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Traditional portraiture photography has long included umbrellas as light sources. These simple, effective reflectors significantly improve the quality and size of light coming from an 8" reflector.

Umbrellas are a great, economical lighting solution for getting professionall lit portraits. In this lesson we will demonstrate the Photoflex First Studio™ Portrait Kit, which uses two high-quality white umbrellas to capture and spread the light for our portrait subject.

We will also demonstrate how umbrellas work, and how to correctly position them to get maximum effectiveness.

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

Topics Covered:

  • Olympus E1 camera settings
  • Tips for using umbrellas
  • Setting the main light umbrella
  • Introducing the fill light umbrella

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


Years ago, photographers discovered that adding an umbrella to a light source would increase the size of the reflected light coming from their light source, greatly improving the quality of light for portraiture. The increased size gave them a broader, less contrasty light for portraiture. Remember, "the larger the light, the softer the light". And a larger light source illuminates more of the subject producing a less contrasty, more natural looking result.


Figure 1

Photoflex has designed the First Studio Portrait Kit to enable you to achieve exceptional portrait results in quick and easy set-ups at an extremely affordable price (figure 1).

The Photoflex FirstStar™ lights in the portrait kit have 8-inch reflectors, which are much more suitable to umbrellas, than the 12-inch reflectors on other manufacturers' kits.

Figure 2

The FirstStar comes with a 250 watt halogen bulb. This is the most powerful light bulb found in these types of reflector lighting kits on the photo market. The FirstStar also includes the heavy duty, easy to adjust handle found on its more expensive, higher end, Starlite big brother (figure 2).


The white interior umbrella in the First Studio Portrait Kit is the highest quality white photographic umbrella in the world, so it reflects the highest amount of light onto your subject. No sense in developing the most poweful light source and then wasting it by having the light go through the umbrella.

All these elements combine to produce an unparalleled, affordable portrait light source that is 200% to 300% more powerful that the the light sources produced by the competition. In short, even though the Photoflex First Studio Portrait Kit is comparable in price to other manufacturer's portraits, it ain't cheap!



Olympus E1 Camera Settings

I affixed an Olympus 14-54mm Zoom Smart Lens to an Olympus E-1 digital camera, mounted it to a tripod set to eye level and filled the frame with the background.

I then programmed the camera as follows:

Since I wanted the background to be slightly out of focus, I set the aperture to f/2.0 to create a limited depth of field and set the shutter speed to 1/80th of a second to compensate for exposure.



A Closer Look at Manual Focus

There are three focus modes in the E-1: Single Auto-Focus (S), Continuous Auto-Focus (C) and Manual Focus (MF). While either of the Auto-Focusing modes allow you to lock down your focus quickly, Manual Focusing enables you to be very precise with your point of focus.


Figure 3

To select Manual Focus mode, simply turn the Focus switch on the side of the camera to MF (Manual Focus) (figure 3).

Figure 4

Once the Focus mode is set to MF, you can focus in on your subject by turning outer focus ring of the lens (figure 4).

The direction of the focusing ring can be set in the menu, allowing you focus in the direction you choose.

Note: when the Focus mode is set to either of the Auto-Focus modes (S or C), the outer focus ring is disabled.


A Closer Look at Exposure

In order to control your depth of field and your exposure, you need to manually adjust your aperture and shutter speeds.


Figure 5

To be able to manually adjust your aperture and shutter speed settings, first turn the Mode Dial to M (figure 5).

You will notice two sets of numbers displayed next to each other in the control panel. The first indicates your shutter speed and the second indicates your aperture setting.


The most important thing to remember is that your aperture setting controls your depth of field. The smaller your aperture number, or “f/stop”, the shorter your depth of field will be. You can adjust the aperture number by turning the Sub dial until the desired aperture appears in the control panel (figures 6 & 7).



The first group of numbers displays your current shutter speed. Once the aperture is set, the shutter speed can be adjusted to accommodate the proper exposure. You can adjust your shutter speed by turning the Main dial until the desired shutter speed appears in the control panel (figure 2).

One of the nice things about digital cameras is that if you take a shot and it's either too light or too dark, you can immediately make adjustments to the shutter speed until you render the proper exposure. Likewise, if you want to maintain a certain shutter speed, you can make adjustments to the aperture to render the proper exposure.



With the camera set up and ready, we can set up our portrait lighting.

Tips for Using Umbrellas

Let's take a look on using umbrellas. Umbrellas do take a little bit of understanding so that they are aimed at the subject properly and efficiently.

First you must attach the umbrella to the Photoflex FirstStar reflector correctly.


The reflector should not be positioned too far into the umbrella. If it is, the entire umbrella reflective surface will not be used, which will in effect make it a smaller reflector (figure 8).

Figure 8

Figure 9

If the reflector light is positioned too far from the umbrella, light will "spill out" around the edges (figure 9). This will waste the light, and reduce the effective power of your light source.

Place the umbrella on the reflector and position it so that the light from the reflector is just inside the rim of the umbrella and you can see the edge of the light all the way around the circumference of the umbrella (figure 10).

