I love the use of off camera lighting in my portrait work because I don’t have to compete with the sun, I can have greater control of my lighting, and above all else, I believe it allows me to offer something unique and different to my clients. Plus, I enjoy it. In a growing market of photographers with a low barrier to entry, I see a lot of  work being produced with the same back lighting and the same click of a purchased photoshop action.  In short, it allows me to differentiate. I’ve been utilizing off camera flash in my work for the last 18 months, and it’s been a wild ride that has changed stylistically over that time frame. In my work as a denver commercial photographer as well as my personal work, I tend inject more contrast and an “edgy” feel when compared to my bridal work. Lately, I’ve been addicted to using my Paul C Buff beauty dish to get that “punchy” feel. But as I peruse through a portrait session I did a while ago using a Paul C Buff Octabank, I realize what a truly beautiful and versatile light source it really is.  There are a myriad of different ways I have used this light modifier for photography portraits. It’s allowed me to get some truly soft, painterly looking transitions in my shadows to a more edgy, contrasty look. For me, it’s the swiss army knife of my lighting bag.

With this colorado senior photography session sprinkled with hints of semi-post-apocolyptic flavoring, I wanted to demonstrate how I used this Octabank in an almost completely feathered nature. By feathering, I mean pointing the light modifier almost completely away from the subject, so only the softest light hits the subject. You see, at the center of each light modifier, you have a hot spot. If you point it directly at your subject, the hot spot will appear as just that…a hotter, more contrasty light source.  You can fix this by purchasing a double baffled modifier (one that has two diffusion sources spread out inside the box), but I’m cheap. By feathering your light so only the rim of light falls on your subject, you get the smoother light source you intended to purchase as well as some great control of shadows.

Technical Notes for this shoot. 

Camera stuff  - 5Dmk2 | Lens 24-70L (version 1, since switched to 24 1.4LII |

Lighting: Alien Bees 800 | Paul C Buff Large Octabank | Vagabond Mini II |

Wireless Trigger: Promaster  *Note* I’ve wanted to switch to Pocket Wizards for a long time, because, well, they are the industry standard and can fire from insane distances away. But to be honest, they are over $400 to get started for a set. These cheap Promasters are about $50-$100 and over 2 years, I have never had a misfire. I’ve even left them in a park overnight, had a downpour, went back and found them soaked, and they worked just fine the next day. I don’t need the High Speed Sync for my Alien Bees, and never shoot from over 50 feet away.  One day I’ll definitely upgrade to some Pocket Wizards, but for now, that $350 is 7 months of diapers for my kid. Priorities… even if it makes me appear less “professional.”

Let’s take a look at the first set up.  Right or wrong, this is my thought process. I took the talent to an area that had the environment I wanted that happened to be in complete shade. But since I was going to light it with off camera flash, that didn’t matter. I metered the scene and underexposed it by about a stop to a stop and a half to bring about that moody feel I was going for and to separate the subject out from the background that much more. Once the talent was in place, I started to slowly introduce my light. I know a light meter would be quicker, but once again, those are  10 months of diapers. (I find as a new parent, I convert all currency to the monetary value of diapers. For non parents, that’s about $300-500 bucks. Inevitably, this leads me to wonder how many diapers I’d charge for a sitting fee…I’m sick.).  With my lights to 1/8 power, I set up my light camera right and slightly above my subject angled slightly down to help create slightly more dramatic shadows.


ISO 100,F8, 1/200

How to light senior portraits

Here’s the lighting diagram, courtesy of Strobox. Notice how only the edges of the light modifier are actually hitting the subject.

To help the session move quickly, I usually do two or three shots with the same lighting set up. Here is another variation with the same lighting. I turned him a little more towards the light source, which resulted in less of his face falling on shadows.

EXIF: ISO 100, F8, 1/200

How to light senior portraits stebner photography

Set Up 2

The next series is all done within about 5 minutes of each other. We had waited about 20 minutes at this location (an old 1800′s sugar beat mill) for the setting sun to cast light through the windows on the lookout tower above right. We didn’t have much time to waste, so we set up our lights and the talent did a great job with everything I had asked of him.

About the light set up: I kept the light as close to the subject as possible while keeping it just out of frame. In general, the closer your light source is to your subject, the softer the light source appears. The further away your light source (i.e., the sun), the more contrasty and harsher the transition of shadows becomes.  The light was coming from camera left. Normally, I would have the light coming from a more natural direction (in this case, camera right to match the direction of the sun), but I wanted a more surrealistic scene with competing light sources, so I opted to place the box against the direction of the sun, and use the sun as a filler. The same feathering technique was used.

Exif Data again ISO 100, F8, 1/200. We shot everything within 5 minutes, so there wasn’t too much of a change.


How to light senior portraits stebner photographyHow to light senior portraits stebner photography

A few more subtle variations with this lighting set up. The only changes were the position of the model, and the height of the modifier.

How to light senior portraits stebner photographyHow to light senior portraits stebner photographyHow to light senior portraits stebner photography

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll answer them within a day or so. Thanks for reading, be blessed!