How to Shoot Priceless Professional Portrait Photography for a (Relative) Pittance

A MILC, an odd choice for a lens, a low-cost light or two, and you're ready to go!

Portrait photography is the bread and butter job professional photographers do day in and day out. Everyone does them, be they Joe Blow in a small studio in Montana to Annie Liebowitz shooting for Vanity Fair. Can it be done on the cheap and look amazing? You bet!

Order by 7PM EST, ships the same dayYou don't need a studio filled with pricey lighting, cameras, lenses, and stands to create great portrait photographs. All you really need for portrait photography is a window and a show card or reflector. But certain types of portraits require a bit more light. Much like the “Beauty Shot” done in my last article, certain portraits are done for a commercial reason. These typically include beauty shots in fashion, headshots for actors, dramatic portraits for politicians or the environmental portrait for corporate or advertising reasons.

For this article, prepared exclusively for the Adorama Learning Center, I'm going to focus on on portrait styles used in the entertainment industry to sell the artist. Those types of portraits are usually done in a studio; how can you inexpensively light this kind of portrait, with it’s typical shallow depth of field? To add to the challenge, I'm going to use a small, inexpensive mirrorless type of lens should you use? The good news is most mirrorless systems have sensors smaller than “full frame” systems, which opens up some intriguing possibilities.

Smaller sensor cameras mean we use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view and therefore must deal with greater depth of field for the same field of view. How do we address this? First let’s look at how we will light this at small cost.

The Flashpoint 500 Dimmable LED Light

Professional Portrait Photography

At $199 dollars the Flashpoint 500 LED system (which includes a stand), available exclusively at the Adorama Flashpoint store,  is an excellent value. It allows for very fine control of output using two dimmer switches to control the LEDs in two banks. Available as stand alone lights or available in a kit with a stand the color temp is easy to deal with and the light quite soft and pleasing. To this I'll add a gel kit and a pair of clamps. I will use two of these bringing us to a whopping $426.

Why use a continuous light source instead of a flash? You can get a lot of light output for very little cash. The other factor for my decision here is the fact the mirrorless camera I will be using—a $400 Pentax Q (available at Adorama)—has a very limited sync speed of 1/30th of a second when in certain circumstances, including the method I'll be using here. Continuous light allows me to use higher shutter speeds.

What about lenses? I'm going to use some interesting legacy glass. First, I need an adaptor:

Adorama C Mount To Pentax Q Adapter


c-mount to Pentax Q lens adapter

The Adorama C Mount To Pentax Q Adapter, available exclusively at Adorama, will allow me to use 16mm C-Mount lenses (designed for old 16mm movie cameras!) with the Pentax Q. C-Mount lenses are a very good solution for both the Q and Micro Four Thirds systems (yes, there's an adapter for them, too), as both have sensors that are either smaller than (in the case of the Q) or nearly identical (micro four thirds) to 16mm film. C-Mount lenses can be broken up into two groups—those designed for movie film cameras, and those designed for CCTV systems. I highly recommend lenses designed for motion pictures, since they offer much higher optical quality than their CCTV brethren.


Pentax Q with C-mount adapter

Old meets new, Part I: For the portraits below, I used a Kern Pailliard 25mm f/1.5 Switar C-mount cinema lens (originally designed for 16mm film), of all things, mounted on a Pentax Q! I found the Switar in the Adorama used department. Does this wacky, relatively low-cost combo work? See for yourself!


The downside of using vintage motion picture lenses is they are made of either single or uncoated optics that can cause a bit of chromatic aberration that can be difficult to correct for. My personal favorite are the Kern Pailliard series of lenses. These little Swiss made jewels are of excellent optical quality, and available n some very fast apertures which helps mitigate the DOF issue. For this article I used the SWITAR 25mm f/1.5 (effectively 135mm on the Q) and the YVAR 75mm f/2.8 (about 413mm on the Q). The SWITAR was a mid 50’s vintage and single-coated while the YVAR was from the 60’s and multicoated so had fewer chromatic aberration issues. Shop the Adorama Used department for second-hand SWITARs.

