Layla and the Elf – Sony Studio Photography

How about some Sony Studio Photography! So, I was feeling like I had to take some professional looking studio photos after only reviewing gear and taking snapshots for so darn long.. Occasionally I will take a decent landscape and what not, but I have not done any studio quality portraits in forever. Therefore I decided to put something together yesterday which resulted in a pretty decent portrait of Layla I think.

The set-up was very simple for studio lighting, but clearly more advanced than simply pointing and shooting which I normally do for reviews and stuff. I used one light source (Alien B800 w/ 24×36 portable/ flexible softbox) on 1/32nd power. My CyberSync flash receiver was plugged into the Alien B800 flash unit which let it know when to fire via the Transmitter which was mounted on the camera.

I used my Sony A7r w/ Metabones III electronic lens adapter, and Canon EF 135mm f/2 L Lens @ f/2 for maximum “Bokeh Balls Effect”. The tree was about 6 feet behind Layla and the softbox about 4 feet in front just to the right of the camera pretty much. I had it at ~45 degree angle in relation to Layla.

Sony Alpha a7r
Special Settings on Sony A7r:

Due to the lack of mirror and all, we have to change the Live View setting default which is ON to OFF. This will allow the camera to operate like it has a optical viewfinder. In other words, showing you what you are seeing live, as apposed to the final result plus live. With the setting ON, the camera will show you a much brighter scene than what is actually going to be captured. Remember, the camera does not know we are using an external light source! This is a key fundamental concept to using sony mirrorless cameras in the studio with off camera flash lighting. I also had to mount my Cybersync Flash Trigger to the A7r hot shoe in order to trip the off camera flash at the correct time.

I was using manual focus here, which was pretty difficult due to the extremely narrow depth of field, but was made much easier thanks to focus peaking and magnify zoom features! I highly recommend using these tools to insure your focus is perfect when applicable. I had to ask Layla to stay as still as possible, but with her slight movement and my slight movement, this was still a serious challenge. Most shots of Layla were slightly blurry because I missed the focus.

Another variable here was to balance the ambient light, which was the Christmas tree in this case, with the studio lighting. This is a bit of a trick, because Aperture/ ISO controls the flash being captured by the camera, and the shutter speed controls the ambient light. For example, if I took a shot of just the christmas tree @ f/2 ISO 100, what would the shutter speed need to be? Well in this case about 1/30sec due to the very low light overall. The tree is not that bright believe it or not.

Ideally I would like to have the shutter speed @ 1/160sec when using the studio lights, but not when I want to also capture the ambient light. If I took the photo with a shutter speed of 1/160sec the lights in the background would be almost completely dark. So, I slowed her down to 1/100sec and that was good enough I thought. 1/30sec would have been better for the ambient light and I could have used a tri-pod, but chose not to. The flash does help freeze the action, which helps with slower shutter speeds in cases like this, but the 135mm lens has no stabilization and A7r has a clunky shutter. 1/100sec was a slow as I was willing to go with this set-up. If I were using the new Sony A7r Mark II, I would have been able to easily get 1/30sec shots with this set-up.

Test Shot

I first took a test photo of the Elf to make sure the lighting was and was happy with the results using the settings discussed above. Manual Mode @ 1/100sec, ISO 100, F/2, and the studio flash unit @ 1/32nd power:

1/100sec ISO 100, F/2 and the studio light @ 1/32nd power:
The Elf – 1/100sec ISO 100, F/2 and the studio light @ 1/32nd power:

Layla Portrait

I then asked Layla to get into the scene and had a really hard time finding a good pose. I really wanted here to pose like the elf above, but that did not look good at all, so I changed things up. I went for a upper body shot which requires a lot more to think about as far as posing goes… I liked the look of the arms up, but getting the head correct is always a challenge. Having your model look slightly downward with the eyes slightly up often looks good. I also like to raise the camera up so it’s actually pointing slightly downward on the model. This allows for a better looking jaw line in my opinion and makes the subject look thinner perhaps to my eye… Some food for thought.
So here’s my girl Layla who is 5 years old already!! I know, where does the time go?