Figure 10


Now we want to show you how to aim your umbrella so that your subject is in the center of the light area created by the umbrella. The shaft of the umbrella acts as your guide. Since is in the center, you should use it as a pointer to place the umbrella reflector in the middle of the subject that you are trying to light.


Figures 11 and 12 shows the umbrella shaft pointing over the model's head, which would be too high for the portrait that we are trying to take. Figure 13 shows the resulting picture. Notice how the shadow under the nose is long and falls over the side of her mouth.

Figure 11

In this set up example, we have the umbrella aimed to low to the model. Figures 14, 15, and 16 show the set up and results.

Figure 14


We are not saying that the above two portraits are bad, in fact some photographers do this intentionally to accomplish what they call "feathering the light" from the umbrella.

We just want to show you the basic position that you should start with and practice, so you will understand how an umbrella portrait light set-up basically works before you try other light modification techniques.


In this set-up example, the umbrella shaft is aimed at about the model's nose so that she will be in the center of the reflector, and the light from the reflector will hit the top of her head and her body.

Figures 17, 18, and 19 show you the set up and the results.

Figure 17


This lighting progression can be more easily understood when compared to the final result. The left result in the comparison below is the umbrella set up too high, the center result is the umbrella set up too low, the right result is the umbrella positioned in the middle, which is where we want it for this lesson (figure 20).


Figure 20


This brings up the question,"How high do I place the umbrella aiming down on my subject?".

In photography, there are no hard and fast rules. Lighting rules are more like lighting guidelines. Proper lighting is determined by the photographer's taste or the subject's requirements.

Setting the Main Light

We chose what appears to be about a 30 degree downward tilt because we wanted some light to hit the model's hair, and the shadow from the nose and chin to look as if they were produced by a window slightly above the model.

You may choose to raise the umbrella higher and point it down at a 45 degree angle, or you can bring it lower so that the umbrella is pointing directly at the model from the side.

In fact, when shooting, you can and should try these different light variations to see the results. This is what makes lighting fun and exciting. Slight changes can make dramatic results in the portrait and lead you to new things.


Another frequently asked question is, "How far away from the subject should the umbrella be placed?"

Once again, there is no exact answer to this question. However, placing the "main" light farther from the model will decrease the size of your light source, giving you a smaller illumination area, and more contrasty shadows.

Placing the "main" closer will increase the "hot spots" (areas of brighter illumination caused by non-diffused lights) on the model usually found on the tip of the nose, right above the eyebrow and on the cheek closest to the light.

Try these variations out so you can see these results for yourself and determine what you like in your results.

Figure 21


For this lesson, we placed the umbrella "main" about 3 feet away from the model so that we would have an illumination area from her waist up.

Figures 22 and 23 show you the set up and results of the "main" light only.



Introducing the Fill Light Umbrella

Next, we set up our second umbrella in the Portrait Kit and positioned it to the left of our model the same way we put up the "main light" or our first umbrella. How close you put the "fill" to your subject is up to you, again depending upon your artistic taste. If you place the fill at the same distance from the model that the main is placed, you will get very little shadowing and a lighting ratio that is commonly called 1 to 1 (figures 24 and 25). The farther away you move the "fill" from the model, the darker the shadows on the face get.

For this lsson we put the "fill" about 4 feet away from the model so that we would get less light on the left side of the model's face giving us soft shadows along the nose and cheek.

We took the "main" light down for the purpose of this lesson demonstration. During a portrait shoot we would never do that, we would just turn it off so we could "see" what the fill looks like on our model.


In the results you can see where the "fill" light is hitting the model and determine if the results are what you want (figure 26). It's important to turn the main light off, especially when you are just starting out shooting portraits, as it is much easier to see the effects of one light at a time.

Figure 26


The images below show you the model with the main light only (figure 27) and the results when we added the fill light to the set (figure 28).



Now that you have the Photoflex First Studio Portrait Kit set up where you like the results, feel free to change the model's poses, and shoot a variety of photos from which to choose. The following results show that you can either move your tripod closer to the model to focus more on her face or zoom in your camera's lens (figures 29 - 32).

The broad light source created by the umbrellas give you the ability to take portraits in this set up from the waist up. So take advantage of that and try different croppings on your subject.


Figure 33

After you have finished a shoot, it's a good idea to take a photo of the lighting set up that you ended up with (figure 33). Then, make a small print of the set up and put it next to a results shot in a file, so you can see the set up and the results together in the future. This way when you want to repeat a specific portrait, you will have a photo of how to set up the lights to begin your shoot. Then, you can get the lights set up prior to your client, subject, or model coming to the set.

When the portrait subject arrives, you can fine tune the lighting by turning on the "main" light first, then turn it off and turn on the "fill" light next, to get ready for your first shot.

In this way, your subject will not have to sit and wait while you set up your lights, and will be fresh when you start shooting.

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.

Recommended Links

  • To learn more about Photoflex equipment, go to www.photoflex.com
  • For more tips and techniques on lighting and cameras, visit www.webphotoschool.com and sign
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