Like anything in life, it’s important to choose the right tool for the job. When it comes to shooting portraits you can choose strobes or constant lights for your lighting. In this article, I’ll chat a little bit about my workflow for portraits with photographic film and why I choose a certain light type for a certain shoot. My hope is that you can use some of my experience with lighting portraits for film and apply that to your own tests, experiments or workflow.
I shoot mainly 4×5 for my portrait work nowadays, so I’m going to focus on how lighting works for me for that specific format — but a lot of what I talk about applies to all film photography formats.
A significant number of my tighter portraits are lit with LED lights. Using 4×5 film and f/5.6 lenses means I need a faster ISO film to achieve a reasonable shutter speed that won’t risk motion blur in my subject. ILFORD HP5 PLUS pushes really well to EI 800 — especially in sheet form — so it’s now my go-to for these types of portraits.
Using LED lighting and EI 800 for an f/5.6 aperture, I can consistently achieve a shutter speed of 1/60-1/125th of a second, which I find more than acceptable for my style of shooting.
I run LEDs when I’m in an environment that I can 100% control the ambient light. Battery-powered LEDs also really help when I’m travelling or shooting on location. It just means there’s one less thing to worry about when I’m setting up, especially if I’m more than a few dozen feet from the closest power source (it happens…a lot).
Another great benefit of LED lighting is that you are able to see the changes in real-time when you’re moving lights or changing power settings. Not all strobes have modelling lights, which can be an issue if you’re not using digital cameras or Polaroids/instant film to see those changes before shooting your next frame(s).
I put together a very quick video example here:
While LED technology has made huge leaps in the last 5 years, it’s still not quite there when I need to compete with the sun. This is where strobes come into play.
I use strobes when I need to balance the ambient light in the portrait. They allow my shutter speed to control the ambient light balance and tend to work the best to give me sharp images and achieve dramatic lighting effects.
High speed sync isn’t really available for film cameras, so using an ND filter will give you the ability to shoot a shallower depth of field and cut down the amount of ambient light influencing the image, producing a more dramatically lit image.
Technical issues can cause problems with strobes on certain occasions… sometimes a trigger will go to sleep, or a sync cable will fail, or the strobes just fail to fire. If you’re trying to eliminate your ambient light and just have a strobed exposure, this can lead to blank frames and wasted money. Sync speeds can also be an issue when using strobes. Each camera system is different and it can be fairly limiting with what you can do when mixing ambient and strobe if your sync speed isn’t high enough (ie Leica at 1/50th or even some 120 (not mm) format cameras at 1/30th.
Using lighting in portraits is a total blast and if you haven’t experimented yet, I’d get on it! I’ve always felt that your lighting style can separate you faster than almost any other aesthetic in photography.
There’s lighting available for all budget levels… ANY light is better than NO light.
Before I go, here are a few lighting suggestions for small, medium and large budgets:
My Suggestions for smaller budgets: ~US$75
For an affordable entry into lighting, a basic plug ’n’ play LED panel like the Neewer 40W Slim Panel is a good start. This will allow you to experiment with lighting and not shell out a ton of cash up front.
The diffusion material in the light will take a bit of the power away, but it will limit the multi-shadow lines you get from open diode LED panels.
The affordable “strobe” choice would be some sort of speedlight.
I like the Godox brand for price and reliability… The TT600 is well under US$100 and will get you started into experimenting with strobe lighting. Make sure you buy the appropriate trigger for your brand of camera, or at least one that’s compatible with multiple brands, so that you can trigger the flash off camera.
I use a Fuji trigger and it works on all my cameras, with the centre pin hotshoe contact.
My Suggestions for mid-sized budgets: ~US$300
If you’re looking to step it up a bit and can spend a little more cash on lighting, I’d look at getting something like this Neewer LED kit (they’re bicolour, so you can use them with daylight or tungsten film).
Alternatively, this Godox FV150 150W for strobe/LED — yep, this light is both a strobe and an LED, so you get the best of both worlds:
My Suggestions for larger budgets: ~US$1000
If you’re thinking about diving right in and don’t mind spending the $$$, here are a couple stellar options for LED and Strobe, the Aputure Light Storm C300d Mark II and Godox AD600Pro Witstro, both linked here to B&H Photo Video.
There you go; six suggestions to get you started. They’re not exhaustive, they might start a litte high for some pockets and will definitely be a little low for readers currently torn between buying a new Rolls Royce vs a Bentley but they are suggestions nonetheless. If you have others to add, I welcome it. Drop your thought sin the comments section.
Before I leave you, one final piece of advice:
Get used to one light first.
Use that single light and really see what you can accomplish with it. Overcomplicating your setups can get frustrating and may push you away from really learning to light your subject matter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what works for you. Leave a note in the comments below along with those alternative lighting suggestions!
PS. A word on sponsored links: there are none. The Amazon links above won’t earn me or this website a penny. They’re my suggestion as one photographer to another.
Share your knowledge, story or project
At the heart of EMULSIVE is the concept of helping promote the transfer of knowledge across the film photography community. You can support this goal by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this personal passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and giving as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.