Layla - Sony A7r, EF 135mm f/2 @ 1/100sec ISO 100, F/2, studio light @ 1/32nd power:
Layla – Sony A7r, EF 135mm f/2 @ 1/100sec ISO 100, F/2, studio light @ 1/32nd power

A closer view of the detail captured and note just how narrow the depth of field is when using such a set-up! The eyeball on the left is sharp, but the eye lashes are mostly out. The eye brow on the right side is sharp, because it’s on the same focal plane as the eye on the left. Remember, her head was at a slight angle to the camera for effect…

Layla - Sony A7r, EF 135mm f/2 @ 1/100sec ISO 100, F/2, studio light @ 1/32nd power
Layla – Sony A7r, EF 135mm f/2 @ 1/100sec ISO 100, F/2, studio light @ 1/32nd power

The lines and angle make a huge difference in the final product! Her chin being a little higher would be slightly better in my mind’s eye… As is, to much of the top of her head is showing which makes it appear a little larger than ideal… Like I said, this takes practice to master the lighting and some study to understand posing techniques.. So many variables and ideas as to what looks good and so fourth…

Closing Remarks

Thanks for looking and I will be very happy to answer any questions you all might have as it relates to the set-up or whatever. Basic studio photography like this is a lot easier than you might think. It’s all the lighting ratios and set-up options that make it so confusing if you ask me. Just keeping it very basic at first is the key to understanding the relationship of the camera to the off camera light source in my opinion. Then practice and slowly adding more lights if so desired.

Mastering the fundamentals is key though, which is why I recommend only using one light at first and then practice practice practice… I can tell you I struggled at first, because I was using two lights and got caught up in the proper ratio’s and then thinking about the background lights or hair lights got me all confused and frustrated. None of that is needed though. Yes, it can certainly make the results much better, but it requires knowledge to pull off and get good results. One light does not require that much knowledge in comparison to complicated lighting set-ups.

A large soft light source also makes life really easy. A small umbrella for example will make the lighting more harsh. The 24×36 white diffusion panel of the softbox creates such a good look by itself if set-up correctly.

Note my lighting diagram:

Studio Lighting Setup
Basic One Light Source Studio Lighting Setup


The Gear Used:

  1. Sony Alpha A7r
  2. Metbaones Electronic Lens Adapter
  3. Canon EF 135mm f/2 L Lens
  4. 24×36 Portable Softbox
  5. Alien B800 Flash Studio Light
  6. CyberSync Flash Trigger
  7. CyberSync Flash Receiver
  8. A Study Light Stand

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    1. Thanks for the comments and feedback David 😉 I agree it’s a lame Watermark, but I felt the image needed something because my sample photos get stolen quite often by hack youtube reviewers… Clearly they will just crop it out anyway, but I guess it makes me feel a little better. I’m working on a custom image style watermark that hopefully will be better. Or perhaps I will just go without again….
      Thanks again,

  1. Hi jay,
    After trying quite a few times to recreate you’re Christmas shot with my A6000 i finally got the results i wanted, well almost 🙂 , using the 16-70mm zeiss i can only get a little Dof even zoomed all the way in @f4, because of the crop sensor on the A6000 & f4 i raised the iso to 400, drop shutter speed to 1/60 to let in the ambient light from the tree and it kind of worked, but not as nice as you’re shot. So what lens would you recommend jay for my A6000 to get great portrait shots with better Dof and not drop any of the zeiss quality that i love from my 16-70mm zeiss 🙂

    1. Sorry for the delayed reply Adrian! I replied twice to your comment and both times it just did not work for some reason? Oh well…
      Great efforts and 70mm @ f/4 is the way to go for sure. Just remember the closer you are to the subject, the more Bokeh Ball effect you will get. Also, A slower shutter speed of 1/30sec or even 1/15th of second will work if you use a tri-pod and that will bring in way more ambient light while also allowing for a lower ISO value.
      As far as lenses go, the best affordable option is the 50mm f/1.8 OSS Lens and the best optical option is the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Lens. The Zeiss is way more money, but offers that “look” you have gotten a taste for. The affordable 50mm lens is not bad at all though and totally worth trying at least in my opinion. The 55mm is designed for the full frame e-mount cameras, so it’s also larger and heavier than you need for the A6000.
      I hope that helps you out a bit?

      1. Thanks for your reply, i will look into the lenses that you have recommended, i had initially thought of the 55mm ziess but the price of the 50mm is very tempting, or maybe see if sony release a 85mm f1.8 soon, i know it wouldn’t compete with the batis 85mm but I think the batis might be a overkill for my A6000, but thanks for you’re help, much appreciated, hope you all have a great Christmas 🙂

        1. Clearly the Batis 85mm f/1.8 lens is the one to get if you can afford it and don’t mind the size/ weight 😉 Best of the best!
          My best to you and yours for the holidays and New Year as well!

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