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dramatic lighting effects for portrait photography  (model: Jessica Joy)

For this dramatic Hollywoord Glamor inspired portrait sequence of Jessica, I used two Litepanels Sola 4 LED fresnel lights (affiliate). But there’s more that happening here with the lighting than just the main light and the rim light. There is the splash of color in the background, augmenting the blue rim-light coming from behind.

Jessica’s reaction to the first test shot was amusing – a surprised,”where did that come from?”, when she saw the image on the back of my camera. The blue tones and the pattern in the background were an unexpected dramatic effect. It didn’t look like that until I fired the shutter.

While Jessica was finishing up her with her make-up and hair, I had set up the lights. The two  Litepanels Sola 4 LED fresnel lights (affiliate), and a Light Blaster (affiliate) with a star pattern gobo on the background. When I positioned her in the middle of the studio floor, the two fresnel lights were shining … and that’s all that it looked like at the time. But then the magic happened.

The lighting for these photographs need to be considered as two layers – the continuous light (via the LED fresnel light), and the the flash via the Light Blaster on the background. And that’s how we’ll break it down:

LED fresnel lights for dramatic portrait lighting

Continuous lighting is easier to work with than flash – the WYSWIG aspect of these video lights (and other continuous light sources), is that you can make careful adjustments to the lights’  position, and to the pose. With such a small light source, it really does need careful positioning of the lights, and careful posing. You can closely observe exactly how the light falls across your model’s features. Even as much as I like the top-most photograph, it can be said that I should’ve angled her shoulder better so that there isn’t a shadow cast across Jessica’s chin. I tried, but then the pose fell apart slightly – so that is the image that I liked the most, even with that small flaw.

These LED fresnel lights have made other appearances on the Tangents blog, for a similar reason – they are awesome!

If you like Hollywood Glamor style lighting, I strongly recommend this book where the authors analyze and break down some of the best known portraits and describe how the images where lit – Hollywood Portraits, by Roger Hicks and Christopher Nisperos. (Amazon)

The reason for the blue color in the background and the rim-light – I gelled the main LED light with an Incandescent balanced gel. With my camera set to an appropriate white balance, the Daylight balanced light in the background (and the flash), turned to blue. We did it with that photo shoot with Ulorin Vex, and also flash photography workshop with Anelisa: gelling your flash for effect – blue background


Showing the position of the lights, and the result without the Light Blaster (affiliate), lighting up the background … and again with the Light Blaster switched on. And this will explain Jessica’s surprise when I showed her the photo. The pattern wasn’t there when I positioned her! It appears as a momentary blitz of light – obviously so, since this is flash.

using the Light Blaster for special effects

The pull-back shot above shows the lighting setup. The two LED fresnel lights, and where the Lightblaster was positioned behind her. I prefer the metal gobos with the Light Blaster, instead of the filter effects. Here I defocused the pattern by defocusing the lens that I use on the Light Blaster.

I’ve used the Light Blaster before, but here it was more for a splash of color and pattern in the background, rather than specifically for the singular effect. I like this.


 you can order the Light Blaster kit from these affiliate links



Again, it is clear that a successful portrait doesn’t just hinge on good lighting or a cool effect – but it comes together on that intersect between lighting, posing and interacting with your subject. All these elements have to come into play.

Camera settings for the two main images: 1/200 @ f/2 @ 800 ISO
with an 85mm lens for that shallow depth-of-field.

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flash photography workshop – Charlotte, NC – July 25, 2015 (Sat)

The workshop is on! Only 3 spots left. 

A group of photographers in Charlotte asked if I would like to present a flash photography workshop there. After some to-and-fro, we’ve arranged for a really nice venue, and settled on a date – July 25th (Sat). Everything is in place for this to happen – the first workshop away from NJ / NY since the workshop in Amsterdam two years ago.

A few details:
The workshop will be limited to 12 people.
There will be two models.
The fee for the workshop is $600 per person.
The workshop will start at 9am, and end at 8pm.

Here is a description of the workshop syllabus. The workshop is aimed at having everyone come away from the workshop, confident in the use of flash photography. We’ll make sure those aha! moments happen.


register for this workshop

If you would like to attend this workshop, the fee of $600 (via Paypal.)
If you have any questions, drop me a note. Thanks!

July 25 workshop: $600


photography workshops



camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used for the main photo

The image at the top was taken at a workshop in Las Vegas, using speedlights in a softbox. For that shallow depth-of-field, we went to high-speed flash sync.

  • 1/640 @ f/2.8 @ 200 ISO

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It's funny to think how much photography has changed since I was a younger person walking around with a camera. Now we can display images on the web with a few deft clicks and thousands or millions of people will see them. We've made enormous transitions from film to digital and supposedly lenses have gotten better and better. But when I go back into a box of 11 x 14 inch, black and white prints and really look I am struck by how much the same the actual images look from then to now. As if we've changed all the external parameters and left only the core event untouched.

I took this with a Contax SLR and I used a Zeiss 135mm f2.8 lens. There was no image stabilization and the noise was what the noise would be using Tri-X or Agfa 400 speed black and white film. The printing was limited by my own skills at the time. The black edge is actual light from the gap between the "live" film and the edge of the negative carrier. The negative carrier was filed out one evening so it would always show the full frame.

