Back in 2009 I made a series of head shots of some of my friends.
The head shots of the guys.
The first picture I made was a happy accident—the result of fooling around with lights. I immediately liked what I saw: light that made the subject look very serious and gloomy. To go along with the mood, I used a similarly grungy processing of the images.
With the exception of the first shot (the one that got me started with this series), the pictures were made using a small, four-Speedlite setup that could fit in a small bat bag:
- The first Speedlite, a 580EX II sitting on the camera, is merely the master unit controlling the three other flashes; it does not contribute to the light in the image. Even though the flash system provides automatic metering, I tend to set the power of the lights manually because I want to remain in control, not be surprised by fluctuating exposures as I tweak my framing, etc.
- The main light, above my head, is a 580EX II in a small softbox. It is not placed too high, as I don't want to plunge the eyes in complete darkness.
- Two bare 430EX II Speedlites are placed behind, on each side, acting as rim lights. (A flag is used on each of those lights to avoid flare.)
The setup used for the head shots of the guys.
No fill, nor any reflector was used, which caused very deep shadows. Naturally, the background was left black, which fit better with the mood I was going after. The use of a rather short lens for such a tight framing (a 50mm) made the portraits really "in your face", enhancing further the desired effect. The images were shot at an aperture of ƒ/11 to get crisp details.
A close-up of the first image. Gritty!
Fast forward a couple of years, when I had recently acquired the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, a lens with a very large aperture and a focal length well suited for portraiture. Naturally, for my first project with the lens I wanted to make full use of its unique capabilities by shooting portraits at its widest aperture. The setup had to match the dreamy aesthetic of such a narrow depth-of-field, though.
I decided to use the same basic framing and lighting I had used for the guys, but by reversing every parameter, I would produce precisely the opposite mood.
- I would shoot girls, instead of guys. C'mon, by definition girls are softer.
- I would shoot on a white background. It had to be bright and alive, instead of dark and ominous.
- I would make use of a lot of fill light to soften the shadows as much as possible, getting something closer to a beauty lighting instead of the rough edges I gave to the guys.
The head shots of the girls.
For this setup, I used five studio monolights:
- The main light, above my head, is a 22" beauty dish with its diffuser in place.
- Behind me is a large 5' umbrella used as an on-axis fill. Also acting as a fill is a white reflector placed below the camera, bouncing light back up.
- Behind the subject, on each side are the rim lights in simple gridded reflectors.
- Finally, a fifth light directly behind the subject is used to light the background.
The setup used for the head shots of the girls.
The problem with this setup is that the monolights cannot be set at a power low enough for such a wide aperture: at their lowest setting, they are still a few stops too strong. There is always the option of placing ND filters in front of the lights, but that gets strenuous when you need to cut four stops on five separate lights. I opted for a single 4-stop ND filter in front of the lens, which took care of all the lights at once.
This, unfortunately, only complicates a separate problem, that of focusing precisely on the right spot. At ƒ/1.2, at the minimum focusing distance (which, for this lens, is 0.95m), the depth-of-field is something like a millimeter: there is zero margin of error. The autofocus tends to put the focus at the tip of the eyelashes which, unfortunately, is wrong! It's crazy. With the 5D Mark II, this is next to impossible to achieve (certainly not with anything but the center AF point, anyway). With four stops of ND in front of the lens, rendering the viewfinder rather dark, this is asking for trouble.
A close-up of one of the girls. Notice how the tips of the eyelashes (above, right) are out-of-focus.
The solution I have adopted to get a reliable result is to set the camera on a tripod, go into LiveView, zoom in at 10X on an eye, and focus manually. This is a bit tricky/awkward, but at least, this way, I can nail the focus pretty much every time. It's more work, for sure, but the result is spectacular.