Understanding how to manipulate man-made light sources gives you a rare kind of power—to reveal nuance, depth and detail in any subject you’ve got in your viewfinder. It’s first a matter of knowing how to do it. Here, four seasoned shooters share the lighting skills—and some specific portrait assignments—that helped put them on the road to photographic stardom.
Photo © Michael Grecco
Michael Grecco: Strobe Maven
Grecco is an award-winning multi-faceted photographer and film maker based in Southern California. Innovative, dynamic celebrity portraiture is his signature specialty. His images appear in scores of ads for such clients as NBC/Universal, GE, Pfizer, HBO and IBM, and in magazine covers such as Time, Esquire, Maxim and Entertainment Weekly, among others.
Assignment: Portrait of Jason Van Oijen (above), a champion in the sport of Muay Thai boxing, for a Procter & Gamble advertorial that appeared in Men’s Health magazine.
Concept: This image was part of an environmental portrait series showing active men—“cool guys” as Grecco calls them—who use P&G grooming products. The assignment was conceived to match the same blue palette of the lead shot to the cool hues of the last image [of another athlete] in the series.
Approach: Grecco is a great advocate of electronic flash, for all the expected reasons—the power, the almost infinite range of control, the daylight balanced color temperature. For this image, he used three Bron 2000 watt/second power packs with three separate heads. To create the blue cast, a combination of a Rosco CTB gel and a light green gel were placed on each head. Grecco explains that the green gel prevents the blue from becoming artificially saturated.
Courtesy Michael Grecco Studio
Key Light: One strobe head about 45 degrees off axis, close to the subject and fitted with a small Chimera striplight softbox. “I prefer smaller instruments,” Grecco says “placed close to subjects to create tight, controllable pools of light.” This one was aided by an eggcrate grid over the Chimera, and careful vertical positioning. “I start by putting the striplight at a high angle, then lowering it gradually until I can see the subject’s eyes,” Grecco says, “With the direction control I get using the grid, I can rotate the box slightly to an angle that helps spread the highlights to this model’s chest.”
Fill Light: The shadows play an important role in establishing the drama of this image, but Grecco keeps a modest level of shadow detail alive with a Bron Senso head on low power, bouncing light off the room’s ceiling.
Background Light: Available incandescent room lighting on this tiled bathroom set added accent highlights to the glossy background. A grid spot—with the same blue/green color filtration formula—was boomed over the tile wall on a C-stand. The grid allows the background highlight to be vignetted a bit in the upper corners, giving the shot a little extra depth.
View a behind-the-scenes video of the shoot here:
Photo © Michael Grecco
Portrait of Cirque du Soleil (above) contortionists for a publishing company’s Oscar Night promotion.
Concept: Lighting setup was kept flexible to accommodate a series of individual subjects, mostly entertainers. Grecco wanted this image to emphasize the graphic impact of the stylized makeup and wardrobe.
Approach: “Less is more,” Grecco’s preferred approach to a lot of lighting scenarios. “A lot of lighting is overproduced and formulaic,” he says. This image demonstrates how powerful a shot can be with minimal tools.
Key Light and Background: Grecco combined a 7-foot Chimera Octobank with Dynalight head, and a beauty dish, fitted with a separate head positioned in the center of the Octobank. This simple, elegant combination was rigged slightly above the camera position. C-stands were used to align these units close to the subjects. The large Chimera provides open, broad-source illumination for the girls and the background; the beauty dish adds a slightly hard, shadow in the foreground and opens the illumination on these interesting makeup treatments.
Sound Advice: “Monitor what you’re doing,” Grecco advises. “Don’t rely on your camera’s LCD. Use a good calibrated monitor that shows you the subtleties of your lighting. And be critical. Get rid of the voice that says, ‘it will be all right. We’ll fix it in post.’ Fix it now. You want to get that ‘look’ you’re after, but you also need the image between the goal posts of your histogram.”
Photo © Joey L.
