At Web Photo School, we get a lot of people asking about how best to set up and shoot a simple portrait using a strobe light and a digital camera. Many people think that strobe lighting is confusing and hard to operate, but in fact, once you know your way around the controls, it can be very easy, particularly if you're shooting digitally and can review your exposure levels as you shoot them.

This lesson demonstrates how to configure your camera and lighting gear so that you can shoot professional-quality portraits quickly and easily.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • The shortcomings of built-in flash lighting
  • Mounting a flash bracket and flash to your camera
  • Attaching a softbox to your camera bracket
  • Comparisons of different types of lighting set-ups

Equipment Used:


  • Olympus E-1 digital camera
  • Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-54mm lens (28-108mm equivalent)
  • 128MB CompactFlash card

Lighting Equipment

To demonstrate a simple strobe lighting set-up, I decided to have my son Aidan, a very active 10-month old, "sit in" for a lesson portrait. As you'll soon see, it is often necessary to use strobe lighting to capture the unpredictable movements of an energetic child without blur, particularly in low light or indoor conditions.

For comparison purposes, as with most lessons, I took a shot in our living room the way most people would go about photographing someone: with the camera set to Program (automatic) and the built-in flash activated (figures 1 & 2).


The result reveals a typical built-in flash shot. Because the light from the flash is traveling in the same direction as the lens, it tends to flatten out the elements of the shot and it is difficult to get an accurate sense of shape or dimension. The reflections in the eyes are tiny and unnaturally centered, something you would never find in natural lighting conditions, and the shadows cast from the hand and head are sharp and equally unnatural-looking. Unfortunately, this type of result is unavoidable with this type of lighting.


Next, I decided to try shooting with just the available light to render a more natural look. I grabbed my Olympus E-1 digital camera and set the mode to Manual, set the mode to AF, set the to its lowest setting (100), set the to TIFF*, and set the White Balance to to match the color temperature of the sunlight coming through the window (5500 K).

(*The E-1 allows you to shoot jut as fast [3 frames per second] in TIFF or RAW modes as it does in and of the JPEG modes.)

Since I wanted a relatively short depth of field so that the background would be mostly out of focus, I set the aperture to f/3.5 and then first tried a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second and took a shot (figures 3 & 4).


As you can see from the result, the background is exposed at a decent level, but Aidan is rendered too dark. I had a couple of camera setting options I could choose from at this point to get a better exposure. I could increase the ISO number and that would give me a brighter exposure at the same aperture and shutter speed, but it would also give me a little more grain, or noise, and I really wanted the image to be as noise-free as possible. At this zoom setting on the lens, I couldn't make the aperture any wider that f/3.5, so I was forced to adjust my shutter speed.

I set the exposure meter of the camera to Spot, aimed the camera so that Aidan's forehead (a neutrally toned are) appeared in the very center of the frame, pressed the shutter button halfway down, and adjusted the shutter speed until the Exposure Level Indicator revealed a balanced reading at 1/30th of a second*.

(*To learn more about Spot metering and Exposure Level Indicators, check out the lessons on this site entitled, "Getting The Best Possible Exposures And Then Some" and "How To Use The Spot Metering Mode".)

I waited for Aidan to be somewhat still because of the slow shutter speed and took a shot (figures 5 & 6).



Even in the Playback mode of the camera, I could tell that the result was blurred. This meant that I needed to create some daylight-balanced light, and the easiest way I could do that was with a flash, or strobe unit. The E-1 does not come with a built-in flash (thankfully), but it does have an external flash connector that allows you to sync up a strobe and a hot shoe to accommodate shoe mount flashes.


In this situation, I decided to use a Quantum Qflash strobe, as it would allow me modify the light with a small soft box, as you will soon see. Quantum makes a Turbo Compact battery that can power both your strobe and your camera*, and it mounts directly into the tripod socket of the camera. Once this was attached, I mounted a Quantum flash bracket to the tripod socket of the battery (figures 7 & 8). (*At the time of this lesson, I did not have the cable that enables the Quantum battery to power the camera, so I just used the Olympus Lithium-Ion battery.)


