Barnet Workshops » Sharing Experience, Information, Inspiration

Hard Light Portraits are Back!

Dramatic portrait lighting is making a comeback! We use soft boxes for most of our studio portraits, usually a large or medium Chimera with silver interior. For a more “fashiony” look, we use the white Mola Demi (the Mola is off-white) beauty dish , often with a white grid. That’s as “hard” as we have been lighting portraits for a while with the exception of the Profoto ring flash. Soft boxes are very forgiving, and provide a very flattering light.

Lately we’ve been experimenting with hard light sources in the studio. For our own “fun” work and for clients who want more edgy head-shots. The images below were done for DJ Peter Pop, of Vive Entertainment. He’s been performing at venues and events that go along with a more edgy look than he would use to attract weddings and social event clients.


As you can see in the “behind the image” photo below, we used a 4 light set up here. The main light is a Profoto D1 500w with a Magnum reflector (our new secret weapon) with a grid. The hair light (or “separation light” if your subject has no hair) is a Profoto B1 with a zoom reflector, also fitted with a grid, and the “kicker” opposite the main, slightly behind the subject is a Profoto B1 with a 1’x3′ strip box fitted with an egg crate. There is also a square silver reflector, and a larger silver reflector further away to kick back some of the main light, soften the transition and throw a little light on Peter’s right eye. Finally there is a Dynalite head with a snoot, off an 800w pack through a gobo putting light on the black paper background to make it look a little more interesting. There is a flag in front of the gobo light to keep the spill from hitting the subject. After retouching, the final image above was tweaked with Alien Skin Exposure #7’s “Daguerreotype Damaged” so the effect of the gobo is almost invisible. It’s much more noticeable in the less contrasty color version of this and similar images. This session was photographed with a Nikon D810 and a 70-200 2.8 VRII zoom lens (my favorite glass in the bag). The exposure for this image was f/5.6 at 1/200th and ISO 100.


The image below was done with a slightly different set up and very different results. We wanted a range of looks out of this session. It’s important to provide clients with different looks, especially if they’re doing wardrobe changes. This image is softer and the “look” without the leather jacket, is more friendly and casual.


For this second image we traded the Profoto Magnum reflector for a Mola Demi off-white, beauty dish with a white grid, on the Profoto D1 500w. The beauty dish gives us a softer light than the Magnum reflector but more directional and focused than a soft box would provide. Working with reflectors, as opposed to soft boxes, requires more precise placement of the lights because the “sweet” spots are smaller and the light is more focused. The background light through the gobo was traded for another B1 with no light modifier and a blue gel held in place with a rubber band (cheap, low tech solution). The background light, placed behind the subject and aimed downwards, gives us a gradated blue background that can be easily controlled by the angle, intensity of the light and amount of color. The 2’x3′ strip box with egg crate remains in the same place. The 2 silver reflectors are also used for this image. Reflectors are very helpful in controlling the mood of the image.


About our Profoto B1 and D1 monoblocks: We are using exclusively these 2 Profoto self contained heads for all our studio portraits and we recently added more D1’s to our arsenal. These things are addicting! We normally use the AC powered D1’s for the main light because it has a stronger modeling light that can be used full power without having to worry about draining a battery. It also comes in 1000w so we have plenty of power even for a large group lit with a 4’x6′ soft box. The 500w B1’s work seamlessly with the D1’s and all can be controlled from the camera, and triggered by the Profoto Air Remote. This comes in very handy when trying to change the output from the hair light on a high boom. Unlike working with a pack and heads, the power from each self contained head can be adjusted individually very quickly with a wider range of power choices. I like to use the battery powered B1’s when a power cord might be in the way, or when I may be moving that particular head substantially. They work great for hair lights, kickers, etc. The recycling time is incredibly fast and the LED modeling light is not hot. The B1 batteries last a very long time and recharge quickly with one of two different chargers available. We always have 1 or 2 extra batteries around and have never ran short.

We don’t get any Profoto gear free, in fact, they’re not the cheapest solution around, not even close, but in my opinion, they’re worth every penny. You do get what you pay for! I wish I would have started using Profoto years ago! I don’t know any other system that works so seamlessly, is so fast to set up and tear down, is so easy to master, is so well made, reliable and accurate. Not to say anything about light quality, consistency and flash duration, especially useful when photographing moving subjects.

Lastly, the Profoto line of light modifiers is incredible! Especially, the hard reflectors. Their mounting system is very easy to use, the rods on the square and octa boxes are even color coded to the rings for faster assembly, and the zoom feature of the speed rings themselves is a huge time saver.

OK, end of the Profoto commercial! If you’re starting out, or have a limited budget there are other solutions you should explore, many will do a great job for you, including off brand, manual speedlights and other brands of studio flash gear. If you’re using independent triggering devices like Phottix (our new favorites), you can use several completely different flash units together and achieve great results. But if you’re in the for the long run, plan to work on location, and want a reliable solution that will let you concentrate on the creative process and being attentive to your client’s needs, you should consider investing on a reliable brand with room to expand. I know from experience that this approach is cheaper in the long run.

I hope you enjoyed this post! As always, feel free to leave comments and questions. We hope to see you in person at one of upcoming workshops!

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