Joey L.: A Passion for the Experiment
Canadian-born Joey L. (née Joey Lawrence) began his meteoric rise as a commercial shooter with a celebrated image that helped launch the Twilight film series in 2008. Since then, his impressionistic lighting style has attracted high-end advertising clientele that including Coca Cola, Smirnoff, Kawasaki, numerous publications, and cable television outlets—Nickelodeon, National Geographic, FX and the History Channel. Joey L. alternates his time between commercial shoots in the New York area and his personal work. One experimental piece—a prototype for a planned series on arctic explorers—is a sample of the photographer’s intricate electronic flash technique.
Assignment: A portfolio piece (above) shot in the studio, depicting an arctic explorer, in the midst of a blizzard.
Concept: In the presence of 20 workshop students, the photographer wanted to recreate the look and feel of a blizzard in a closeup portrait, by combining an actor, wardrobe, a painted backdrop of storm clouds, an artificial snow generator, a haze machine to reinforce the atmospheric effects of a storm and, of course, lighting that would tie it all together. Details were critical: a hand-painted canvas background could have seemed artificial, but, “thrown out of focus,” Joey L. says, “it doesn’t look that different from actually shooting outdoors.” Depth of field control, he points out, also helped the falling snow effect. “I made sure the snow was…covering a wide area from behind the model all the way up to my camera…in real life, the snow would be falling both in front of the camera and behind.”
Approach: Electronic flash was the natural choice for creating this image for its capability to “freeze” the actions of a snow flurry. The multiple lamps required also dictated studio electronic flash, which allows several heads to run off of a single power pack. With one exception, the flash equipment was all by Profoto—five heads supported by three power packs.
Photo courtesy Joey L. studio
Key Light: Like many strobe aficionados, Joey L. likes the broad, soft coverage of the Octobank softlight, in this case an Elinchrom 74-inch unit, mounted on a Profoto head and positioned camera left, slightly behind the model. The light is soft, and broad enough to create its own fill illumination. The angle firmly establishes its direction, and creates a shadow on the opposite side of the model’s face.
Accent Light: “I like to light in layers,” says Joey L., his second layer being a pair of high beauty dishes near the painted drop. These are angled down to accent the snowflakes and create a rimlight that separates the model from the background.
Background Light: Finally, two strobe heads with white umbrella combinations were trained on each side of the backdrop, each with its own Profoto power pack to allow flexible adjustments in power. The storm sky, though out of focus, is important in giving this shot the illusory realism that makes it work. Insufficient light level on the backdrop would quickly undermine that realism.
Sound Advice: “Lighting,” says Joey L., “is an additive process. You can break a lighting solution down piece by piece, bringing lamps and reflectors into a setup as they’re needed—and only if they’re needed.” He adds, “I would rather just use a single main source and maybe one reflector. But you can’t always do that.” The number one lighting skill for a photographer? Joey L. insists it’s “the ability to look at someone else’s photograph and dissect the lighting solution that was used. It’s the best training there is.”
Photo © Gregory Heisler
Gregory Heisler: Motivator of the Practical
Gregory Heisler is one of the most sought-after and widely imitated portraitists in our field, largely due to his versatile and meticulous lighting style. Heisler portraits have been the centerpiece of ad campaigns for clients such as American Express, Dewar’s, Nike and Merrill Lynch; they appear regularly on the covers of major periodicals—Sports Illustrated, GQ, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine, to name a few. Currently the star of Profoto’s online Masters Series, Heisler is known for his mastery of an eclectic range of light sources beyond electronic flash. “My assistants never know what I’ll use on an assignment,” he laughs, “so they just bring everything.” The hardcover book, Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits/Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer, was released last year. Here, Heisler dissects two portraits from that book with their lighting challenges.
Assignment: Senator John Glenn for a TIME magazine cover story (above), commemorating the former Mercury astronaut’s surprise return to space at the age of 77. The plan was to composite this shot with a background image of a star field. During setup, a spontaneous moment created this impromptu candid: Heisler caught Glenn adjusting the seal of his spacesuit. It’s an informal counterpoint to the carefully wrought lighting scheme he’d crafted for the finished shot.
