Photography Lighting Techniques

4 Light Portrait Lighting

For Awesome Headshots and Beauty Shots

Let’s walk through a very flattering and easy -to-work-with four light lighting arrangement that is great for portraits, headshots and beauty shots.

I have said many, many times in my videos – Keep it simple stupid. When I am photographing a model or working on a portrait for a client, I need my attention to be on my subject, not my lights and definitely not my camera. Because of that, I tend to go with lighting arrangements that are forgiving – broad sources of light that allow me the freedom to move my subject without having to re-adjust the lights for every little change.

Recently I was speaking to a young photographer who was suffering from GAS. No not that kind of GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome… well really he was suffering from GAS envy because he couldn’t afford to buy a 4 foot softbox to be able to create a large light source. When I asked him about the gear he does have I found out that he has two medium sized softboxes – 24″ x 36″. So while I was pointing out to him that he should have paid better attention in math class, I remembered this shot and thought that I would share the set-up with you.

As I have explained before, when I am shooting a model for her portfolio I always plan a beauty shot at the end.  Something with dramatic makeup and lots of foo-foo. On this particular shoot the model had short hair and after a day of shooting very commercial images for her portfolio, we decided to spike her hair and go with some dramatic contouring on her cheeks. We even added false eyelashes.

I am pointing that out because if you look closely, you can count the eyelashes. They are not full of clumpy mascara and they don’t crisscross and go in all different directions. This is a great argument for why you work with a makeup artist (if you want more reasons, check out my video You need a Makeup Artist for Great Portraits, Headshots and Model Shots). But do understand, I have worked with quite a few makeup artists who don’t understand the importance of blending false eyelashes with the real ones, curling them to enhance the size of the eye and brushing them out to remove clumps and make sure they are not crossed up. Now you may think I am just being super picky – which, well, I am – but don’t take my word for it. The next time you walk past a makeup counter in a department store or see an eye makeup ad in a magazine – pay attention – you can count the eyelashes, there are no clumps, you can’t see where the model’s own eyelashes end and the false ones begin and the eyelashes do not crisscross. So bottom line – makeup artist or not – PAY attention to details.

In addition to the contouring we decided to use two simple feather boas and work with a black and white theme but shoot it in color.

The shot was made with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens zoomed to 95mm and set at f/5.6  The shutter speed was 1/200th of a second and the ISO was 100.

Because of the black and white theme,  this image does indeed look interesting in black and white:

model with feather boa on her head and around her neck black and white

but I decided to stick with the color version.

Let me know which one you prefer – leave a comment below!

The final images required very little post production beyond the usual color, contrast, sharpening, and, of course, removing of blemishes.

Lighting Arrangement

Back to our solution for GAS Envy. I used a 4 foot long light source for this shot but I don’t own a 4 foot softbox. I simply place two medium sized softboxes side by side and off to camera right. This lighting arrangement creates a very flattering soft window light effect. I added a white Walmart reflector on camera left to soften the light falloff.

Digital rendering of two softboxes on camera right lighting arangement

The lighting arrangement was completed with two additional monolights to overexpose the white background by about two stops. The background in this case is just a white wall in my studio.

Digital rendering of lighting arranegement with reflector, two lights and softboxes

I want to point out to you that the majority of the softbox is above the model’s head. I find that a lot of beginners to lighting will put the model in the middle of the softbox or even at the top.  If you are after a creative effect, then that’s fine. But understand that our brains are accustomed to seeing light from above, so to keep things more natural you do want at least some shading on the bottom edges of the jaw and nose. To do that,  you want the majority of your light coming from above your subject.

Other Options

Yes – you can do this shot with speedlights. The lighting arrangement and placement would be exactly the same.

If you are suffering from severe GAS ENVY, you could even pull this off with two lights, one softbox, and a Walmart reflector. Turn your medium-sized softbox sideways and move it in very close to the subject.

One light lighting arrangement with softbox and reflector

That’s a little Inverse Square Law trick. I’m not going to try and teach you the inverse square law in this video – but stay tuned – I’ll do a video on it soon.

Here is another shot done with this same lighting arrangement and setup except the background is red velour – like I talked about in my DIY background video. Here, there is no background light and the model is placed about 5 feet in front of the red material and I just let the light fall off.

Model in front of velour backdrop wrapped in pink tulle

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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