Tips + Techniques

How Susan Stripling Creates Portraits that Pop [Free Webinar]

May 7, 2021

By Brienne Walsh

Like so many photographers, Susan Stripling was forced to downsize her studio in order to afford her rent during the pandemic. In April 2020, she moved from a 1,000-square-foot studio in the Industry City neighborhood of Brooklyn to a 475-square-foot studio in Gowanus. For six months after the move, the studio lay empty. Recently, Stripling, who is vaccinated, has begun using it again to shoot everything from headshots of realtors to family portraits.

“It’s a huge misconception that you need a big studio and lots of stuff,” says Stripling, who notes that you can take great professional portraits with what you have on hand, in a very small space. “Nothing in [my studio] is fancy,” she says. “I don’t want to spend money, so I don’t buy gear unless it’s something that I really need.”

Stripling long-ago perfected an artificial lighting setup that mirrors the effects of a window letting in natural light—only without the light changing as the sun moves across the sky throughout the day. She prefers using her setup to an actual window, and in fact, she uses it for all of the portraits she shoots. The setup can be used in a room of any size and is infinitely variable.

[Read: How to Shoot Varied Portrait Looks on a White Backdrop]

Stripling showed us how to create the setup and how to modify it in Rangefinder + WPPI’s free webinar, “Creating Portraits That Pop” (where you’ll also find detailed diagrams of the setups). Below, we highlight the steps she took in the webinar so that you can try the setup yourself.

1. Set up the lighting and backdrop.

Stripling only needs a few items to create the backdrop, which she recycles every time she has a shoot. First, she has a 12 x 12-foot black backdrop nailed to the studio wall—on the floor, she has a faux-wood floor covering. In front of that backdrop, she leans a folded V-flat, which is a large, double-sided board that is white on one side and black on the other. (She recommends purchasing foldable V-Flats at V-Flat World.)

[Read: Making Portraits Pop—Jen Huang’s Photography Fundamentals]

Stripling faces the white side of the V-flat towards the camera, and then places a Profoto B1 on a c-stand about 2 feet away. The Profoto B1 is powerful enough that she only needs one. If you don’t have a Profoto B1, you can also use a strobe, or even a speed light, as long as the speed light is on full power. Stripling also notes that she prefers the light to pop as opposed to using continuous light, which she finds can bother the person sitting for the portrait. Finally, she sets the Profoto B1 at a slight angle facing upwards, towards the V-flat, in order for the light to bounce down from the background onto her portrait subject.

About 6 inches in front of the Profoto B1, Stripling sets up two C-stands with a Photoflex backdrop pole suspended between them. The pole is roughly at her shoulder height, about 5 feet tall, because Stripling intends to shoot her subject sitting down. Over the backdrop pole, she hangs a piece of Savage Universal medium weight Translum, a sheer material that feels like a shower curtain, and can easily be cleaned, she notes. The light bounces easily through the Translum and creates the effect of a sheer, airy curtain in front of a window on a sunny day.

2. Create a diamond of light.

Once the backdrop is finished, Stripling takes two V-flats (80 inches tall) that can fold in half vertically and places them on either side of where she will have her portrait subject sit. She opens the white side of the V-flat towards the center to create a diamond that encloses the portrait subject. She leaves a gap between the two V-flats where she will stand with the camera. Stripling notes that she doesn’t want to completely enclose herself in light. This creates a blackness in the center that creates interesting, cat-eye-like effects in the eyes of the portrait subject.

[Read: 4 Common Misconceptions of Shooting Natural Portraits with Artificial Light]

“Basically, what I’ve created is a diamond of light,” she notes—the light will bounce through the Translum, onto the V-flats, and then back onto her portrait subject’s face. “Everything is lit evenly with this really interesting wraparound look.”

3. Get ready to shoot standing up.

Stripling got used to shooting using her live view as opposed to her viewfinder because of COVID-19 protocols, which usually call for her to shoot wearing masks and a face shield. She notes that this allows her to converse more easily with her portrait subject, which helps them feel more comfortable in front of the camera.

[Read: Bird’s Eye Photography—Portraits That Play with Perspective]

To photograph her portrait subject in her diamond of light, she uses a Canon EOS R5 with a 24-105mm lens. She sets her camera to ISO 400 with a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. If the shutter speed is too slow, it will freeze the light around the subject, and if it’s too fast, the subject’s face will be silhouetted.

At these settings, Stripling notes, the light wraps around the subject in a really nice way you wouldn’t get if you were directly lighting the background. She’s been using this setup for so many years that adjustments are intuitive, but she suggests experimenting with your own settings as well as using a light meter.

When everything is ready, Stripling has the subject sit on apple crates about 2 feet in front of the Translum and begins photographing while standing up.

4. Modify with a dark background.

To create an almost halo-like effect around the subject’s head, Stripling suggests taking the black side of a V-flat and placing it directly behind the subject. It’s important that the V-flat is not as tall as the Translum to still allow some light to filter through. “I have to get light to spill over from the background,” she says.

Another way to modify the shot is to keep the backdrop as is, with the Translum fully exposed. Then, create a three-sided box to the right of the setup faced at a 45-degree angle away from the light source using the black sides of V-flat. This will suck all the light from the setup, Stripling explains, and direct it onto the portrait subject’s face.

The key thing to remember is that this setup is merely a starting point. She encourages other photographers to experiment with these materials in their own studios and find what works best for their style. “It’s just a great way to make an even, cool light source,” she says.

Watch the full demo to see how Stripling builds this setup, and get access to her portrait guide, including step-by-step instructions, diagrams, a gear list and MORE!

Check out the other free webinars in our Reset series:

John Gress on Transitioning from Window Light to Flash

Caroline Tran’s Posing Pick-Up Points for Family Portraits

Aaron M. Arce Stark on Photo Copyright and Contract Tips