Now that we've got the gear, Let’s start with a dramatic headshot.


Professional Portrait Photography tips

Model Cory Nova shot with a Kern Pailliard 25/1.5 SWITAR on a Pentax Q at f/1.5, ISO 125 1/160th second.

You will notice immediately the sort of “soft sharp” quality the vintage lens gives the image. Single-coat optics tend to look softer than multicoated ones. Also, as mentioned, there is a slight bit of chromatic aberration where the left collar is held.

The lighting used is a modified butterfly light shot “short” (i.e. shot into the shadows) with a hair light using the “orchard” gel from our gel kit lighting the hair. Now a quick note on lighting portraits, there are many ways to a portrait for whatever effect you are looking for, but the two most classic are what we call “Rembrandt” or “Master” lighting and the other is what we call  “Butterfly” lighting typical of the work of George Hurrell, for instance. A butterfly light is always shot “short” with the light positioned high to create a shadow just under the nose that when viewed from head looks like a butterfly’s wings. I personally love the butterfly light as it allows one to shoot into the shadow area, but still maintain enough light on the subject that it looks as if it was shot “broad” (i.e. shot from the view of the light source). Let’s look at the diagram for this shot.

Professional Portrait Photography tips

Our key light for this shot was about 4 feet above the model tilted down at 45 degrees. The hair light was roughly about a foot above the model and gelled. The two black objects are called flats, i.e. 4x8” black foamcore pieces I have in studio to prevent light spill on the backdrop. I love using gels in my kickers/hair lights, as they add a color component to the shadows.

Our next shot is the sort of portrait one might see on an album cover jacket.


Professional Portrait Photography tips

Cory Nova shot with a Kern Pailliard 25/1.5 SWITAR on a Pentax Q at f/1.5 ISO 125, 1/160th second.

Here we use the butterfly lighting used in the first shot, adjusting our camera position and distance to get this full body shot as shown in the diagram below:


Professional Portrait Photography tips


A lot of portrait photography is basically camera position and composition, as demonstrated in the shot above. By simply changing where you are shooting from, you can create a portrait with a completely different feel.


Pentax Q c-mount lens adapter

Old meets new, Part II: For the next shot, I used a Pentax Q with a 75mm f/2.8 Yvar lens, also originally designed for use with a 16mm film movie camera. This is one crazy setup but again, the results are what counts, right?


With the first two images, images there was a tiny bit of field distortion because the lens is a 25mm lens. To get a flatter field, you need to use a longer focal length lens. In 35mm photography the classic portrait focal lengths were between 75 to 135mm. Now on the Q the 25/1.5 SWITAR gives us a 135mm equivalent, that does a nice job, but it still has the depth of field of a 25mm lens, which is a bit deep. How about using a longer focal length lens without having to be a quarter mile away? For that challenge I chose a 75mm f/2.8 YVAR. (If I could get my hands on a 75mm f/1.9 SWITAR, I could get some pleasing focus roll-off at f/1.9, but that lens was unavailable when I shot this article.) Here is the shot with the YVAR;

Professional Portrait Photography tips

Cory Nova shot with a Kern Pailliard 75/2.8 YVAR on a Pentax Q at f/1.5 ISO 125 1/60th

What you can see immediately is the lack of any field distortion in the shot. It has that flattened field one expects in a portrait. The other thing one will notice is the reduced level of chromatic aberrations as the YVAR used is from the 60’s and multicoated, unlike the SWITAR I used from the 50’s. This shot did give me a few difficulties as on the Pentax Q the 75mm lens was effectively a 400mm super telephoto! Here is the diagram for this:

Professional Portrait Photography tips


As you can tell I was backed up nearly to the other end of the studio, still for the quality of the image created I think it was worth it. That said I will not be soon trying the same with an actual 400/2.8L IS on my 1DS anytime soon lol!

Remember that Adorama carries an extensive line of used lenses of all kinds (including SWITARs) in the Adorama Used department. The Pentax Q is available at Adorama.

I hope you all enjoyed reading this and as always feel free to ask questions in the comment section below!

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