Sometimes it can be great to flex your skills and show off your lighting prowess, but we can often run into the danger of the image being more about the lighting technique rather than the look of the final image itself. This is something I always try and hammer home when I’m teaching new techniques.
Is there anybody here old enough to remember the horrendous HDR portraits of the early 2000s? The images were all about showing off the latest HDR technique rather than the subjects themselves and the results were nothing short of terrifying. Too young and have no idea what I’m talking about? Just Google HDR portraits and you’ll see what I mean.
We all fall foul to this trap at one point or another and sometimes the shot really is less about the subject and more about making the technique stand out to catch someone’s attention.
It’s fine to do this and there is definitely a place for it in commercial work where the shots are supposed to be relatable, yet ethereal and eye-catching enough to sell products. But what about those times when the designer wants to see the styling and fashion? What about those times when it’s a fitness shot and the subject wants to see their body clearly? Or even a simple portrait shoot for a client that wants to see their face not bright blue from gels? This is the time to flex your lighting talents whilst still adhering to the brief and it’s during these times that subtlety is often the key to achieving this.
You’re about as subtle as a f****** train wreck. On a boat.
– Doug Walker
Long exposure is another one of those popular lighting techniques that many of us have tried at one point or another, but we’ve all likely been met with mixed results.
One danger you can very quickly run into when shooting long exposure portraits, is the shot being a blurry mess that you describe to the camera club as ‘fine art’ or ‘contemporary portraiture’.
In reality, we likely got carried away and allowed the technique to become the focal point of the shot. It’s when we allow our creative free-sprits to get carried away, that the technique can dominate the subject and the shot now becomes a ‘good long exposure shot’ and not a ‘great portrait’.
In this article, I’ll show you a very simple setup that will help you to rein in the long exposure technique a little and by shooting in this way, you can add an engaging, visual interest to your subjects, without allowing the technique to dominate them.
Don’t be fooled though, as shooting with subtlety can often be harder to do than many of us realise, so this will be as much a lesson in restraint as is about foundational technique.
Simple Long Exposure Portrait Setup
One of the core aspects of a long exposure shot is, of course, ambient light. This is the light that will be constantly on during the entire time our shutter is open. Thankfully, this will likely be pretty easy to achieve for this setup as we’re actually using the modelling bulb from our flash. Most flash units have a modelling bulb and this allows us to see the subject as we focus our shots. Making this modelling bulb appear in our images is actually very easy to do, we simply need a longer shutter speed than we’d ordinarily use in the studio to see it. For example, you may shoot flash images at around 125th to 250th of a second, but for long exposure shots, we may extend our shutter speed to a whole second or more. It’s this extended duration that allows our cameras to show the ordinarily much dimmer modelling bulbs in shot.
Note: Some flash units will actively turn off the modelling bulb when the flash fires. Just check your strobe isn’t doing this and if it is, there’s nearly always a function in the menus that enables the modelling bulb to stay on during the exposure.
Tungsten or LED
One important area to talk about here is whether your strobe has an LED or tungsten modelling bulb. The LED modelling bulb often looks like a little yellow dot in the centre of your strobe. A tungsten modelling bulb is often a large glass bulb that can be replaced or removed. We ideally want an LED modelling bulb for this setup (which most of you likely already have), but I can discuss ways around shooting this with tungsten modelling bulbs at the end. Just remind me and I’ll go through it then.
In addition to this flash with modelling bulb, we simply need another flash, a backdrop, a gel or two and we’re done!
Here’s the setup below. Take a look and then I’ll discuss what’s going on beneath that.
As you can see from the setup above, it’s actually fairly simple and you can even do this in small rooms like home studios if need be. I am using a couple of pieces of kit here that I absolutely love, but that you may not have. I’ll discuss those now and talk about potential alternatives that can be used as substitutes if needed.
