Stephanie Zettl’s Backlit Ballerina Portrait


© 2012 Stephanie Zettl

Wedding and portrait photographer Stephanie Zettl, author of The Nikon Speedlight Handbook, strives to tell stories through her photos. In this post, Stephanie shares some behind the scenes details from a senior portrait session, giving us the how and why of how she got the shot.

Good portrait photography tells a story about your subject. Both your location and your style of lighting will have an impact on the story you tell and the way you tell it. Being a good portrait photographer requires you to make conscious decisions about your lighting to tell a story properly.

Mandy is a talented, intelligent, and accomplished young lady with big dreams. When she showed up for her senior portrait session with a beautiful red dress and a pair of black pointe ballet shoes, I knew I wanted to highlight her elegant form and still give her a sense of strength and power. An old vacant church with large stone pillars proved the perfect backdrop to convey that sense of strength.

It was almost completely dark by the time we arrived at the location. The only available light came from a dim streetlight. I knew I would have to use my speedlights to create some dramatic light for the photograph I had envisioned.

To light the photograph I used two Nikon SB-900 speedlights, two PocketWizard FlexTT5® triggers, a PocketWizard MiniTT1® with the AC3 ZoneController accessory, and a Lastolite 24 inch EZYBOX softbox. I use speedlights because they are light, extremely portable and allow me to work in i-TTL mode when needed. The PocketWizard ControlTL® system featured in the MiniTT1 and Flex TT5 allows me the convenience of working with radio signals instead of line of sight technology.  This means that I can put my flashes almost anywhere I want and I know they will fire.

One speedlight was used with the softbox to camera left. I used off-camera lighting to provide directional light on my subject. Directional light allows you to better see Mandy’s shape and the texture in her dress. I chose to use a softbox because I wanted the shadows to be softer than the high contrast, well-defined shadows you would get with direct off-camera flash. The speedlight was used in the i-TTL mode on the A channel.

The following image shows you the effect of just using the speedlight in a softbox. It’s not bad, but I found I wanted to separate my subject from the background so I could draw more attention to her and make it a more dramatic image.


© 2012 Stephanie Zettl

In this image you can see the lighting set up and placement for the final image.


© 2012 Stephanie Zettl

For the finished photo, I placed a speedlight on the steps directly behind my subject. I had the second flash on the B channel so I could independently adjust its power output in comparison to my main light. Because the flash was pointed directly at my subject as a rim light, I dialed down the exposure value compensation to -2. Using the AC3 accessory on the MiniTT1 allows me to quickly and easily adjust my flash power output with the quick flick of a dial.

It was very easy and quick to set up this photograph. The added effort of adding in the second flash truly made the image. The finished result is a photograph I believe is a striking portrait of an elegant and talented young woman.

About Stephanie
Stephanie Zettl is a top wedding and portrait photographer from St. Louis, Missouri.  She got her start as a newspaper photographer and thrived in photographing people and their relationship to the world around them. In 2003 she started her own business with her husband, Peter, specializing in wedding and portrait photography. Stephanie is a respected lecturer and mentor and enjoys watching new photographers improve their skills. Education is important to Stephanie and she believes that photographers should invest in themselves by studying both the technical and creative side of photography. She has recently written The Nikon Speedlight Handbook published by Amherst Media.

To see more of Stephanie’s work, check out Zettl Photography. Keep up with the team on Facebook and Twitter.


All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©Stephanie Zettl, all rights reserved; story is ©PocketWizard. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.

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2 Responses to “Stephanie Zettl’s Backlit Ballerina Portrait”

  1. Gary says:

    How did you attach the Flex to the Lastolite hotshoe plate and still have room after attaching the SB900 to push the SB900 into the rear opening of the Lastolite softbox? I thought that product would fit only the SB900.