If you don’t have a white studio backdrop, a white sheet will do secured taut to a background stand or even a pair of chairs. To add interest and to illuminate the backdrop, add some ‘fairy lights’. Drape them over the background, spreading them evenly but not uniform. Lights on wires are smaller but they’re lighter in weight, easier to hang and the thin wires will disappear when out of focus.
Set your camera to shoot single-point AF if you’re using a wide aperture to ensure precise focus on the eyes. Set your camera to manual mode and dial in the flash sync speed to begin with, a low ISO rating and an aperture of f/2.8 or wider. Remember the shutter speed controls ambient light levels; aperture, the flash exposure and depth-of-field. First, find the best exposure for the lights in the background.
3 Expose the background
Defocus the lens to get an idea of what the bokeh will look like at a wide aperture and use the exposure scale in your camera to find a good shutter speed for a well-exposed image. Here, f/2.5 at 1/125sec proved good – it’s slightly underexposed, but this allows the bokeh lights to show up better and for the white sheet to be illuminated by some of the flash fall-off later without overexposing.
4 Bring in the flash
Place a flashgun (connected by a wireless trigger) inside a softbox or umbrella for diffusion. Set it to TTL, or better still, manual mode, selecting a low power of 1/32 or 1/16 – you can always alter it or the aperture later to improve the exposure or bokeh. Start by positioning the flash 45° to your subject, looking for a catchlight in the top corner of their eyes. Playing with the angle and distance of the flash to the subject will also help control the fall of light on the background.
5. Adjust your distances
Getting a well-exposed portrait with soft depth-of-field and a bokeh-filled background depends on several factors: the flash exposure, lens type and aperture, camera-to-subject distance and subject-to-background distance, so play around. Here the background is around one metre away and I’m shooting at f/2.8. As you can see here, depth-of-field is shallower and the bokeh is bigger the closer the camera is to the subject, so it’s well worth experimenting.