- Camera – Nikon D850
- Lens – AF DC Nikkor 105 F2
- Shutter Speed – 0.8 Seconds
- Aperture – f2.8
- ISO – 100
- Kelvin – 4500K
- Focal Length – 105mm
Many of my regular readers will know that I absolutely love this modifier and that I use it in so many of my shoots, although I rarely use it for its intended purpose, which is shining gobos. I’m using the optical snoot here as it allows me to be very controlled with where the light falls on my subject. I do not want any light from this modifier to fall onto the background and the very controllable spot of light the optical snoot provides easily enables me to do this, even in small shooting spaces like a home studio.
You could substitute this optical snoot for many other small and hard light sources. A snoot, a grid and even barn doors would allow you to direct the light into a small area like the optical snoot does here.
I appreciate this may seem like overkill, but this second light does need to be very soft so as to not cast shadows on my background. The further I move the subject from the background to reduce shadows, the greater the difference in exposure between subject and background becomes and I really want to limit that whilst only using two lights in a small space. This large umbrella and scrim combo produces very soft light with almost no hotspot, even in tight spaces.
You could get pretty close to this soft look with simply the large umbrella with a diffusion cover, failing that (and I’m loathed to say this as it really won’t look the same), you could use a large softbox. Just be mindful that you will cast shadows from that, and you’ll have a hotspot, especially when used in tight quarters and close to the subject. I really would urge you to consider buying a large umbrella over a large softbox to see the difference for yourself.
Hand Painted Backdrop
If you’re taking portraiture seriously, you’ll likely already own at least one of these, but the hand-painted backdrops are a phenomenal addition to your portrait setups. I’ll be honest, I was sceptical myself until I tried them and they really do enable you to produce truly gorgeous backgrounds when used in conjunction with a shallow depth of field lens. I’m using a 2m x 3m blue one from Essential Photo and if you’ve ever looked at prices for hand-painted backdrops before, these ones from Essential Photo aren’t as pricey as many others out there.
Beyond actually making one yourself, there really isn’t an alternative to this…. but again if you’ve ever tried to make one of these yourself, you’ll know it isn’t quite as easy as it looks. If you want to give it a go though, I did write an article on how to make a pretty simple DIY mottled backdrop alternative here.
There is one other little trick to get the look I’m sporting here and that’s one or two CTB (colour temperature blue) gels. These enable us to make subtle changes to the colour of our flashes without overpowering our subjects with bold colour.
There really isn’t an alternative I’m afraid. These CTB gels are specifically designed to change the colour of lights along the Kelvin scale. So although you may be able to save a few quid and use wrapping paper, sweet wrappers, coloured dye on glass (trust me, I’ve heard all the cheapskate alternatives to actually buying gels by now ;) ), there simply is no household alternative to colour temperature gels to my knowledge.
Breaking the setup down
At its core, this technique is a simple two-light setup. Both flashes fire, but one of them has a modelling bulb on to give us a slight ghosting effect when we shoot at a longer shutter speed. For context, the shutter speed of my shots here was taken at between 0.5 seconds and 1 second. This enables the camera to see the light from the modelling bulb for a period after the flash has fired. It is in this short window of time that I can move my camera around to get those subtle ghosted movements.
Just to reiterate that last part in case you are new to long exposure portraits, YOU have to move the camera around whilst the shutter is open to get the moving, ghosting effect to appear.
Both my flash units have LED modelling bulbs, which most of yours will do too. The LED modelling bulbs are pretty close to being the same colour as the flash so when I open my shutter and combine both the flash and the LED modelling bulbs in the same frame, the colour of the light matches.
What if I have tungsten modelling bulbs?
This isn’t a huge issue, but we will need to make a couple of adjustments. Firstly, I’d suggest you put one CTB gel over your key light (the optical snoot/ hard light on the model). This will allow both the tungsten modelling bulb and the flash colour to be the same as both of those lights now have to pass through the same CTB gel. To then counter this on our fill light, I suggest you add two CTB gels to that so the resulting colder, blue colour is now more noticeable in contrast to the key. If this doesn’t make sense just yet, read on to see the part about ‘The Blue Fill Light’.
