8 Minutes and $20 Can Improve Your Portrait Photography

Portrait photography requires studio strobes, softboxes, along with grip equipment like light stands, and C-stands, not to mention lots of money to acquire all the required equipment. Without this equipment, your images are going to look like your local police department’s Saturday night mugshots. Do you really need to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get good portrait shots?

The quick answer is absolutely not. For eight minutes of your time, which is the length of this terrific video from our friends over at SLR Lounge, a few dollars and a little effort, you too can start making quality portrait images. Yes, indeed, beauty dishes, softboxes, umbrellas, and loads of grip equipment are used by top photographers in their portrait work to create incredible images. However, if you are starting out and don’t have all this equipment, you’re in luck and probably better off.

The best way to start with flash or strobe photography is to start with the most basic setup, which, of course, is the two light setup. And the good part is you only need to buy on light because the first light is free and better known as the ambient light. The video by SLR Lounge does a fantastic job of showing you how to control the ambient light and then describes how a simple reflector can be used to mimic a more expensive softbox. 

With so many of us stuck inside during the winter months, this is a great exercise to keep our photography muscles in shape since this technique can be used outside as easily as it can inside.

Douglas Turney's picture

Doug Turney is a Connecticut based photographer who specializes in non-ball sport types of photography such as motocross, sailing, and cycling. But that doesn’t stop him from shooting other types of photography too. Doug believes photography is photography and doesn’t like to be typecast. Doug loves to travel and often shoots when traveling.

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The most basic strobe setup isn't a 2 light setup, it's one light, of course.

The ambient light is one light, the strobe is your second light.

I have never heard anyone call ambient light the light the first light and a strobe the second light.

Photographer to assistant: Set up the second light here with a big soft box and the third light on the background.
Assistant to photographer: What about the first light?
Photographer to assistant: There is no first light, it is already here.

and what's with ambient light in the studio/profoto showroom? Very strange...

Every light that influences the image is a light source. Call it first light, third light, ambient light, whatever - it doesn't matter- it is light and if it shows up in the image it can be counted as a light source.

When I talk to an assistant I don't tell them to set up a first light or second light. I use terms like key light, backlight​, hair light, etc which actually tells them what the light is doing. What does first light do? Or second light do? Is there a certain order you set up your lights?

If you call a set up with one strobe lighting a person (for example) in a location with ambient light a 2 light set-up that's up to you. It is just a little confusing terminology.