So what is a speed light?

If you are new to photography, like myself, you may this term a little confusing. It refers to a type of flash that is a standalone unit. It is a device that is not built into the camera itself but rather is an independent unit which can be mounted on top of the camera body via the hot shoe. Set up is very easy as they can be just slotted into the camera when needed and the camera itself triggers the flash when you take a photo. These units can be used both on and off the camera with the addition of a cable or radio controlled remote triggering device.

Speed lights and portraits

Lighting is important to the success of any photography but nowhere is it arguable more critical than in portrait photography. Understanding light and being able to control it using a combination of natural and artificial means is a vital skill for any budding photographer. Control of lighting has a dramatic effect on the mood and feel of an image. What is communicated about the characteristics of a sitter is greatly influenced by the photographers lighting choices as well as their pose and shoot location choices. In the last few days I have been lucky enough to get to learn new skills and practice some basic speed light techniques for portraiture using equipment borrowed from the university.

Some Visual Exemplars

The following portraits by professional photographers demonstrate the different ways that lighting can be used to portray characteristics of the sitter.

Polly Borland, portrait of the Queen

HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2002 by Polly Borland type C photograph (61.0 x 49.3 cm)

Polly Borland’s was commissioned by the Palace to take this photo of the Queen in her Golden Jubilee year – the 50th anniversary of her coronation. This is a very unconventional royal portrait and Borland portrays her subject in a direct and unsettling way by using very bright light directly on Queen Elizabeth’s face. Borland is known for her method of taken simply-composed portraits very close up. She often uses interesting fabrics in the background, in this case a shimmering gold curtain as a kitsch reference to the Golden Jubilee.

We are not used to seeing The Queen in such bright light, in such imperfect detail and close proximity. Her photograph operates in the same way as one of Warhol’s multiple screen-print portraits, or even one of his Campbell’s soup cans – like a logo or trademark. Though presented with no distinction or fanfare, she is instantly recognisable.

Another very famous woman is actress Cate Blanchette, seen here in a portrait by Karin Catt.

Cate Blanchett, 2002 (printed 2006) by Karin Catt type C photograph (47.5 x 46.6 cm)

Cate Blanchett, 2002 (printed 2006)
by Karin Catt
type C photograph
(47.5 x 46.6 cm)

This portrait uses much softer lighting as there are no visible hard edges to the shadows. The face is lit from the front and at a height above her head, which creates the dramatic shadows highlighting the subject’s cheek bones. The direct gaze and hand on the hip communicate that she is a focused and a woman not to be taken frivolously. Her creative nature is hinted at by the unconventional angular hairstyling and the detail visible in the black top. The position of the hands acts to draw our attention through the image and their angular position balances the angular blunt cut of Blanchette’s hair.

Darrell, from the portfolio "Michael Riley Portraits 1984-1990", 1990 (printed 2013) by Michael Riley inkjet print (41.5 x 41.0 cm)

Darrell, from the portfolio “Michael Riley Portraits 1984-1990”, 1990 (printed 2013)
by Michael Riley
inkjet print
(41.5 x 41.0 cm)

Michael Riley was an Indigenous Australian artist who created this portrait as part of a portfolio of work documenting the urban Indigenous arts community in Sydney’s inner-west between 1984 and 1990. Here the subject is bathed in soft light on the right side of his face only. All of the shadows have graduated edges. This is an example of a low key lighting setup. The effect, combined with the closed eyes of the model,  is to create a dreamlike feeling of silent contemplation. The tight composition with a darkened out of focus background  contributed to the emotional feel of this portrait. The closed eyes in particular can be seen to render the image less about the individual and more representative of any man.

My Process

For this portraiture project I used a Canon Speedlite 580 EX paired with a remote control device that allows the light to be used off camera. It was great to be able to test run the device and really get stuck into experimentations with techniques before I commit to buying one for my own kit bag.

I also borrowed a large circular reflector, with both white and gold sides, that could also be used a translucent diffuser. The addition of a stand and a special clamp allows the individual photographer to set up for a shoot without needed an assistant to help.

The very overcast and stormy weather conditions made any plans I had to shoot outside in Main Beach redundant. I choose the main bedroom of my sitter’s home as the location due to its uncluttered background and neutral colour scheme but more importantly because of the abundance of natural light through large windows on two sides that could be fully controlled by the existing window shutters. For my sitters this afternoon I had two very talented and dedicated local Gold Coast musicians, Catherine Gunther and Casey Thompson, who are studying together at the Conservatorium of Music. A little hint for anyone looking for models to practice on – artists, musicians and other creatives are always looking for great quality portraits to use for promotional purposes. I found my models to be very enthusiastic and excited to help me out (both as models and photography assistants) in return for photos…and a pizza dinner afterwards.

After examining the available light in the room I started by photographing Casey sitting on the bed with the guitar. Catherine helped me out by holding the reflector as I experimented with a variety of poses and lighting options. A great tip is to only change one aspect per shot so you can evaluate the effects of each new refinement made. After trying several different poses and positions within the room we eventually found one that was working well. I tried out both my 100mm macro lens and my 24-70mm lens in this experimentation. The flexibility of having a zoom lens won out in the end due to the tightness of the indoor room location.