Concept: Heisler wanted the overall effect of this portrait to suggest the “sterile high-tech environment” that would envelop an astronaut “preparing for his final voyage into outer space.”
Photo courtesy Gregory Heisler Studio
Approach: Because Glenn’s silhouette was going to be “dropped” into another image—the starry sky—rim lighting was important. “The nice crisp edge,” Heisler says, “would help the computer ‘see’ where [the subject] stopped and the background started, making short work of the compositing process.”
Rim Light: To create the narrow highlight that borders this subject, Heisler used a pair of controllable sources—Hensel Shutter Striplights. Fine adjustments are possible with these lamps, Heisler says, because each one features a pair of adjustable shutters (or “curved barn doors,”) that hug the cylindrical housing of the striplight’s diffuser. The shutters permit the user to narrow the opening as desired.
Key Light: To reinforce his vision of the cold ambience of space flight technology, Heisler lit Glenn’s face with a Broncolor strobe head mounted inside a “Flooter.” This accessory is a focusing Fresnel-lensed housing, in this case equipped with a honeycomb grid to create the sterile, hard-edged highlight on the camera-right side of the subject’s face.
Fill Light: A lens-mounted ringflash added to the severity of the subject’s surroundings. “It’s right at the lens,” Heisler explains, “so at 2 to 2.5 stops under the key light level, it doesn’t reveal itself as an additional source, [and more importantly] it heightens the overall raw look, revealing clinical detail in every shadow.” With the other lamps off axis, this particular use of ringflash could be expected to produce unwanted redeye. To prevent that, Heisler added a low-power incandescent lamp (seen left center in the setup image) to keep the subject’s irises “stopped down” when he looked straight at the camera for the final image.
Photo © Gregory Heisler
Assignment: Portrait of George W. Bush (above), on location in the White House Cabinet Room, to illustrate an essay the former president wrote for USA Weekend on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Concept: Despite the obvious formal conventions that are observed in photographing involving the leader of the free world—particularly when he’s in his personal domain—Heisler wanted the Bush portrait to invoke a softer, more natural sense of intimacy. “I wanted my lighting to suggest what it’s really like to be there,” Heisler says.
Approach: Continuous light sources have distinct advantages over electronic flash, and Heisler exploited several in this situation. First, being able to judge the effect of his lighting without making a test exposure was a crucial time-saver. Heisler also wanted lower light levels, closer to the natural ambient illumination in this stately room. This would allow for a wide shooting aperture and thus shallow depth of field, which helps separate the subject from background detail. Heisler opted for a fluorescent source—Italian-built Lupo Lights—similar to the popular Kino Flo system used mostly by cinematographers. Like Kinos, the Lupo’s tubes are mounted in banks. They’re cool to the touch and easily tolerated by subjects. And, like electronic flash, their output is color balanced to daylight. Though fluorescents are bright, they don’t overwhelm lighting from windows and practical light fixtures. “They pour out soft yet snappy light that looks great on skin,” says Heisler.
Photo courtesy Gregory Heisler Studio
Key Light: One medium-sized Lupo bank, camera right, suggests a wash of soft, indirect light flooding through the nearest of the large windows on the right side of the frame.
Accent Lighting: He placed a larger Lupo bank set up further off the lens axis, camera right. Output from both main and accent banks was modulated by sheets of Rosco diffusion material, and shaped using built-in barn doors. To add to the window light illusion, a quartz lamp was placed outside to give the window itself a touch of glow.
Fill Light: A small Lupo bank—also fitted with barn doors and diffusion—was set slightly camera right and low for shadow control on the subject’s face and garment. Finally, one more source, a lamp matching the warm color temperature of the room’s wall sconces, was concealed toward rear of the room, camera left to open the background—walls, ceiling and furniture—as a general fill light.
