Getting shadows under control n your portraits.

Getting shadows under control n your portraits.

Today I continue my weekly series helping you to Troubleshoot your Photography. This series is geared towards beginning and intermediate photographers, but old grizzled photographers (yours truly included) may also find useful tidbits in these musings. Are you new to photography and finding that people on social media are not liking your images as much as you expected them to? I view many online forums geared towards photography and see many common mistakes that can be easily resolved. Each week I will cover a specific topic in the hopes that these articles can help budding photographers today and in the future.

Getting your shadows under control

The holidays are upon us, and with family gatherings inevitably comes candid portraits. How many times have you had your speedlight sitting happily on top of your camera and taken a photo that looks like my first or second example? I’m using the writing of this article to test the newly released Profoto B10 strobe but realize that at the end of the day light is light and you can recreate these images using any regular speedlight. Modeling for me again is my crash test dummy and jewelry model Meghan.

The setup

One thing that always drives me bonkers is when people post a tutorial like this, with setup photos and all, but never post a gear list. Here you go – with links. 

Camera: Canon 5dMKIV
Strobe: Profoto B10
Reflector Modifier: generic 7-inch zoom reflector (Bowens mount with Profoto Bowens speedring.)
Octabox: Profoto 36-inch Octa
Tripod: Manfrotto 055XPROB with Manfrotto ball head
Light Stand: Flashpoint C-Stand with knuckle

Example 1 – amazing shadows!

Example 1 – bad shadows

My first example clearly illustrates that it is as easy to create a terrible looking photo with expensive gear as it is with entry level gear (it just takes practice). When I look at this image, the first thing I see is the huge shadow behind and right of the model, the second thing I see is the long harsh sharp shadow under the model’s chin. I don’t like what is going on with her hair, the front highlight and the overly dark top of her head combined with the highlights on her chin, nose and cheek produce a very unflattering image. Also, of note, look at the amount of light hitting the eyes – they are about half illuminated with a very sharp shadow running horizontally through.

Setup for Example 1

Looking at the setup photo, you can see that I have the Profoto B10 above and to the left of the model’s head, using a zoom reflector. This would be a similar look to using an off-camera speedlight zoomed in. I shot the image in manual mode at 1/125 shutter speed and f4 aperture. This shot reminds me of holiday snapshots and so many wedding reception shots I have seen. This look just feels like a snapshot, or someone using a point and shoot camera.

So, how can we fix this nasty shadow problem? There are a few options, first would be to move the subject away from the wall, the light hitting our model is being shaded by her and the closer she is to the wall the more you will see the shadow. Increase her distance from the wall and you will lose the shadow, but you haven’t resolved your lighting issue.

Example 2 – Move the light

Example 2 – no shadows, but unflattering light

For my second example, I have simulated a speedlight mounted on a bracket above your camera, or perhaps bouncing the flash off the ceiling. Looking at Meghan’s face, you can see the light is much flatter – not a lot of shadows to define her facial features – except the awesome long sharp shadow under her chin. Illumination of the hair is the same as in my first example, not very flattering. Her eyes are even less illuminated with this lighting setup, giving the classic racoon eyes or dark circles. The highlights on her chin and nose are the same as the ones in my first example. I would say that the only redeeming quality of this light setup is that the shadow under the nose and lower lip while, sharp is small. By moving the light up and even with the camera, we have removed the shadow on the wall, this would be the same result as moving the subject away from the background, no shadow but unflattering lighting.

Setup for Example 2

We have tried two remedies, moving the subject away from the wall and moving the location and direction of the light, both of which removed the shadows, but still resulted in unflattering lighting. Where do we go from here? We increase the size of the light. By adding a large modifier and increasing the size of the light, we will soften and wrap the light more around our subject. Keep in mind for all three of these examples, I kept the light source in the same general location and distance from the subject, as well as maintaining the subject’s distance from the wall for consistency in all the example shots.

Example 3 – Bigger is better or size matters or why does it always have to be about size?

Example 3 – large light modifier

For the final example, I kept all the gear and subject distances the same but added a 36-inch Profoto octa on the B10. I moved the light back to the location I used in example 1 – off camera around 45 degrees and above the model. The first thing you should notice is that the shadow we saw on the wall in Example 1 is almost gone. Rather than the harsh shadow we end up with a large soft gradient on the wall behind the model. Notice that the light in the eyes is like the first example but has a much softer shadow along the midline of the eyes. The shadows created by the chin, lips and nose are all significantly softer than the other examples, and the highlights on the nose and chin are softened to manageable levels. For me, the biggest differences in using a larger modifier is the chin shadow and the way the hair is illuminated. The light falling on the top of Meghan’s head is much more even and pleasing than when we used a smaller light source. If we weren’t limiting the scope of this article to holiday portraits, and were looking more glamour style, I would move a white or silver reflector at midlevel pointing up toward her face to reduce the shadows even further – implementing faux clamshell lighting.

Setup for Example 3

I don’t have your gear! can I still get similar results?

Light is light, and you can get a very similar result using a shoot through umbrella and a speedlight. If you wanted to go even more cost effective, you could use a speedlight and a large bedsheet or sheet of tracing paper to shoot through. The main idea here is to make your light source larger, because a larger light source in relation to your subject will give you softer light, and less noticeable shadows.

A cost-effective solution would be something similar to the following setup:

$65 Godox TT600 speedlight:
$46 Godox X1c (for canon cameras) Trigger
$23 Amazon Basics lightstands 2 pack
$15 Godox S-type bracket
$22 Westcott Shoot Through umbrella 43 inch

This would give you a single speedlight, bracket, trigger, stand and shoot-through umbrella – a very reasonable setup which will give similar results to my Example 3 image. Notice I went with Amazon basics where I could, but because of the quality of the umbrella, I went with Westcott over other cheaper options. Westcott doesn’t use whiteners in their material on their modifiers, and the quality of the fabric gives even light on your subject that will not color shift your images.

Next week, several readers have asked for a tutorial with tips for shooting portraits with Christmas lights. We will learn to balance ambient light and control incoming strobe light for some festive fun photos. 

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