How I Light: Daymon Gardner on Illuminating "Poppy" Personality Portraits

March 10, 2017

By Libby Peterson

© Daymon Gardner


New Orleans, LA
Genre: Commercial/editorial
Style: Poppy, bright, energetic
@daymongardner |


My lighting style has evolved over the past eight years into what I consider to be poppy portraits with a sense of energy. I think that evolution can be attributed to several factors, the most important being the photographers from whom I draw inspiration.

Portrait photography originally grabbed hold of me with an introduction to the work of Irving Penn, and my admiration and curiosity of portrait lighting has motivated me in my work ever since. I became drawn to a harsh style of lighting that highlights the texture of a subject’s skin. The early work of Helmar Lerkski shaped my current style, to a degree; I found his tight portraits using tiny mirrors to reflect light fascinating, a technique that scraped harsh light across skin to create beautiful textures.

After working in the editorial world for a period, I continued to draw inspiration from contemporary photographers such as Dan Winters, Peter Hapak, Nadav Kander, Peter Yang and Emily Shur. I began using multiple Canon Speedlites as a way to shoot an assignment with a documentary approach while maintaining that poppy style I came to love. I was shooting portrait work early in my career but was often tasked with shooting in a documentary style for several assignments, and it became clear to me early on that keeping a lighting setup simple allowed me to move more freely and capture fluid imagery with a sense of spontaneity.

All photos © Daymon Gardner

Talk show host Seth Meyers was shot in a studio in New York against a white cyc wall. I used a Profoto Acute2 1200 with a Magnum reflector as my key light, placed camera right and 45 degrees from Seth, and a 74-inch Elinchrom Octa placed directly behind the camera as fill. We also used a black floppy flag on either side of Seth in order to create more contrast and control spill onto the background. The lighting setup was broad enough to allow for movement and energy (we had a few shots of him squirting mustard out of condiment bottles and freezing the stream mid-flight—I still have mustard splatter on my shoes).

This portrait of the comedian Kevin Hart was shot for Bon Appétit, poolside at the W hotel in New Orleans. The magazine wanted to shoot him against that particular wall, which was 10 to 15 feet from the pool. My crew and I had to boom our key light (a Profoto Pro-7b with a Magnum reflector) over the water, at camera right and 45 degrees from Kevin, and I shot on a ladder in the pool in order to get the necessary full-length portrait without having to use a wide lens. A Profoto Acute2 1200 with a Ringflash was used for fill, boomed out center above and slightly in front of the camera, which helped maintain a harsh, sunlit look.

This portrait of two George Washington Carver High School marching band members was shot on assignment for ESPN The Magazine. It entailed capturing a day in the life of football players and band members, so I knew we’d be moving constantly and I’d need a lighting setup that allowed me to react to the changing scene. The image was lit with two Canon 580EX II flashes, one on camera acting as fill and the other mounted on a monopod held by my assistant for key, at camera left about 35 degrees from the subjects.


Setups are one thing, but don’t walk into an assignment with tunnel vision. I had a shoot for GQ a few years ago, and the shot list was a stylized portrait on grey seamless and an environmental portrait with the same lighting. My crew and I spent the morning lighting the shot and executed it as planned. The portraits looked great, but the magazine wound up running a candid I captured of the subject taking a smoke break in the courtyard in between setups. It was nothing but natural light, completely different than what the photo editor and I had discussed, but it was one of the better images of the day.

To read this article in the digital edition, click here.

CreativeLive Video Tutorial: Portrait Photography Bootcamp, Taught by Lindsay Adler

From PDN Magazine: How Photographers Are Crafting Popping, Energetic Lighting for Clients

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