Sound Advice: “Lighting defines a picture,” Heisler says, “and it usually falls into one of two categories: one that just ‘looks cool,’ and a more serious approach, which is light that appears to come from a believable source.” In most cases, the light source is outside the frame, and an incandescent bulb, a window, a streetlight or any combination, are all identifiable only by their distinctive effects on your subject. But they give your scene authenticity, even if it’s a complete fiction. When one of those light source actually appears in the shot—say a desk lamp—it’s referred to as “practical.” Heisler remembers a movie studio gaffer who once gave him a nugget of advice. “‘With lighting,’ he told me, ‘you’re motivating the practical.’ That line has become my mantra.”
Photos © Phil Borges
Phil Borges: Into the Wild
For more than 25 years, Phil Borges has been as much a social activist with his camera as an artist. The heart of his work is a copious collection of beautifully lit location portraits that document indigenous and tribal cultures in some of the most remote regions of the planet—places to which he has no compunction about transporting lighting equipment to optimize his results. From the Tibetan plateau to New Guinea, Togo, Kenya, Liberia, Afghanistan, Ghana, Pakistan and beyond, he’s captured unique and intimate portrait studies that appear in publications as diverse as Esquire, the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire and Hemispheres. His images are exhibited worldwide and he’s published four award-winning books, his most recent being Tibet: Culture on the Edge (see Rangefinder, Dec. 2011).
Assignment: Portraits of Soloyoi and Sukulen (above), members of the Samburu tribe, who inhabit the Rift Valley of northern Kenya. The images were for an Amnesty International-sponsored exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Concept: To isolate and reveal the delicate features of these subjects against the rough, austere beauty of their surroundings.
Approach: Borges’ scheme for using off-camera electronic flash with an umbrella, auxiliary scrims and reflectors is a model for anyone who needs to combine natural lighting and flash in exterior portrait scenarios. Lighting in equatorial extremes is often harsh, and the hours for optimal use of available light don’t always match the times when subjects are accessible. Borges uses a relatively lightweight strobe package, made up of a battery-powered 600-watt/second Lumedyne pack along with a small lamp head and an umbrella reflector.
Photo courtesy Phil Borges Studio
Key Light: Subject lighting is a single head with a 36-inch umbrella reflector, nearly always off axis, somewhere between 45 to 90 degrees from the camera. The wrap effect of the umbrella close to the subject is gentle and flattering.
Background Lighting: “So many times,” Borges recalls, “as in situations like these images, I’d meet a photo subject, and the light would be horrible, say around late morning or high noon. That might be fine for the background—the trees and terrain—but I needed to block out the overhead sunlight on my subject, so I’d use a one-stop silk, held above or behind the sitter by a willing assistant.” Lighting balance for these situations is a matter of using the shutter speed dial to match the available light background exposure with the setting for strobe output. The basic rule is aperture controls flash exposure; shutter speed controls daylight exposure.
Sound Advice: Artificial lighting can be taxing enough in controlled environments. If you’ve got the urge to take your portrait efforts into the wild, there are special considerations—most of which Borges has dealt with personally. On the subject of light stands, for example: “In many circumstances, you can’t use them,” he says, “ground is frequently irregular, so I prefer a tripod for mounting my lighting equipment. The legs are individually adjustable and will work in any terrain.” The other option for positioning lights is even more basic. In small villages or tribal communities, Borges makes it a point to “ingratiate myself with the tribal leader; in fact, I try to meet everyone. That way, I always have a line of kids every morning to act as my de facto production crew.”
A good example is shown above—one of the Samburu boys holds a silk aloft to block the sun from Soloyoi. Even when the ambient light is low and less harsh, Borges prefers the soft but directional feel of the umbrella’s output. So much so that he’s modified his flash heads with PVC and copper tubing, to put the umbrella shaft in direct line with the strobe tube. And, for grab-shot situations when there’s no time to set up the tripod, “I added a handle to the other side of the umbrella to help the local kids act as my light stand.”