On location, in a studio, or on your dining room table -- these light kits
will do the trick.
What happens to your portraiture when you upgrade to off-camera lighting with umbrellas or softboxes? That's easy. It's the difference between amateur and pro-quality results. Your subjects' faces and figures take on a sculpted three-dimensionality; their skin a softer, less-contrasty look; and detail like eyelashes, hair, and the texture of skin comes to life. If you're striving for better portraits and aren't using modified off-camera lighting, you're setting yourself up for failure.
What to Look For
Monoblocks: For lights, monoblocks are hard to beat. Also called monolights, their capacitor, controls, and bulb are all in one unit that's usually less expensive, less heavy, and more convenient with fewer cords than the alternative: heads with stand-alone power packs, which will clutter the floor of your studio.
Power Options: In deciding how much power to get, ask yourself what type of portraits you'll be making. Mainly single individuals or couples? You won't need much power to get adequate depth of field for front-to-back sharpness -- 400 watt seconds will probably suffice. For larger groups, invest in 1200 or 1600 Ws units. They will let you shoot at smaller apertures while bouncing the light off a studio ceiling, so all in the group will be evenly lit and sharp from front to back.
Modifiers: When it comes to softboxes and umbrellas, many studio portraitists prefer main and fill lights to be outfitted with modifiers of different sizes, shapes and/or reflective qualities. (So why do all prepackaged "portrait" kits come with two identical softboxes?) The strategy lets shooters light the face more brightly, and more tightly, so it's the most eye-catching element in the composition -- very useful when you're battling distracting wardrobe or cluttered backgrounds.
Also, if you plan to shoot primarily individuals or couples, consider a strip light such as Chimera's Pro Plus ($175 and up) for your main light. It's a narrow rectangular softbox. Used vertically and close in, a strip light is especially useful in lighting a single individual, with its output quickly diminishing, often not reaching the (cluttered) background at all.
We've picked the $303 (street) Sunpak Platinum Plus 500 lights (A) for their robust, metal housing and full line of accessories (with a variety of softboxes, shown). Our reflector is the Lastolite Tri-Grip (B) ($64, street), chosen for its ability to be aimed singlehandedly. Our backdrop? Adorama's Bella Drape (C) has ample size, and attractive designs and pricing ($100, street). Finally: a Savage posing table (D) ($90, street) for your subject to lean on.
Home Studio Tips
Portraits of individuals or couples are typically made with the main light above the camera's lens, aiming down at about a 45-degree angle slightly to the left or right of the camera position. The fill light is often a larger, softer light source positioned slightly behind the camera with output typically 1 to 3 stops less bright.
When you first set up your new lights, begin by practicing on a willing subject. It's best if your "guinea pig" has low expectations for the project, otherwise the pressure's on you, the photographer, to produce a masterpiece portrait.
A system to get portrait novices up and running is the new Westcott Basics (no price as of press time). Yes, a prepackaged kit, it includes a large floor mat that you spread out below you on the studio floor. Pictures and text on the mat show where to place subject, background, lights, and reflector(s) to best effect.