How to Light Two Surfaces with One Light Source: Portraits

Shooting portraits with hard light is something photographers are generally taught to flee from—“Always use softboxes in studio sessions, and only shoot natural light portraits in the morning and evening, or your photographs will look washed out and amateur,” they say.

But while shooting portraits with a hard light source can be tricky, it can be especially rewarding if the light is diffused properly using a reflector panel. In this video tutorial, photographer Joe McNally demonstrates the practice of using one hard light source to light two surfaces:

McNally’s example shoot took place in a loft-like room with large, grated window panels leading out to a porch. Thinking that the shadows cast by the window grating would make a nice pattern on the brick wall behind the model, McNally positioned an undiffused Elinchrom Ranger 1100 Watt Second Power Pack out on the porch, angled so that the light “sprayed all over the set” and cast the desired shadows on the wall.

However, while this type of lighting is perfect for creating drastic shadows in the background, it’s too harsh for lighting model’s faces in the foreground.

To retain those bold shadows, but soften the light on his model’s face, McNally used a Lastolite 32” Trigrip Reflector panel, positioned as close to the model as necessary to interrupt the flow of light spilling onto her face without affecting the light striking the back wall.

joe mcnally portrait adorama tv

“I like them because the construction is sort of stiff. It’s not a circular one where you sort of have to hold them with two hands,” McNally said. “You can just literally slide it… and move it as close as you possibly can to your subject so that you get nice wrap and diffusion while all sorts of hard light goes back [toward the wall].”

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