5 Ways to Light a Black and White Portrait

How do you set up the perfect black and white portrait? Photographer Nathan Elson demonstrates some of his favorite lighting setups, using a mixture of large softboxes, gridded lights, and textured backgrounds. He also describes his thinking process:

1. Large Octagon Softbox

For his first shot, Elson uses a large Octagon with a diffuser as his primary source of light. He also uses a smaller Octagon as a fill light. For the first series of images, he uses a white background and adds texture during post-processing.

studio portrait lighting setup

2. Textured Background

For the second set-up, Elson uses the textured background. For this session he brings in a gridded strip-box. He also brings in a 64 inch umbrella that adds some fill light on to the model’s face. Elson shoots tethered for this session with his Nikon D800.


Gridded Stripbox and Textured Background

3. Hard Light with Soft Light

For another series of portraits, Elson mixes hard light with soft light. He uses a hard light source, in the form of a small light with a 20 degree grid that fires straight onto the side of the model’s face. With this he mixes a 64 inch umbrella with a diffusion panel to act as the fill light, bringing the shadows up.

mixed lighting arrangement in studio portraiture

Mixing Hard and Soft Light

Mixed lighting, profile shot, studio lighting

Mixed Lighting

4. Large Windows and Opaque Film

To take a shot with a female model, Elson uses the large windows in the studio, and with some opaque film he transforms them into large softboxes. With these he uses a set of two black flags that are held in place using C-stands. The black flags cut out the light spilling on to the sides of the model’s face, creating a bit of contrast in the process.

large window, diffuser, studio portrait

Result with large windows and two black flags on the flanks

5. Bouncing Light

For a final shot, Elson sets up his trusty 64 inch softbox almost directly above the model, who is seated. He uses another softbox that is aimed directly at the floor. A white board bounces off the light from this softbox and onto the model’s lower jaw and chin area to lift the shadows.

studio lighting ideas

Bouncing Light

how to use fill light in studio portraits

The large softbox overhead and the fill light bouncing off of a white board

Like the ideas? Go ahead and try them out and share with us what you get.

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