Beauty, Glamour + Fashion


Tom Sanders Breaks Down How He Uses Lighting to Match a Portrait’s Mood

October 17, 2017

By Tom Sanders

All Photos © Tom Sanders

All Photos © Tom Sanders

Veteran Valor

One of my specialties is photographing veterans, especially aged veterans. I created this niche and now and again, I get hired by companies to photograph and interview them. This was shot for the company Front Porch for one of their senior living communities in Palo Alto, California.

I like to light veterans in a dramatic way to showcase their wrinkles. I used two 1600-watt White Lightning heads, one about 2 feet from the subject’s face and just out of frame. I used a barn door with a grid to create the shadow lines; the left horizontal barn door is covering half the light, the right horizontal barn door is open just enough to create that shadow line, and the vertical barn doors are pressed right up to the horizontal doors. The second head, with a reflector on it set at f/8, was pointed into a 46-inch Photek umbrella behind me. Most WWII veterans are in their early 90s now—they’re not moving around too much due to their age and most have to sit for their portrait as they can’t stand for very long—so this stationary lighting setup actually works well for them.

I had a white backdrop and illuminated it using the heads from my Profoto Acute 1200 Pack with 36-inch Photek umbrellas set at f/16. The creamy tone of the portrait was done in post using Alien Skin Exposure X2 and the 669 Creamy Highlights filter, which I reduced in opacity to 50 percent.

What I like about this portrait is the veteran’s confident expression and the Band-Aid on his face—to me it represents survival of the war and the survival of old age.

Camera: Canon 5D MARK III
Lens: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Exposure: f/11 at 1/125th of a sec.
ISO: 400
Lighting: White Lightning X1600 Flash Units (x2), Profoto Acute 1200 Heads (x2), Photek 36-inch Softlighter II Umbrellas (x2) and 46-inch White Umbrella, Neewer Barn Door and Honeycomb Grid and Gel Set

Celestial Projection

I have been a photographer and filmmaker for 16 years now. I get tired of seeing portraits shot in the same style all the time. I try to be as distinct as I can with my portraits so I have an identifiable style and go beyond the portrait to tell a larger story. I like to add other elements into the portrait that might play into the subject’s personality or otherwise allow me to create my own narrative.

A photographer from the 20th century by the name of William Mortensen said all portraits should either have sentimentality, sexuality or mysticism for it to be successful. I wanted to create mystery in this portrait and a sense of timelessness. The light dots, I feel, add a mystic energy. I make my own 35mm slides by printing on 8.5 x 11-inch Pictorico Premium Inkjet OHP Transparency Film and then placing them into 35mm glass slides. I love using these hands-on tools—in some ways, it’s like working with a 4 x 5 camera.

In order to make sure the dots were sharp on her face, I set up a projector just out of frame and close to her face on the left side. Sitting one foot from the wall, she had to keep very still. The camera was about 4 feet from her, and the fill light was right behind me: a Photek 60-inch umbrella and reflector on a Profoto head, pointed into the umbrella at 1/4 power. In post, I used Alien Skin Exposure X2’s vintage “lith” filter to add the sepia tone, I removed the wall behind the model and then added a slightly textured background I found on Flickr that had no copyright restrictions.

Though this was shot as personal work, it led San Jose State University to hire me to shoot magazine portraits in this projection style.

Camera: Canon 5D MARK III
Lens: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Exposure: f/4 at 1/125th of a sec.
ISO: 400
Lighting: Profoto Acute 1200W/s Pack, Photek Softlighter 60-inch umbrella and reflector, Kodak Carousel Slide Projector
Film: Pictorico Premium Inkjet OHP Transparency Film, 35mm Glass Slide Mounts
Printer: Canon PIXMA PRO-100

Tough Like Leather

I hire photography consultant Lynn Kyle from Agency Access a few times a year to do a check-in on my website and branding. One time she told me I needed more environmental portraits, which is one of my strengths but they were lacking on my site.

I found this model in Oakland, who was also a fashion designer that worked only with leather. I went to her studio to photograph her surrounded by her raw leather material. She wore black leather and had this bruise on her left arm; I sensed both a toughness and vulnerability to her personality. The leather on the table was cut in shapes like snakes, so I went for dramatic lighting and treated it like a Renaissance-style portrait.

I used two 1600-watt White Lightning heads. One had a gridded barn door to create the shadow lines on her face, similar to the setup I created for the veteran. The light had to be about 2 feet from her face, just out of frame, which is not the easiest because it limits the composition. The model had to be in the perfect spot so the small light source could only illuminate her face. The other light was right behind me with a reflector on the head, pointed into a 46-inch Photek umbrella that bounced back onto the model to give some fill light.

Camera: Canon 5D MARK III
Lens: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Exposure: f/11 at 1/125th of a sec.
ISO: 400
Lighting: White Lightning X1600 Flash Units (x2), Photek Softlighter II 46-inch White Umbrella, Neewer Barn Door and Honeycomb Grid and Gel Set

Tom Sanders is a San Francisco-based portrait photographer and filmmaker. He received the Editor’s Choice Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award by Foreword Reviews magazine for his 2010 book, The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII.

Related: Chris Knight Breaks Down His Cinema and Art-Inspired Lighting Scenes 

How I Light: Nick Fancher on Creating Dramatically Illuminated Portraits with Plenty of Experimentation