How to Light the Face for On Location Portraits

In this video, photographer Peter Hurley shares some invaluable tips on how to make great portraits by mixing studio strobes with ambient light on location. This should be a fun watch for all you lighting enthusiasts who would love to get inside the head of a professional celebrity portrait photographer and find out the secret behind his amazing photos:

1. Make Your Light Constant

Bring your artificial lights. Artificial lights, be they strobes, speedlights, or continuous lights don’t change over the course of a shoot. They remain constant, allowing you a greater degree of control. End of discussion.

2. Mix Ambient and Artificial Lights

Hurley believes the best results are always had when you mix ambient and artificial light rather than using artificial light alone.

3. Choose the Right Kind of Light

The right light is a subjective thing. It largely depends on price, requirement, location, and a million other things. One thing, however, is constant. You need to be able to power the lights for the entire duration of the shoot. In that sense, battery powered lights are better suited than those that run on AC.

4. Use a Fast Shutter Speed

This can get expensive when you go to extremes. Hurley uses a PhaseOne IQ250, a medium format camera with a 50MP sensor. Not many entry level photographers can afford such a high-end camera. But he uses it because it has a leaf shutter, which allows him to flash-sync his camera with the strobe at around 1/1600 of a second.

outdoor portrait shot using strobes

A comparison of the same composition at different shutter speeds showing the effect on background.

So, if he wants to bring down the background ambient light, this allows him to do that. The strobes still illuminate the face.

So, put more basically, if you want a darker background use a faster shutter speed and vice versa.

5. Shoot Through a Triangle

Now, this is not technical mumbo-jumbo, it’s just a guide for the shape of the lighting arrangement.

Outdoor portraiture using strobes

Hurley shoots through a “triangle” of softboxes.

peter hurley headshot technique

The model is framed by a triangle of lights.

Hurley uses a lighting arrangement that creates a small triangle through which he shoots. As he describes,

“With one people I like the lights as close as possible. Because of the inverse square law. I like to get as much contrast out of the lights as possible.”

6. Avoid Stray Light

Stray light can be a real hassle to work with. You can try to overpower it especially if you are using powerful strobes. But, to be safe have your model stand in shade for the best results.

7. Set Your Lights at Varying Power

In the above setup, Hurley uses the larger lights at 5.0 power and the one at the bottom firing up at 4.0 power. The light looking up is just used for fill. Change each of your lights according to how you want your subject lit rather than keeping them all at the same strength.

portrait lighting

Watch the rest of the video for more valuable tips on posing, lighting, and how to work with a model on location.

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