My Shallow Depth of Field Portraits: Lighting Set Up

In Kit, Photography by Glyn14 Comments

Recently whilst working on my 3945 Portraits Project, in addition to the 3/4 length portraits, I’ve been including close-up portraits of Veterans that I’ve been photographing.

These I feel add much more intimacy to the project and because of the way they are photographed and edited really draw you in…

Sharpness, Contrast and Light

As photographers we know that the areas we are naturally drawn to when first looking at a picture are those that contain the most contrast, sharpness and light. When it comes to portraits they can also be the areas that kind of ‘stand out’ and appear to come forward of the screen / paper.


For these close-ups I want the eyes to be the focus. Of course with a portrait you’re going to want to ensure the eyes are sharp, but for these portraits I’m doing, it’s the only part I want to be totally 100% in focus. To achieve this I am photographing with a wide open aperture of around f/2.0 – f/2.8

Shooting with such a wide open Aperture could potentially make focusing on the eye a little challenging but this is made easy using Focus Peaking:

  • Focus peaking is a tool to assist you while manual focusing. It highlights the areas with a colour that are in focus so you are able to quickly focus the camera and not miss crucial shots.
But what about Shutter Speed etc?

Ok so before I take these close-up portraits I always do the 3/4 length portraits like the one you can see below. I do this because it allows us to settle into the shoot and for the subject to become more comfortable with what we’re doing. If I was to go straight in with the close-up it just wouldn’t work…it’s too intense, too close, too soon.

Now my settings when taking these 3/4 length portraits is generally:

  • Aperture: f/11.0
  • Shutter Speed: 1/125sec
  • ISO: 100
  • Manual Mode

Having taken the 3/4 length portrait I then change the set up for the close-up portrait which works great because we’ve chatted more and whoever I’m photographing is a heck of a lot more at ease and comfortable…which is what the experience of being photographed should be like right?

Now I don’t actually have a BTS (Behind the Scenes) picture showing the set up when on location but here’s the set up from when I’m practicing (as I do regularly) in my garage:

Looking at the set up above here’s what we have:

The Octa is positioned as it would ordinarily be for the portraits I am doing to give the Rembrandt style of lighting where one side of the face is lit (the side nearest the modifier) and the other side is in shadow except for a pattern of light (triangular shaped under the eye).


Before going over the position of the lighting and the flag, I’ll just mention about camera and flash settings…

Let’s say I open the Aperture to a nice wide open f/2.8. Doing this will now change the lighting quite a bit as it has now changed the exposure by 4 stops of light (f/2.8 to f/4 = 1 Stop; f/2.8 to f/5.6 = 2 Stops; f/2.8 to f/8.0 = 3 Stops; f/2.8 to f/11.0 = 4 Stops)

To compensate for this change and to keep the same exposure as the 3/4 length shots I need to change the shutter speed by 4 stops, so 1/125 sec to 1/250 = 1 Stop; 1/125 sec to 1/500 sec = 2 Stops; 1/125 sec to 1/1000sec = 3 Stops; 1/125 sec to 1/2000 sec = 4 Stops

When using these kind of shutter speeds with Flash, ordinarily you’d end up with a black area appearing across your picture because the shutter speed of the camera is basically too fast for all the light from the flash to fill the sensor. Now though we have High Speed Sync which (without going into the technicals) allows your flash and camera to sync at much higher speeds which in turn means more light filling the sensor because of the way it makes the flash behave (extremely fast pulses of light as opposed to one big flash of light)

So because I’m now using a wide open Aperture and a fast Shutter Speed I turn on Hi Speed Sync on my Godox Flash.

Oh and my flash is in TTL because I am shooting in a very controlled area where the lighting remains constant so if I do need more or less power out of the flash it’s just a matter of a few clicks on the remote trigger.

Lighting Position

Here’s a lighting diagram that roughly shows the position of the light and softbox:

To achieve a strip of light going down the centre of the face and to have (roughly) matching shadow areas on either side, this is where the flag comes in.

See how in the diagram below, the flag is positioned in such a way that it blocks the majority of light falling on the side of the face nearest to the light. This leaves the far side of the modifier to illuminate the centre of the face and to a much lesser degree, some of the light feathers across to the side of the face nearest the light; this means that it doesn’t fall completely to dark shadow but has a touch of light to still show detail. (This is all on the right side of the face as you look at the diagram)

The side of the face furthest from the light source remains unchanged and as in the original set up has shadow with a pattern of light under the eye as you can see below…

Note: When using a Flag the very slightest of changes in position can make a BIG difference to the lighting, so when re-positioning do it with small changes each time.

So this is how I light the close-up portraits; the final look comes with that and the combination of the retouching which when complete really does add depth and dimension to the portraits.

To give you the heads-up, later this month on July 27th I’m finishing off some filming for a brand new full length tutorial where I go through everything that I do to create these and the 3/4 length portraits; all of which are done using small flash. The final tutorial goes through the kit I use, using an umbrella instead of a softbox, photographing in confined spaces such as someones home and so on plus all the retouching steps i go through. This will be released at the beginning of September and is called ‘Classic Portraits using Small Flash’

A variation on the above set up positioning the flag to allow a little more light on the lit side of the face

Anyway, hope this has been useful.

If you have any questions / comments then please feel free to make use of the comments section below.



  1. Amazing portraits, beautifully done and lit. Thank you for your detailed explanation. Looking forward to the video!

    Are your subjects close to your backdrop, with no separate background light? Reminds me of the work of William Coupon! One light, subject against the backdrop.

    1. Author

      Hi Bill

      The subjects are actually quite close to the background yeah; this way I can use the one light to light both the background and the subject….less to carry then 🙂


  2. Thanks. I do like the lighting style and can see how the shallow DOF draws you to the eyes. I am a bit confused by your explanation that shutter speed will control exposure – that normally doesn’t work for flash photography, as flash duration is much less than most shutter speeds. Have I misunderstood? Isn’t it you use of TTL that’s actually compensating by reducing flash power to match the wider aperture?

  3. I adore these portraits for so many reasons too be honest. The sheer technical brilliance, sure I’ve see similar work but it is mainly an exercise and for the most part lovely, but in no way compares to the added personal connection, historical significance and sheer love and admiration you can feel from your portraits. This is art of the highest merit.

    1. Author

      Mark, what you have written here means so much to me … thank you so much
      Very best to you

  4. Glyn,

    Portraits are simply amazing and draw you right into your subject.

    I want to practice your technique, but I am a little bit confused about you having to change your shutter speed and use HSS. I’m sure its just a case of there’s a million ways to achieve the same result in photography. But, I just figure that I would ask…

    Admittedly, I don’t know much about using a flash that has TTL as my speedlite is manual only. But, wouldn’t it be easier to just change your flash power output to a lower value based on the stops of light that you changed? Or does switching into HSS and changing your shutter speed offer a different benefit that I don’t know about? I honestly would never have thought to use HSS indoors.

    Thanks again for all you do. I’ve learned so much from you over the years.


  5. Author


    1/128th power on the flash when used in combination with f/2.8 or even f/2.0 as I often use at 1/125sec is still too much power. As I can’t lower the power even more I have to use shutter speed to control it and as the shutter speed needs to go beyond normal sync speed, I have to use HSS


    1. Glyn,

      Thank you so much for the reply. I know have another trick in my bag from you. Can’t wait to go out and practice this on my mannequin head this week.


  6. Just wanted to mention that I am so enjoying working through your book The Photoshop Toolbox which I purchased recently. Also picking up some great tips on your web site, thank you for sharing,
    Kind regards

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