Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8 VR Micro lens, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 640.
You need shadows to make your portraits look their best. Without shadows we can’t see the form of your subject. However, shadows with hard edges are not flattering for everyone because they reveal a little too much form–pimples and wrinkles may appear to be mountains and crevasses when lit with a light that casts a hard shadow. Small lights cast hard edged shadows.
To make more flattering shadows, you need a bigger light, and there are two ways to get a bigger light:
1. Move the light closer to the subject (making it relatively bigger)
2. Use a bigger light
The trouble with the first option is that when you move closer to the light, the difference between the lit side and the dark side is more extreme. When the light is closer, there’s more light falling on your subject–it’s more concentrated–and that makes your subject brighter, but it also makes the shadows relatively darker. Personally, I like this kind of deep contrast, dramatic lighting. But it’s not for every occasion.
A physically bigger light is wonderful to work with. It’s the reason people always say window light is great for portraits–the entire sky is the light source, and that’s a big light that makes soft edged shadows (compared to direct sunlight where the distant and relatively small sun is the source). For the dancer’s portrait above I used an inexpensive setup to make a big light.
I made a v-flat using two sheets of insulation board, like the one at this link. The boards you get will probably have printing on one side, and maybe a silver mylar cover on the other. I prefer to remove the mylar and use the white underneath. Simply lay two boards next to each other, white sides facing up, and use a long strip of wide tape to connect the board together down the long edge. Connected together they will stand up when folded about 45 degrees (like a ‘V’ viewed from above). A bright light, like a construction lamp, facing into the v-flat will reflect around inside the fold and shine out as a big light source. You can change the size and where it shines by adjusting how wide the opening is (be careful if you’re using a hot light, though, to make sure it doesn’t melt the boards). For under $16 you’ve got a pretty terrific light source. Experiment with moving your subject closer and farther away.