Portrait Lighting With LEDs

With an Astra Bi-Color LED light as the key, I shifted the light’s output to tungsten while maintaining a daylight white balance in the camera. The result is a warm, glowing sunset look—and it was as easy as turning a dial.

One of the biggest changes to occur in lighting technology in recent years has been the introduction—and rapid technological advancement—of light-emitting diodes. Better known as LEDs, these compact, bright and energy-efficient lights have all but entirely replaced incandescent and compact fluorescent sources for home use, and that’s helped to drive costs down and make LED lights for photo and video production more viable than ever.

While the prices of these lights continue to fall, their output continues to rise. With such constant improvement, LED lights are more viable for professional use than ever—and keep getting better by the day.

Here are some benefits of LED lighting, as well as how to use LEDs for portraits whether you’re working in studio or out.

A Long List Of Pros

One of the primary benefits of utilizing LED light sources is their relatively low power consumption, particularly in relation to the lumens they deliver. Because they’re so energy efficient, LEDs can even be powered by batteries—making them absolutely ideal for working in remote locations, out of the studio and far from access to electricity. Talk about freeing! Forget tripping over cables, much less running yards of extensions across a studio or other location. With a battery-powered LED, you can power a light on a stand with no cords in sight.

On the left is an image shot outdoors with the subject in open shade and slightly underexposed. This ensured the background wouldn’t be blown out and enables the LED source as key light to provide more of a dramatic, harder-edged light source than soft, indirect daylight alone.

They’re also cool lights that are cool to the touch. Unlike “hot lights” which, as the name suggests, get too hot to handle (literally), LEDs don’t get that hot. That means fewer burned fingers and a much easier time adjusting lights while they’re on, no gloves required. It’s just a convenience, but that’s not nothing.

One particular way that I like to use battery-powered LED light sources on location is to augment available natural light to give it a bit more polish, a little more production value. When working next to a big, bright window, for instance, I sometimes position the LED source directly between the window and the subject to add a bit of specular quality to the scene, enhancing edges and adding a bit of kick without interfering with the overall soft look of the natural light. Dial up the intensity of that LED to underexpose the window a bit, and suddenly the LED takes over, and the window becomes the fill. Lots of options from the same light in the same place, and at all times what you see is what you get. That’s a great benefit of using LEDs.

This technique works well outdoors, too. With the subject placed in open shade and a slightly brighter background, the illumination from reflected natural light alone can be sufficient to make a great portrait. But by slightly under-exposing the existing light to bring down the background tones and increase the richness of the scene, you can then add an LED key light to provide the correct subject illumination to balance with the ambience, while simultaneously cleaning up and adding direction and punch to the overall look of the lighting. In short, an LED key balanced with natural light can provide the best of both worlds—the look and feel of natural light with the control of a studio light. And because it’s battery powered, the LED can provide this practically anywhere.

LED lighting works well in studio settings, too. In this case, the daylight-balanced key light is contrasted by a warmer-shifted hairlight—both provided by LEDs.

Another benefit of working with LEDs is that, unlike strobes, they’re ideal for shooting video, too. That makes these lights practically a no-brainer for anyone doing double duty as a photographer and videographer. When shopping for LEDs for video use, make sure to choose lights with silent cooling fans—or no fans at all. Audio engineers don’t love lights with loud fans.

I like taking my Astra LitePanels on location when I know I’m going to be moving around and shooting a lot of portraits with a short setup time in various types of ambient lights. I’ll carry along a ScrimJim diffuser to soften the light, which has the added benefit of simplifying the shadows from the multi-diode LED. (You see, a panel like that with dozens of little individual LEDs produces a shadow that has dozens of little edges. It’s one reason some folks struggle with lighting with LEDs, but as long as you can bounce the light or diffuse it via a softbox or silk, you not only make the light more flattering for portraits but also eliminate those extra edge shadows.) As I move from window light to interiors illuminated by tungsten, I can continue to balance the ambience with my LED because it’s bi-color—meaning the same fixture has both tungsten and daylight-balanced LEDs, which can be switched fully to either end of that spectrum or, in the case of the Astras, positioned anywhere in between. You can also have a primarily daylight balance and then simply turn the dial toward tungsten a little bit as a way to add a hint of warmth if you’re, say, shooting a portrait in otherwise cool open shade. This bi-color approach is a great way to work in daylight, tungsten and fluorescent ambient light quickly and easy: Just dial in the right color and go. (Some lights, like the Arri SkyPanels, even let you dial in a specific color temperature on demand. How cool is that?)

The Astra Bi-Focus is a daylight-balanced LED that uses two sets of lenses to shift the beam of the light from spotlight to floodlight.

The bi-color capabilities of many LED sources makes them immensely practical, and it enables funky special effects, too. If you want to make a daylight background bright blue, for instance, you can simply set your camera to tungsten white balance, turn the LED’s dial to tungsten, and make a neutral key light while the background shifts blue. The reverse works, too. Plus, you can deliberately shift the light to a tungsten balance while still setting the camera to daylight. The resulting orange key light is a great way to fake the warm glow of setting sunlight. Yes, you can do this with strobes and gels too. But with an LED, it’s as simple as turning a dial—and what you see is what you’ll get.

I’ll sometimes use the tungsten-balanced LED light as a hair light placed above and behind a portrait subject, just to add a bit of warmth and interest to an otherwise straightforward shot. My image of Jessica in the studio, for instance, uses an Astra LED key set to daylight balance, with an Astra hair light shifted to tungsten.

So What’s The Catch?

The catch with LEDs is that, great as they are, they simply are no match for strobes when it comes to output. I can get ISO 100 and f/8 from a strobe at 15 feet all day long, but good luck getting an LED light to produce that kind of punch. The shot of Jessica in studio above, for instance, is at ISO 2000 and 1/160 at f/2.8. Likewise, when working outdoors with these lights, you don’t typically have the same kind of leeway you do when using a strobe. You’re not likely to get most consumer LEDs to match sunlight for intensity when working outdoors, which simply limits options for lighting versatility a bit. The lights typically have to be placed close or subjects positioned in shade in order to use some LEDs outdoors. And every modifier you put between the source and the subject cuts down that output even further.

But the good news is that’s changing, and every new generation of LED lights is higher-output than the last. The 6X version of the Astra panel is six times brighter than the first-generation light that came out just a few years ago. Better still, this fundamental difference between LEDs and strobes can also be a benefit. Here’s how.

An LED panel positioned on a stand in a studio environment, powered by a battery pack, means no cables or cords for subjects to trip on.

When I shoot a portrait with a strobe, one side effect—usually considered a good one—is that the shots are tack sharp. The strobe freezes any small movements of the subject or my camera, and the skin in all of its glory is perfectly sharp. But when you’re using a constant light and working at an exposure in the neighborhood of, say, 1/125th at f/4, you’re going to make portraits that fundamentally are not as tack-sharp as strobe-lit images. And while sharpness is good, too much sharpness never made a portrait subject smile.

Think about it: for generations, portrait photographers have been looking for ways to soften skin, take the edge off just some of those pesky little details like pores, blemishes and wrinkles. And if a little bit of camera movement can take that edge off, that’s frequently a good thing. As much as I love the sharpness I get from strobes, I also appreciate the ability to make a slightly softer, less glaringly harsh portrait when I use LED lights. They certainly can be made sharp, but they don’t always have to be. And that combination of the comparatively low output with a shutter speed in the reasonable range of 1/125th will make sharp portraits that don’t have to be overly so.

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