Next I attached a 1/4-inch brass stud to the top of the handle mount to accommodate the strobe head, and mounted a Photoflex Heavy Duty Swivel to the base of the strobe head so that I could adjust the angle of the strobe head (figures 9 & 10).



Once the Heavy Duty Swivel was connected to the strobe head, I connected the other end to the flash bracket and plugged the flash head power cable into the battery pack (figures 11 & 12).



To sync the flash up with the camera, I connected a PC-to-Household sync cord to both the side of the strobe head and to the external flash connector of the camera (figures 13 & 14).



This is how the set-up looked from both the front and back once everything was configured (figures 15 & 16).



You can set the Qflash to several different flash firing modes, including Auto, TTL (which requires an adaptor for your specific camera), Strobo, and Manual. Here, I set the mode to Manual so that I could adjust the power manually and review the results in the camera.


To do this, first press the MODE button and push an arrow key until "Man" (Manual) appears in the control panel. When you want to adjust the level of power the strobe puts out, press the SET button and then use the arrow keys to increase or reduce the power. The power on this strobe head (150-watt seconds) ranges from 1/1 (full power) to 1/64 (lowest power) and 17 other settings in between (figure 17).

Figure 17


Once the strobe was set up, I took a few test shots to determine how much power I needed to expose Aidan's face properly and finally arrived at the 1/16th mark. I kept the aperture setting at f/3.5 to maintain a limited depth of field, and dialed the shutter speed back up to 1/100th of a second to expose for the background.

Once I was able to get Aidan to look in the camera, I took a shot (figures 18, 19 & 20).


The lighting in this result has improved substantially. By simply having the strobe positioned a foot away from the lens, you can't help but improve the lighting of the shot. It's enough distance to rake the light across the features of your subject so that you can get a better sense of dimension.

But since the strobe head is still a relatively small light source (although significantly larger than the built-in flash), there are still smallish reflections in the eyes and a sharp shadow cast from the chin. To increase the reflections in the eyes and soften the shadow, I needed to add a soft box to the strobe.

Figure 20

Depending on the flash you use, you will most likely be able to add a soft box to create a more natural "window light" effect to your subjects.

Figure 21

To do this with the Qflash, first remove the flash reflector (figure 21).

Here, I took an Extra Small Photoflex LiteDome and inserted the 4 rods of the soft box into a Strobe Connector designed to fit onto the Qflash head. Once the rods were secured into Strobe Connector, I fastened the Strobe Connector to the strobe head (figures 22,23 & 24).

Figure 22


This is how the set-up looked from both the front and back once everything was configured (figures 25 & 26).



Once I had the soft box attached, I increased the strobe to 1/8 power to compensate for a stop of light the soft box would absorb and took a bunch of shots (figures 27 & 28).



Toward the end of these shots, Aidan was ready to get out of his chair, but I managed to capture a few good expressions before he let me know the shoot was over. Here are a couple of my favorites (figures 29 & 30).



As you can see from the results, the soft box has made a tremendous difference in the feel of the shot. The square catch-lights in his eyes look very much like window light reflections and the shadows cast from the chin are much softer than with the straight flash head. The soft box has rendered the eyes a little brighter, revealing the eye color and the exposure is balanced well against the background.

Now let's look at the results side by side to compare (figure 31).


Figure 31


Remember that lighting is a critical component of any photograph. Strobe lighting with soft boxes work beautifully, but there are also other, more inexpensive ways to control your lighting as well. There are many other examples of lighting set-ups throughout this site.

To see how to control sunlight using light reflectors, check out the other living room portrait lesson of Aidan on this site entitled, "Taking Professional Portraits Of Your Child At Home", located in the Portrait section.

Written and photographed by Ben Clay, contributing instructor for Modeled by Aidan Clay, by permission of his parents.


Equipment Used:


  • Olympus E-1 digital camera
  • Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-54mm lens (28-108mm equivalent)
  • 128MB CompactFlash card

Lighting Equipment

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