Behind the Scenes Tour

caroline-2016-uno-grad-8x10Here’s a behind the scenes post on how I created my sister’s recent graduation picture.

I’m a minimalist by nature, so I don’t like a lot of overhead or extra gear. Plus, all that stuff is expensive.

A lot of photographers getting started believe that if they only had more gear their pictures would be better.

Not true.

Here’s how I did it with minimal gear (most of which was borrowed).

And I’ll walk you through why I chose the gear I did use–plus what you can do to substitute with the gear you already have.


Canon 5D2 with a 135mm f/2
The important thing here is I used a DSLR and a lens that had a big aperture (small f stop). What’s not important is which exact camera / lens combo you use. You can do this with a $300 entry level DLSL and $100 50mm f/1.8 lens.

AlienBees B800 Strobe (with stand and sync cord)
You can buy all of that new for around $300. Or you could rent the strobe for a week for under $40. I borrowed the one I used ($0).

Light Modifier
What you choose here all depends on what you want to do (or what you have access to). This piece of gear is more about style. On this shoot I used a reflector with a gold tent because I wanted a warmer feel. And by using the reflector I made the ‘light source’ bigger. A bigger source = softer light, which is usually more flattering in portraits. Again, this is a season-to-taste kind of thing.

Smallish Clamp Light from HomeDepot
These cost are around $10. I prefer to use these as background lights (like I did in this tutorial). I could theoretically use it as my main light (instead of the AlienBees B800, but they’re bright. If you do that, you’ve got your model sitting there staring into a really bright light. Not so cool.

Pro Tip:

Using a long (telephoto) lens in portraits produces what’s called compression. That’s generally more flattering for portraits. It’s one of those subtler things where you can tell something’s different, but can’t always spot it until you know what to look for.


img_7912We picked my Mom’s front room, because she has a blackout shade on her front window. It conveniently looks a lot like a studio backdrop.

Here’s a picture of that, along with the clamp-on light I used to light it up my ‘backdrop.’ (And that’s tiny chair I only used to clamp the light to.)

Pro Tip:

If your background light centers on where your subject’s head will go, there will be a slight vignette. That draws the viewers eye to the subject’s face. You can manipulate it by moving the light closer or farther away.

Using Off-Camera Light

img_7915Most people are good up until this point. Off-camera (strobe) lighting tends to be intimidating. There are a few basic rules, but they don’t take long to learn.

Basic rules:

1. Shoot in manual. If that’s new territory, here’s a tutorial.

2. Keep your shutter somewhere under 1/200. This can vary based on camera. If you’ve got it too high (like 1/500), you’ll see black bars in your picture.

3. Use your shutter to control your ambient light. (In this picture, the room light and my clamp light are ambient light.)

4. Use your aperture to control how much strobe light gets in. Aperture also affects ambient light, so you’ve got a moving target here.

Start by getting a good balance of aperture and shutter without the strobe, and then turn the strobe on, take a shot, see if you need to adjust it down or up. Make your tweaks and keep testing until you’ve got it.

img_7916When I’m shooting with strobe I like it to be on as low a power as possible.

The reason for this is that it takes less time for it to recharge itself between shots. You don’t want to have to stop and wait a few second between every single shot (like when it’s on full power).

You’ll also find that using a strobe on a high power can help you black out the entire room, even when it’s fairly bright. Strobes bring a lot of variability into the equation.

Pro Tip:

All of this strobe talk applies to hot-shoe flashes, too. Hot shoes aren’t always cheaper, but they’re more portable. Use what you’ve got.

Camera Settings

img_7917So here’s how I actually did it. I used a big aperture (f/2) so that I made sure to have plenty of separation (blurring) between my subject and my background.

You have to be careful with a big aperture, because your depth of field (the part in focus) is very narrow.

So far I hadn’t talked about ISO. Mine was set to 100 here. Generally lower is better. But as cameras get better and better, you can push it higher without loosing too much quality. ISO is another way you can tweak your exposure.

Here’s an example of when I changed my ISO on this shoot. I wanted a wide open aperture, but my shutter is already as fast as it can go. In this case I was getting too much light into my exposure. I normally keep my ISO around 400. So I dropped it down to 100 which brought my whole exposure down by two full stops (a stop is halving).

Using Stand-Ins

Stand-ins are for getting your light right before you model or subject steps into the scene. If you’ve got kids (and if they’re hams), then use them. That’s what I did.


Really big smile”


“Somebody make sure she doesn’t fall off of that little chair”


 Caroline, bachelor of Education, University of New Orleans


I am taking bookings for portraits and events. Contact me here to book.

AND NEW: I’m now taking a new kind of client. If you’re a photographer and you’re trying to get to the next level, but you’re stuck, I’m offering two new courses:

• Course 1: I’m on a budget: What gear do I need to get professional images?
• Course 2: How to use off-camera lighting on location?

Pin It on Pinterest

Thanks for commenting!

Would you do me a favor? Would you mind share this article on social media? It sounds like a little thing, but that's the primary way I'm able to connect with new people. Thanks in advance! Joe