Tips + Techniques

3 Ways to Imitate Natural Light in a Portrait Studio

January 14, 2019

By John Gress

All Photos © John Gress

My photography career began as a photojournalist in the late 1990s. From time to time, I would be asked to create environmental portraits of people in the news for different papers and magazines, although I really didn’t know what I was doing. I transitioned quickly from bounce flash to rudimentary and inexpensive entry-level strobes. After a few years, I had acquired more advanced lighting gear and was using multiple units to accentuate my subjects, but my overall approach was very heavy-handed. Over time, I learned that it was far more important to refine subtleties than to try and impress viewers with super high-contrast images that occasionally involved multiple colored gels. (This early work looked utterly artificial and was probably a poor imitation of the trends of the day.)

My creative mindset shifted about ten years ago, when a friend asked me to teach him lighting because he wanted to be a fashion photographer. After a few sessions, he realized the “technical stuff” wasn’t for him, but I discovered that experimenting with models was a lot more fun than photographing men and women in suits. Ever since, I’ve continued trying out new ideas with volunteer talent, growing to become the photographer I am today.

My recent work has transitioned into recreating window light and posing subjects in front of Gravity hand-painted backdrops. At first, this type of photography seemed straightforward to me, but I quickly learned that there are actually several things you can do to simulate natural light, from the placement of the lights to the softness of the modifiers and the use of fill.

Big Fill

As I have worked more and more in a studio, I have realized the value of creating gradients that lead viewers to the subject’s face while ensuring that there is detail throughout the image.

I started off by placing a Mola Setti Softlight with a diffusion sock as close to the models as possible without it being in the frame, and then I placed a 75-inch Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa Softbox behind it and a 13 x 69-inch Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Strip on the left side to fill in the shadows. Above the subjects was a medium Chimera strip with a grid. This light was turned down really low so that it would just barely highlight their hair, and the grid was used to prevent light from spilling onto the background. My goal was to have their feet measure about one to two stops darker than their faces, while maintaining shadow detail.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark IV
Lens: 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Focal Length: 55mm
Exposure: f/10 at 1/200
ISO: 100
Lighting: 1200W/s and 2400W/s Profoto Pro 6 packs and heads, Pro 7 heads, Mola Setti Softlight, Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa Softbox and Strip, Chimera Strip

Catch This

Catch lights can make an average image pop and can draw attention to a subject’s eyes. We make them dance and sparkle with a tiny reflection of our wares.

I love to place large light sources relatively close to a subject’s face—either directly above the lens, right behind me, or just out of frame on either side when I have models looking off camera. For this portrait, I used a 39-inch Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox over his left shoulder as the key light, and then I used a 46-inch Photek Softlighter II umbrella above the camera for fill.

Camera: Canon 1D X Mark II
Lens: 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Focal Length: 55mm Exposure: f/9 at 1/100
ISO: 100
Lighting: Two Profoto D1 monolights, Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octabox, 46-inch Photek Softlighter II umbrella

The Beauty of it

While the combination of a beauty dish and octabox is good for creating a head-to-toe gradient, it’s also great for creating contrast while preserving shadow details when shooting close-ups.

For this image, I used a Mola Setti Softlight with a diffusion sock and my 75-inch Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa Softbox. Oftentimes, people will tell me that they didn’t know you could use a beauty dish anywhere but above the camera, but I think this is a great way to create the Rembrandt lighting you would find in a room with dark walls illuminated by a small window.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark IV
Lens: 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Focal Length: 70mm
Exposure: f/10 at 1/200
ISO: 100
Lighting: 1200W/s Profoto Pro 6 pack and heads, Mola Setti Softlight, Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa Softbox

John Gress currently resides in the Chicago area and has worked with Fortune 100 companies, nonprofits and everyday people. His work has been published on everything from the cover of TIME magazine to the backs of business cards.

Related: 3 Ways to Light and Photograph Glittery Portraits

3 Ways to Remix the Usual Portrait Lighting Setup

3 Ways To Make Your Subjects Look Larger Than Life

An Unconventional Start to Becoming Six-Figure Wedding Photographers

How To Separate Portrait Subjects From the Background

Get Lit With This Photography Lighting Gear