This action portrait was created using a three-light setup, a black background and, of course, a window blind. The light shining through the blinds was positioned low on a 45-degree angle with a honeycomb grid to control the direction of the light. A second light was placed high against the background, shooting straight down. We added a blue gel to give the black wall a little color. This light was wrapped with Cinefoil to ensure it only lit the background. The third light was positioned behind the subject, just above his shoulders — with a honeycomb grid — to emulate a light coming from a lamp. This light is the fill light. Without it, the subject would blend into the background.
Designing the set
To create a window look, attach an inexpensive blind to an extension arm then connect the arm to a C-Stand. This extra reach will give you room to shoot. We chose to shoot on a black background. You can set up a backdrop stand and attach a black backdrop or use black V-flats. We chose to use V-flats to minimize setup.
If you plan on using a black background, use a material called Duvetyne — it absorbs light. It is commonly used in the motion picture industry for blocking light, curtains, and to control light spill. Many commercial lighting flags are made from Duvetyne.
When working with multiple lights, I find it easier working with one light at a time. Start with the main light and take a reading with a light meter. Once you enter these settings on your camera, turn the main light off and proceed to the next light—taking a meter reading to see if it is brighter or darker than the exposure in the camera. Adjust its power for the effect you want. Do this for each light. Once you have all the lights in place, turn them on and take a photograph to see how the extra lights affect the exposure.
Lighting through the blinds
Using this concept, start with a light shining through the blinds. Place the light low at a 45-degree angle with a honeycomb grid. This will keep the light narrow and directional. Take a meter reading and adjust the power of the light until it reads f/8 at 1/200 with ISO 200. An aperture of f/8.0 will give detail in the suit and the subject’s face. A shutter speed of 1/200 is high enough to prevent the ambient light from affecting the exposure.
Adding an accent light
The light from the blinds only lights the subject. To get a sense of depth, add an accent light to the background. Place a speedlight high just outside of the camera frame pointing down. Wrap the light with Cinefoil to shape it and prevent light from spilling onto the scene. Use a blue gel to add a little color to the black background. The speedlight can be triggered in slave mode — it fires when the main light is triggered — or add a Pocket Wizard. Meter this light to be one stop less than the final exposure. A good starting point is f/5.6 at 1/200, ISO 200 — based on the initial aperture of f/8.
The two lights we placed set the mood of the scene. This final light is the fill light that adds additional light, separates the subject from the background, and gives the illusion the room is lit with a lamp. Place this light just above the subject’s shoulders. Add a honeycomb grid to direct the light and keep it from spilling onto the background. Start with light at a low power to keep the exposure f/5.6 at 1/200, ISO 200. Increase or decrease the power of the light to create a darker or lighter image.
Creating emotion in the scene
To get the model into character, create a story. This will help motivate the model to act out the emotion you’re looking for. For this scene, we created a narrative for our model Roberto.
Once the hunter now the hunted, the assassin is trapped in a hotel room waiting for his adversary. Looking out the window, he sees them approaching. He’s ready for the showdown.
This evoked a call to action and lots of emotion. Take a few test shots — to ensure lighting set — then ask the subject to scream. This simple act will add to the intensity.
Shooting the light through the blinds was a little tricky. I made several combinations. First, positioning the light high and moving the blinds to face up and down. Then I lowered the light and performed the same experiment until I got the look I wanted.
I spent time experimenting with the fill light. Dialing the power down created more shadows on the subject’s face — caused by the blinds — but that made the subject blend into the background. It was neither good nor bad, it just wasn’t my taste. These experiments led to another shoot with different results. The key is to experiment and record what works and what doesn’t.
Above all, experiment, learn new tricks and create the shot!
Let us know what you think in the comment section below.
For more shooting ideas like this, check out the How to create series here on Photofocus.
This was the gear used to create the shot. Although it’s easier to create this look using the same gear, you can substitute these pieces of gear with what you have. Think of gear as ingredients to a recipe in a cookbook. Usually, you can alter or add different ingredients without changing the recipe too much. However, if you’re making chicken Cordon Bleu and substitute steak for chicken, the outcome will be totally different.
The same goes for lighting. If a narrow stripe box is recommended, using a large 3 foot by 4-foot rectangular softbox won’t work — unless you modify it. Feathering or flagging the light with black fabric or cinefoil can turn the large light source into a narrow strip box. Learn to become a photographic “MacGyver.”
- 2 Dynalite Bajas Studio Strobes
- 1 Nissin Speedlight
- 2 modifiers: honeycomb grids
- 4 triggers: Pocket Wizards with cords
- 3 light stands
- 1 C-Stand with extension arm
- 4 sandbags, filled
- 1 Gel CTO
- 2 black V-flats: background Note: 2 — 4′ by 8′ pieces of black are required to make a single v-flat.
Wardrobe and Props
- 1 business suit: a black suit with white shirt and thin black tie
- 1 Gun