The existence and practice of studio portrait photography dates back to the earliest days of photography. The basic principles have not changed much, although equipment and technology has. A “studio” can be anything from your temporarily converted living room to a full blown commercial studio with multiple backdrops and batteries of lights. What you need for studio portrait photography is a room large enough to have several lights set up with umbrellas and/or softboxes, a wall that you can use for different backdrops, and enough room for your subject or subjects to be arranged comfortably.
Although there is a choice of tungsten lighting (incandescent) or electronic flash (known as strobes by pro photographers), the most widely used for still photography is strobes. Strobes fire a very intense flash of light for a short period of time and do not generate the heat which is associated with tungsten lighting and which can give studio portrait photography a bad name. The flash fires for a very brief time (1/1000th of a second or less), making it easier to avoid motion blur with strobes than with tungsten light.
The choice of strobe equipment for studio portrait photography is wide in terms of power, sophistication and price. A beginner in studio portrait photography can make do with two studio strobes, light stands and softboxes or umbrellas to diffuse the light, which helps you avoid those harsh shadows which usually result from on-camera flash. A third light is useful so that you can illuminate the background or use it as a hair light. Your strobes should have controls which let you vary the output independently. You fire the strobes either with a sync cord connecting one of the units to the camera, or with a radio controller on your camera which fires the flashes wirelessly. A light meter which can measure the flash and the ambient light separately is almost a must.
Lighting for studio portrait photography is a subject which needs to be learned if you hope to get professional results. It is not hard, and experimenting goes along way to raise proficiency.
You can use any camera for studio portrait photography but you are better off with an interchangeable lens SLR. Ideal is a short telephoto lens (such as a 90mm – 35mm camera equivalent), known as a portrait lens. A variety of backdrops including rolls of seamless paper help to create a professional looking portrait.
No matter how good the equipment, you will not be a success at studio portrait photography unless you can handle PEOPLE. You can have a beautifully lit face taken with the best of all possible cameras with a stupendous background, and the subject hates it and won’t show it to her closest friends or family. The best experts in studio portrait photography (such as Karsh and Hallsman) were successful to a large degree because they knew how to work with people to get that tremendous portrait which revealed the personality behind the face.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at www.dcpcom.com
Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.