Richard Weston – portrait session practical night

Richard Weston – was invited to the club to provide a presentation on portrait lighting and posing on a practical night. Richard’s business is photography based, Weston Digital Imaging. To help with this he brought along Annabel, a model from SoT.

As has been a recent trend for me, here are a few notes on the session with some added detail input from myself.

The starting point with any portrait photo is to consider gender, age and intended style. Each of these can influence the lighting and posing style . It can be useful to develop a scrapbook of images where the style is something you would like to emulate. This can be done using images torn out of magazines etc. If you are doing this with images from the internet, be aware of the copyright implications. This scrapbook of images can help you with ideas for themes, lighting and posing. It is also possible to share selected images  with the person you are photographing and anyone else involved in the session, such as an MUA ( make-up artist ). It can be worthwhile contacting local colleges as a source of MUAs on the cheap. You are providing them with an opportunity to practise their skills in a real situation. To be able to do this it is useful to have a portfolio that evidences the notion that they will get images for their own portfolio. Communicate with the sitter. Connect with them and try to evoke some emotion. Relax them both by your talking and the posing. If seated, try the chair sideways or back to front to give something to lean on. Richard doesn’t like using stools since the sitter can be more likely to slouch.

Lighting source / style will influence the lighting of the image. Normally the bigger the light source relative to the subject, the softer the light. The sun is a very big light source but it is also a long distance away. Daylight on an overcast day is much softer than direct sunlight. This is partly due to the diffusion of the light by the cloud but is mainly because the light has become a larger source.  The smaller the light source relative to the subject, the harder the light. The closer the light source the larger it is relative to the subject so the softer it gets. Lighting modifiers diffuse and shape the light. It is the mature of the transition from light to dark that determines if light is hard or soft. There are some light sources that behave slightly differently, such as Fresnel lenses lights. Hard light has a very short, sharp transition whereas a soft light has very gradual transition. The position of the light and angle of the light is important in determining how the image will come out.

Basic lighting modifiers need not be expensive. If your camera hotshoe flash did not come with a plastic diffuser ( Sto-Fen style ) you can make one from plastic a bottles. If you want to emulate a Gary Fong diffuser then a little more input is required. Another useful tool to have is a reflector. These can be made from polystyrene sheets or card. For a silver effect baking foil can be used. Gold coloured reflectors can be particularly useful in the wintery months given the coolness of the daylight.

Outdoors in sunshine it can be useful to use fill flash for portraits from the camera pop-up or a speed light ( hotshoe flash ).

Flash triggering options include using a sync cord, IR trigger, Radio trigger, and slave from pop-up. If using either a pop-up or speedlight as the trigger you will need to be able to make adjustments that counteract the pre-flash bursts. Use your camera’s base iso for optimal quality. Shutter speed – anything up to sync speed, if no significant ambient light and allow for trigger delay. If you are getting a black band on an image then your shutter speed is to high. If you are getting unwanted ghosting from the ambient, you shutter speed is too slow. Using test shots trial and error to determine the exposure value / aperture is possible with a simple lighting setup. For a more direct route a flash meter can be useful.

Raw / JPEG – if you keep resorting to raw to make corrections then you need to improve your  technique. There is a limit to what can be recovered and doing so compromises the final image quality.

White balance ( WB ) setting, auto-WB or Flash setting might well not give the result you need. Some cameras will use the modelling light and some cannot adjust quickly enough in auto WB. The flash preset on a camera is likely to be tuned to the camera makers own speedlights used without any modifiers. Use a WB target and correct it in post or create an in-camera custom WB.

With group sessions, whoever is taking the photograph is the only person taking a photograph. More than one person confuses the posing and the intended lighting will not be captured. Others can assist by holding reflectors etc.

Make use of what is around you for backdrops.

Art is about creativity, ‘Errors’ can still be useful images.

Richard uses Sagelight software in conjunction with Photoshop.  Free trial download is available and about $40 to buy. Sagelight gives options in auto-modes. Smart light option highlight and shadow recovery on JPEG. It straightens as in CNX2 etc as opposed to Adobe’s ‘trial and error’ way.  Filter effects.  Drop shadow border effect particularly interesting. The image that Richard processed in Sagelight was one that Mary took using just the ambient light and that of the modelling lights on the flash units. Richard emphasised that it is the end result that matters, not the equipment that is used to get there.

F8, over-exposed, some recovery in CNX2.
F11, better exposure. Right hand side of the image has the tell tale dark band of using a shutter speed that was slightly too fast for the radio trigger.


Photographer and educator based in North Staffordshire near to Stoke-on-Trent. Social photography - Portraits, Weddings and Events are specialisms although I used to do a lot of still life photography with which I was very successful.