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Advice on portrait lighting with Michael Alan Bielat

ePHOTOzine spoke to portrait photographer Michael Alan Bielat to see how he lights portraits.

|  Studio Lighting and Flash
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Girl portraitPhotography literally means to paint with light so if there's no light there's no photograph. The way light and shadows fall help to tell a story and if Michael had the choice he would choose natural light as his medium every time. Sadly this isn't always possible therefore he uses a combination of studio strobes and speedlights to create light.

"I use my flashes in many different ways. I could shoot with a speedlight on camera and I bounce the light behind me or I could use them as off-camera lights. My studio strobes can be used in my studio for classic lighting or I can take them outside and "overpower" the sun so the colours and detail in both my subject and sky are maintained."

If you don't want your images to be as flat as the paper they are printed on then you need shadows and highlights as these make the subject appear three-dimensional. But how much light you have depends on what mood you are trying to create. One shoot you could be using 3-4 lights for studio work while on another you could be looking to create flattering window light.

"The number of lights, where they are positioned and even their intensity all help to alter the mood of a photograph. One light positioned below the subject gives an eerie look similar to when someone holds up a light under their chin when they tell a scary story by the campfire. If you were to add more lights to that one then when used in conjunction with all the others, it all of a sudden helps to give more of a high fashion feel to the image. The intensity of the light also gives a different effect. Harsher light gives a fashion feel where softer, diffused light can be used to introduce mystery and so on - The possibilities are endless."

The way you light a portrait is also affected by who you are photographing. An elderly person for example should typically not be lit from above as this casts unwanted shadows and accentuates their wrinkles. For this type of work Michael tens to light them so the light fills those shadows. It is also a natural way to make changes to your subject without having to be stuck behind a computer. You can also do this for teens with bad complexion.

baby portraitEven though every shoot is different Michael prefers his speedlights to be at the lowest possible setting simply for faster refresh times.

"For studio strobes, anything goes since power really isn't an issue. I can get around 200 flashes with only the juice in my battery pack. Indoors, I always try to bounce my flash. I can mount it on camera and bounce off the walls to simulate ambient light. Otherwise, if the ceilings or walls have crazy coloured paint or whatnot, then I shoot with the flash off-camera.

My typical settings there is either in manual mode around 1/4 to 1/16 power or in TTL mode with a flash compensation of whatever need be. When I use my studio strobes outdoors then I need almost full power out of them. With studio lighting, I am limited to our camera's sync speed. For my camera, it is 1/250." If I was to use that shutter speed at high noon outside then I would need to be around f/8, f/16 or more in order to properly expose the sky. My speedlights simply cannot put out enough light to expose my subject at that those f-stops but my strobes can.

I use Nikon SB-800 and SB-900 speedlights since they are powerful and portable. They can fit into my bag and they have so many various uses. I could create and on-locaton studio with them and a couple mini-light stands or I can gel them and use them as accents in my image. The sky is the limit. The only downfall is that they aren't really powerful so it is tough to use them outside at high noon. Therefore, my main strobes get taken down in the studio and brought with me on-location for more power. I have Two Alienbee 1600 strobes and one Alienbee 400 strobe along with the external power pack so they will work anywhere."

Michael also uses light stands and modifiers such as soft boxes or umbrellas. He's also started using gel filters to alter the Kelvin temperature of his flashes. "This allows me to go indoors and turn my daylight balanced flash into an incandescent light source. With everything being within the same colour temperature then I can dial in a custom white balance and don't have to worry about any colour casting caused from the different light sources."

Baby portraitTreating indoor and outdoor lighting would be a good idea. Michael, like any photographer know their typical studio set-up. For Michael this consists of setting up a main flash to his right at a 45 degree angle to his subject. He also uses a hair light and fill. From there he uses a light meter and finds what settings his flash and camera need to be on. For outdoors it's totally different: "I need to first dial in my ambient light and then drop it one to two stops and I rely heavily on a fast shutter speed and wide aperture. By dialling down the ambient light one to two stops helps to make the clouds and sky pop with optimal colour and detail. From there, I know how my ambient light will look. I have those settings, say like 1/1000" at f/4, ISO 200. The next step is to bring in my subject and my speedlight (set up wirelessly off camera). I cannot change those ambient settings now when I bring the flash into play. Instead, I need to control my flash so that it falls within the f/4 range. To do so, I can either increase or decrease the speedlights power or move the flash closer or further away from my subject. It could even be a combination of the two."

An advantage of outdoor shoots is space which is a nice thing if you have it but it isn't a necessity. There's always a way to make even the smallest of spaces work but for indoor shoots to work successfully Michael suggests you have a decent distance between your subject and backdrop. His subjects are usually around 4-5 meters away from the backdrop if not when you're shooting on f/8 in a studio it means you will see every wrinkle in the backdrop and it doesn't make your work look very professional.

To prove not much space is needed here's a shoot that was set-up in Michaels basement. It was for the child's baptism photos and there are two studio strobes (one bare bulb and the other has a soft box). The strobes were set to just illuminate the subject via their consistent modelling light. No flash pops occurred during the shoot either which meant the ambient light was much lower so Michael found himself shooting around 1/100" at f/2.8 with a ISO400.

Lighting set-up
With my Nikon D700, I can shoot at higher ISOs while not compromising the quality of the image. I would feel comfortable boosting the camera into ISO 1600 if I had to.

All the tripods and backdrop stands pack up into one long yet portable bag. The backdrops are actually upholstry fabrics for rennovating old furnature. I picked those up online and their style is boroque/damask.

Visit Michael Alan Bielat's site for more tips and information.

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