But seeing the image when I was taking the image; the when of pressing the shutter button and the framing overall, those things haven't changed with the new technologies. Those things are innate to the artist, not the cameras.

Convection ovens are invented, juicers are modified, knives are re-invented but at the end of the day it is all about the flavor of the food served in a fine restaurant. Pretty much the same with photography. Images are to be eaten by the eyes and enjoyed. Doesn't matter which "oven" they were baked in.

recipe for model on runway at fashion show, old school:  carefully meter white runway. Set exposure 1.5 stops slower than meter indication. Pray you nailed exposure for skin tone. Stay in the 2 by 2 foot box/boundary that you taped onto the floor of the shooting platform so you don't jostle the other 50 shooters who have also marked their territories on the crowded shooting platform. Remember that you only have 36 frames on the roll and you don't want to be re-loading during a fun imaging moment. Be sparing with your shutter finger. Pre-focus into the zone in which you think you'll be shooting and then make small corrections in real time (no AF on that camera...). Don't get too excited early on and use up all your film. Save a couple of rolls for the grand finalé. 

©kirk tuck.
©kirk tuck.

best / portable softbox for on-location headshot photography

I vary the lighting kit that I use for on-location portraits and headshot photography. It could involve multiple lights, or a single-light setup on location. My choice of lighting is most often decided by how complex it need to be, and the logistics of getting to the location and setting up.

More than struggling with something, I detest the appearance of struggling with something. Let me explain – when working with clients, it all needs to appear smooth and efficient. Everything in place, and professional. No struggling with gear. Set it up efficiently; shoot; and then break it all down even faster at the end. I don’t want to appear like I am battling with anything. (This is also why I shy away from anything that looks home-made or makeshift.

With this extended gig described here – photo gear & logistics: corporate headshots – I used a large setup with multiple studio heads. This involved a lot of logistics with the lighting gear, carting it around in New York, and being able to set it all up quickly. With another headshots gig for a company, I needed multiple spots set up simultaneously on the company’s site – on-location headshots and promotional portraits. Different needs, and different solutions.

When shooting inside, we can rely less on the available light to act as a natural fill light. But outside, on location, the ambient light and flash are often neatly balanced, and then a much simpler single-lightsetup can be sufficient.

Back to the idea of setting up fast, and not struggling – a softbox with speedring and rods can be a mild battle, with the need to push down on the rods and flex them.

The Westcott Rapid Box 36 XL (affiliate), alleviates that. This 36″ double-baffled octa-box opens and closes like an umbrella. There is a zippered opening on the side where you can stick your hand in to settle the mechanism inside, and then also wiggle it lose afterwards to collapse it. The Rapid Box 36 XL fits into a carry-bag.

With this headshots session, where I assisted Yasmeen, a NYC headshot photographer, I handled the lighting – two Profoto B1 flashes (affiliate) transmitters, the Westcott Rapid Box 36 XL (affiliate), and a tall Manfrotto 1004BAC light-stand (affiliate). Yasmeen had her cameras and lenses and tethered laptop and a step-ladder. That’s Yasmeen on the step-ladder where we posed the company’s personnel for their headshots – a nice background that has some greenery and the city in the background. By the way, I brought two B1 flashes because you always need a back-up.

The Westcott Rapid Box 36 XL comes in different mounts too – AlienBees, Elinchrom and Bowens – depending on the lighting system you have:


photo gear used in this setup


related articles

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©kirk tuck
©kirk tuck.
©kirk tuck.
©1994 Kirk Tuck
Rene Z. ©Kirk Tuck

©1994 Kirk Tuck.
Self portrait with a Rokinon 85mm lens on an EM5.2.

I've been writing a lot lately about using the Berlebach monopod in my work at events. I never took monopods seriously before even though I've dabbled with a baker's half dozen of them over the years. One of the first presents my then girlfriend and now wife of thirty years gave me, early on, was a Leitz Tiltall monopod. Black, lightweight, sleek and good. I still have it now 35 years later.  But it was the Berleback 112 with the little wooden tilting head at the top that finally made me realize the value of this support system. And I happy to have finally solidified the connection.

I used the Berlebach monopod at the Freescale Semiconductor FTF show last week to stabilize my 24-120mm lens as I made images of displays and demo areas in their Tech Lab, shooting with a Nikon D610 in raw mode. I hold the monopod near the top with my left hand and I pull it in close to my body so the connection with my stomach creates a non-moving point of contact. This goes a long way to stabilizing the motion from side to side. Pulling the assemblage tight to my body also gives me something to pull into which stabilizes my left hand. I hold the grip of the camera in my right hand and try to make the shutter tripping as smooth and easy as possible. Finally, I press the camera against my suborbital ridge to establish another solid point of contact. With a bit of practice I am able to get a convincingly sharp, wide angle shot at around 1/8th of a second, and do so reliably.

A major benefit of using the monopod instead of always being handheld is that the monopod does the work of defying gravity which alleviates a large portion of the physical stress caused by holding onto a three to six pound package for hours at a time. Being able to let the monopod fight gravity instead of my arms means that I'll have less shake due to exhaustion than I would normally
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