I Love Moody Portraits

Don’t get me wrong, I love taking bright and airy portraits too, but moody portraits are by far my favorite. To me, bright photos are a bold exclamation whereas shadowy, soft portraits are a story. And, hey, if you’ve read any of my other blogs you know that “story” is what I obsess most over in every photo.

When a friend asked me to update the photos for his business, I was beyond ready. He owns a tattoo parlor and everyone who works there is amazing. I knew instantly that I wanted to set the tone by taking a series of portraits that were both dark and soft – meaning I wanted a lot of shadows, but I also wanted the light to be purposeful and graceful.

I also knew I would be taking these photos indoors and that there wouldn’t be a lot of room. If possible, I wanted to use only one light with the largest size modifier I could muster in their Tattoo Parlor. For soft light a large modifier is a must. The larger the light source is in relation to your subject, the softer. You can do this two ways – through distance by moving a smaller light close, or through sheer size, by making the apparent light much larger through a modifier. I did a mix of both. I took my 51 inch umbrella and set it about 2 feet away from my subject.

It should be stated that a 51″ umbrella, only two feet away from someone’s face, is going to cover that subject with soft light. But this also presents another problem. The softness is great, but I don’t want that light going everywhere. I really want to keep it focused on my subject’s face with the rest of their body falling into the natural shadow of the room.

I tackled this problem by using a 2×3 foot piece of black foam core, clamped to another stand, that stood between the light and the subject. Because of the creeping nature of light coming from such a large umbrella, I ended up blocking nearly the entirety of the umbrella from the subject, leaving only a crescent of light hitting the subject’s face. In hindsight, a large strip box might have delivered a similar quality of light, but this setup with the umbrella and black foam core always produces stellar results.

I guess I should also mention that I am using Canon’s 85mm f/1.2 rf lens wide open while standing between 8 and 10 feet away from the subject. I’ve dialed the shutter speed down to control the shadows which were around -1.5 EV. I am also popping very little power from the single Speedlight, which was set to 1/128. At one point I switched from my 600 EX-RT to my 430 because I wanted even less power to work with.

After I got everything set up and dialed in, then it’s the usual case of getting the talent in front of the camera and taking some pictures. I was lucky here; everyone was so easy to work with and the end result are some extremely softly lit portraits that everyone was excited about! You can see a few other samples from the shoot as well as the diagram below. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out!

Benjamin Lehman is a Professional Commercial Photographer in the Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Northeast Areas of Ohio.