 power, I set this flash at 1/16 power. A quick check on the histogram showed that the highlights still weren’t blowing out.

During the setup, dad was wearing his winter overcoat and a hat, but for the “real” shots, he took that off and posed in just shirt and jacket. It was cold, so I tried to be as quick as possible. After a few shots, I noticed that there were “blinkies” on the camera screen – an indication that the hightlight on dad’s head were blowing out. So I dialled the hair-and-rim light down to 1/64 power which made the blinkies disappear and took another two or three shots before we called it a day and quickly ventured back indoors to get warm again.

Looking through the pictures, it’s clear that I made a number of mistakes learnt several valuable lessons. In no specific order…

Hair light way to strong at 1/32 power

Figure 3: Hair light way to strong at 1/16 power

1. I adjusted the hair light while dad was wearing a dark hat that didn’t reflect much light, and then for the “real” shots he took the hat off. I wanted the hair light to highlight his white hair and make it really stand out against the darker background, but as white hair and semi baldness reflects a lot more light, it got way overexposed.

2. There is too much ambient light. The background could have been even darker, and I would also have preferred that the shadow-side of dad’s face had been darker. That would have given more of the dramatic effect I had envisaged before we ventured out. Given that my key light was firing at 1/2 power, I could have closed the aperture down to f/8 and set the flash to full power. That would have given the same highlight on dad, but only half as much on the background and the shadows. Another, and maybe more obvious, option would have been to shoot the pictures later in the day.

Hair light way to strong at 1/32 power

Figure 4: Hair light a lot better 1/64 power

3. Even after dialling the hairlight down after realising it was blowing the highlights, it was still giving too much light. Comparing the shadow-side of dad’s face on figure 2 (without the hairlight) and figure 3 (with the hairlight), it’s clear that the hairlight is also providing significant fill. It should probably have been set at its lowest setting at 1/256.

4. I suspect the brolly box might have given some “wrap-around” of the light. Had the weather been more pleasant, we could have experimented with increasing the distance between dad and the brolly to make the light appear harder.

It’s up to the photographer to create the image the way he wants. I fell a little short of that, and in an ideal world, I would have liked to get the shadows from figure 2, the expression from figure 3, the angle from figure 4, and the highlights from figure 5. But despite there being  things I could have done better, I’m glad that we spent the time, and happy to have a portrait of dad on my desk.

My favourite

Figure 5: My favourite from the day