Casey is a young pop-rock singer-songwriter and I wanted to create a portrait that reflected her warm and natural personality. The feel I was looking to create was youthful and fun showing a musician who is sweet in nature but still serious about her music.

215A1626_BLOGThis image shows the existing light in the room without the use of any artificial lighting. The natural ambient light on the left side of the sitter was from windows to her left, whose shutters I had fully opened. I wanted to fill the rest of Casey’s face with light.  After much experimentation I found that I achieve the look I was after by using the speed light, off the camera, directed through the diffuser. The diffuser was held slightly lower than the subject around one metre away on the right side. The intensity of the speed light was turned down to -3 stops but it was still too bright so I solved this problem by having my assistant Catherine hold it a further one metre back from the diffuser. I used a large aperture (f/2.8) as I wanted the focus to be on Casey’s face with the rest of her clothing and the guitar in the corner falling out of focus. Earlier shots of Casey in a more formal outfit of a dress were less successful as I felt she was not as relaxed and natural as she appears in the final shot. The viewpoint used is slightly above sitter and her gaze is directly at the viewer. Her closeness to the camera creates a steepened perspective in which she dominates the frame. I feel this successfully conveys her as a confident and strong young musician.


Michelle Vine, Portrait of Casey Thompson, 2015 Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III Lens: EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens Focal Length:31 mm Aperture: f/2.8 Shutter Speed: 1/80 ISO:800

My Final Two Images

The most polished images from the photoshoot were the following two of Catherine Gunther, a Gold Coast based alternative country/folk singer-songwriter. After having worked in the room for sometime I found myself more knowledgeable about the specific lighting conditions and more confident using this new equipment. My goal with this first portrait of Catherine was to convey her warm, friendly nature in a very open and authentic way that communicated her love of country music. The goal was to create an image suitable for use as a promotion poster. She was a little stressed over outfit choices until I simply asked her to put on her favourite blue jeans and show me a few shirts she felt very comfortable in. I choose the green as a contrast to the red of her hair. The hat, a genuine Stenson, was her idea. It provided a challenge within the composition as this large black shape had to be somehow balanced so as not to draw attention away from the musician herself. In order to get her to relax I asked her to sit cross legged on the bed and hug the guitar. I asked her to show me just how much she loved this guitar, purchased along with the hat recently on a trip to Nashville. I am very happy with the final pose as I feel I successfully counter-balanced the black hat with the darker tones in the guitar itself.


Michelle Vine, Portrait of Catherine Gunther, 2015 Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III Lens: EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens Focal Length: 65 mm Aperture: f/5 Shutter Speed: 1/200 ISO:800

For this shot I was working by myself. I used the speed light  mounted on the camera and angled away from the model onto the white reflector. I placed the reflector on its stand at the left side of the bed angled at approximately 45 degrees from the sitter and above her head. The front light source was daylight from the glass sliding doors directly in front of the model. Additional side light was from windows more than two metres from the bed.

The speed light on the camera was used to fill the rest of the face so as to minimise harsh shadows. I wanted the lighting to appear soft and natural to match the model’s pose. To communicate a feeling of friendliness and openness I wanted the model’s entire body to be in focus so the aperture was not set on too low a f-number. The exposure was set to the room at negative two stops so as to stop the background being too starkly white. The flash was set to negative three stops as it was too bright for the correct exposure otherwise.

The composition of this image, all done in camera, contains a strong diagonal line that leads the eye through the image along the next of the guitar. This line is balanced by the angle of Catherine’s head tilt whilst the round shape and darker tone of the guitar body counterbalances the strong black shape of the black cowboy hat. I used the adjustment brush in camera raw to lower the exposure of the model’s arms and also lowered the exposure in the bottom quarter of the image using the gradient tool. These minor adjustment to exposure were applied so as to ensure the model’s face was the main focal point as our eye is naturally drawn into the lightest part of any picture as it reads the image.

I think that this portrait succeeds in communicated that Catherine is friendly, fun, positive, natural and relaxed, approachable and authentic as well as very passionate about her music.

Now that we have carefully established the authenticity of that persona it’s time for something completely different….


Michelle Vine, Portrait of Catherine Gunther, 2015 Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III Lens: EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens Focal Length: 70 mm Aperture: f/2.8 Shutter Speed: 1/50 ISO:800

For a bit of fun I asked Catherine to dig deep and find her inner rock/punk/emo goddess. She eagerly applied much heavier makeup and changed into a simple black singlet. We swapped the acoustic guitar out for her six string electric.

I changed her position within the room to one where she was sitting on a ledge in front of textured glass panelling. There was a window to the back right behind this panel that backlit the subject. For this idea I wanted very harsh and stark lighting on the model. I closed all the window shutters in the rooms that very minimal natural light was available in front of the model.

I set up the reflector on the stand around 1.5m from the model and angled it towards her face from a height slightly below her eyeline. I was standing on a chair to get this angle and pose, as well as holding the speed light way out to my left so that it was very close to reflector for very stark light to be created.

I am very happy with the way in which the more direct and high key lighting, combined with that imposing stare and posture, created a polished image that communicates that this is a rock goddess not to be messed with.