The Blue Fill light
We discussed above that the hard light will have the modelling bulb on during the 0.5-second exposure, but that light will not have any gels attached to it (unless you’re shooting with tungsten modelling bulbs). The blue you see in my images comes from the big soft light and it is ONLY this light that has the CTB (colour temperate blue) gel on it. This CTB gel is giving us a subtle blue tone when we set our camera Kelvin to around 4500K. This will appear very subtle in-camera but is exaggerated when contrast is added in post later on.
Nerd-Note: Some more experienced photographers here may be wondering how adding a flash coloured gel to a flash, makes any difference at all to the resulting light. You’d be right to assume that, but there is enough of variance in colour to get the subtle look we’re after. If you’re finding that you’re not seeing any difference at all with your lights, gels, camera combo, try adding an additional 1/2 CTB or even another full CTB to your original CTB to really make the difference pop.
This blue fill-light is likely doing more than you realise and the size of the light in relation to the subject is also playing a crucial role in the final look too. In the finished shots at the end of this article, look at those gorgeous, big blue highlights. It’s producing a lot of defining, yet subtle features to this shot that are tricky to achieve in other ways.
Key points to remember
- Only have the modelling bulb on for the flash that is lighting the face (the optical snoot/hard light on the model).
- Be sure to turn OFF the modelling bulb on the large umbrella light – Failing to do so will ruin the shot with an overpowering effect that is not the subtle look we’re after.
- Do not allow the hard light (light on model) to fall onto the backdrop – doing so will result in the background having the long exposure effect which we do not want.
- Make sure that the room you are shooting in has all other lights off and the curtains drawn – failing to do this will result in your shot looking like an utter mess. You may even have to wait until the sun has gone down if you can’t get your room dark enough.
- The only thing left to chance here is the user movement (you) when holding and moving the camera during the 0.5-second exposure window – be sure to experiment with bold movements as well as subtle ones.
Breaking Down the Key
Let’s take a look at what that key light is doing on our subject so you can better understand how to build and set this up yourself. Take a look at a couple of test shots below to see how it’s working… Remember: these shots do NOT have the fill light firing.
In the image on the left above, I’m showing you what that hard key light is doing with ONLY the flash firing. In the second image, we see what the shot looks like when we increase the shutter speed to about 0.5 seconds and I move the camera around whilst the shutter is open. It is thanks to this longer shutter speed that we are now able to see the modelling bulb and its resulting ghosting effects.
Note how that key light is a very controlled pool of light on the top half of the subject and note that none of that key light is falling onto the background.
No Long Exposure
How about what this setup looks like without long exposure? The resulting images below are just flash, no long exposure, no camera movement and no ambient light.
The images above were test shots I took as I was setting up the final look up, so I solely retouched these for you guys. You’re welcome!
And yes, I know there will be a traditionalist in the comments who likely also consider black & white photography to be ‘arty’, who prefers these images to the final ‘blurred’ look of the final shots. To those philistines, I say ‘enjoy your vanilla ice cream and sparkling water’.
Bringing it all together!
Click on any of the shots below to enlarge them.
As stated throughout, this is a subtle look. It’s supposed to add a hint of interest and visual engagement without dominating the subject in any way. Long exposure setups are always tough articles to write though, as they always sound far more complicated on paper than they actually are in reality. Trying to explain how to move and wave your camera around while the shutter is open always sounds like you’ve lost your mind, as it goes against everything you’ve been taught about getting sharp and clear shots thus far. At its core, this setup is a fairly simple 2 light technique to achieve and once you’ve done it a couple of times, you’ll quickly get a feel for what works and what doesn’t camera-movement wise.
Just jump in with it, set up your hard light first like I did so as to only light the top of the model and not the background (turn the modelling bulb ON for this light only). Next, bring in the second super-soft light, add a CTB gel to this and ensure the modelling bulb is OFF for this light. Set your camera to 0.5-second exposure and wave it around when you press the shutter. Simple as that! ;)
Give it a go, I promise you it’s not as tricky as it may sound.
Featured Model: Sophie Baines
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.