How I Light: The Gradual Development of Felix Kunze’s Soft and Polished Portraiture

March 23, 2017

By Libby Peterson

© Felix Kunze

New York, NY
Style: Soft, polished, graceful
@felixkunze |


I get hired for shooting images that feel softly lit, rather than the commercial punch. In the early days of my career, I was shooting a lot of portraits in the UK. Dealing with the cloudy conditions and shooting regular people meant I had to develop a style that would work universally. Over the years I’ve become known for my particular style of shooting. What was at first a desperate chase for a universal lighting setup has turned into an obsession for making subtle lighting look beautiful.

I tend not to use lighting diagrams or ratios, and while I have a couple of “go-to” setups, I try to vary them each time. I get bored with my own work so quickly that I’m always tinkering. This is why I tend to tell students, “This is how I light—by no means should you aim to use the same exact setups.” Don’t get bogged down in numbers, ratios, stops. Just test, test, test, and if you don’t like how the image looks, change something. That approach has gotten me far.

My Favorite Tools

• Elinchrom ELB 400 packs and heads. They are battery-powered, light and small enough to fit into my hand luggage, yet powerful enough to use in the studio and to overpower the sun.

• Oliphant backdrops. I’ve got a costly obsession with them, but I just can’t help myself—their painted backdrops make everything look beautiful. I use them for 90 percent of my portrait work, including on location. I am known for “that Oliphant look” and I have gotten jobs because of it.

• Phase One’s Capture One software. Shooting tethered into it was one of the biggest jumps forward in my career. Not only does Capture One do such a better job at RAW image interpretation, it also has powerful color-manipulation tools I use to get the look I’m known for. I have been working with them to spread Capture One to photographers around the world via my AMBFELIX promo code at

All photos © Felix Kunze

The wonderfully charming John Douglas Eason, an interior designer I met at a dinner party, graciously agreed to pose for me. I shot him in the studio nook in my old apartment in front of an Oliphant background, with my Photek Softlighter umbrella and Elinchrom ELB 400. The sun was streaming through the window, always finding a crack in my scrims. Eventually I gave up trying to control the sun and simply let it bounce off the wood floor onto him. He already had that kind of Renaissance Man vibe going on, so the light really played into that beautifully.

This image is of Avalon Petersen, an L.A. model I used on a lighting class I taught (I do small classes on occasion). We actually ended up in Sue Bryce’s studio and used her dresses and backdrops, a wonderful challenge for myself and the students. The soft pink of the backdrop inspired me to light this with very soft light. With Elinchrom’s Rotalux Deep OctaBox pointed into the ceiling and the Rotalux Mini Octa Softbox feathered onto her, I was able to make a soft and dreamy image using the same tools I usually use for more dramatic light.

The ZEST Collective, a dance company based in New York City, had a rehearsal on a sweltering summer day, and I had probably 45 minutes to shoot about ten dancers. I had gotten to know most of them in the preceding months when I would turn up at rehearsals and try not to get in their way. Mustering the courage to put up an Oliphant backdrop smack dab in the middle of their rehearsal space, I hardly had time to turn on my lights before dancers started to appear (including Selina Shida, pictured here). Their movement demanded to be photographed, so I went with wherever the lights had ended up. I had two Elinchrom ELB 400 heads, one as a bare bulb facing the ceiling with a 1/8-stop CTB blue gel and the other in a small Rotalux Deep OctaBox, also with a blue gel. No light test, no meter reading, barely a chance to check exposure—sometimes that’s the kind of shooting that works out the best.

See the full article in the digital edition.

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