Viewing Lighting

8 Simple Lighting Tips for Dynamic Senior Portraits

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017


8 Simple Lighting Tips for Dynamic Senior Portraits with Michael Anthony


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It’s no secret that high school senior photography has changed over the last five to seven years. As with all genres of photography, our style of shooting must always adapt to the trends. Our studio has grown in the wedding market, but this year I set out to grow a new line of business for us: senior portraits.


Running a senior portrait session is a big departure from how we typically run a wedding shoot, but the lighting principles are the same. Our approach is very similar to how we photograph brides. The big difference here is that during a wedding day, we are photographing primarily for our clients; during a senior session, we are photographing both for the senior and her parents.


The thing about a senior session I love (as opposed to a wedding day) is that we have as much time as we need to create the perfect shot. I knew that I did not want to photograph the same boring portrait sessions that I see all over my Facebook feed. Instead, I wanted our senior portraits to have the same edge and fashion flare that helps us stand out among the hordes of photographers our clients can choose from.


Now, our style focuses on our use of light, and how we use it to shape and post our subjects. Light determines the outcome of our shoot. We have seen examples in our studio how, when a shoot departs from our house style, we end up with unhappy clients, even if the shoot would be considered a success by other studios.


To impress your clients, you can use light as the anchor for any photograph. Here are our tips for creating dynamic senior portraits.


Use Profoto for Speed and Efficiency


This is not a sales pitch. Here’s why I love Profoto’s B1 and B2 systems more than any other lighting option.


When setting up a shot, nothing can kill the interaction you have with your client more than taking 35 test shots to dial in your lighting. One reason I love Profoto is that it is the only lighting company that offers a hybrid manual/TTL mode on strobes.


This is how it works. First, dial in your ambient exposure in camera. This should take all of five seconds. Next, zoom in close and fill the frame of your viewfinder with whatever you intend to light, typically the subject’s face. The entire frame needs to be filled.


Now, with your Air-TTL remote in ETTL mode, take a test shot. The air-remote will dial in the power automatically and accurately. Switch the remote over to manual mode without touching anything else, and you are done. The variances in the scene will not affect your flash, as is common with shooting in TTL. You need to have the latest firmware installed for this to work.


Always Be Aware of Light Direction


This applies when you are shooting natural light. If you pay attention to the direction of light and find a background in your scene that is darker in tonality than your subjects, you will instantly create an environment where your subject is the brightest part of the image. This rule can be broken; one rule that should never be broken is that your subject needs to be at least as bright as the brightest part of your image.


All natural light, even open shade, has a direction to it. Once you find that direction, you can use it to light the face of your subject, specifically the eyes. To determine the direction of light, put your hand in front of your face. Pay attention to the grooves between your fingers. As you turn your hand left and right, watch how the light changes.


Find the Right Light for Your Subjects


I have used directional light as one of the key elements of my style of photography, but directional light isn’t the best for every subject. Directional light, or light coming from the left or right of your subject, emphasizes texture. If you pose your subject correctly, you can use this to create a slimming or three-dimensional effect. With seniors come blemishes, so you may be better off using flat light or beauty light.


One of my favorite tools for getting the must-have headshot from every senior session is the Westcott Omega Reflector. The reflector, designed by Jerry Ghionis, features a hole cut in the center that allows you to shoot through. This creates incredible catchlights in your subject’s eyes and hides any imperfections in their skin. The design of the Omega was well thought out, the placement of the cutout carefully considered. Don’t try making one of these at home—in my experience, it won’t work.


A reflector is my best friend on a senior shoot. One of the most liberating things for me, coming from a wedding background, is that we are working with one subject. This allows much more flexibility in light placement. You will often see me directing my assistant all around to different sides of my subject to find the best placement.


Vary Your Modifiers


I love soft light. I use the Profoto or Westcott 3-foot softboxes on many of my shoots. With seniors, I use bare flash for dramatic portraits. The key in choosing a modifier that looks appropriate for any scene is to match the natural light. On an overcast day, the natural light is soft, so use a soft light modifier. When shooting in the California sun, you will find us using Profoto’s Zoom Reflector to match the hard light in the scene. This rule can be broken, but if you are in a pinch, it is a good one to follow to create natural-looking images.


Watch Your Light Spill


The first thing that screams amateur about off-camera flash is light spill. There is nothing worse than a beautiful image with bad light placement. Remember, your eyes are drawn to the brightest part of an image, and if you are lighting the floor in front of your subjects, it takes the eyes out of the scene. Grids offer the easiest way to control light spill. Profoto makes grid options for monolights, while Magmod owns the market for speedlight grids. Both high-quality tools are always in our bag.


Make Sure Your Color Is Accurate


If light spill is the best indicator of an amateur strobist, unbalanced color is its little brother. If you are shooting at sunset, the light temperature will be very warm. You need to use gels to match the color of your flash to the scene. As above, this rule can be broken, especially in the case of color shifting (see my article in the 2015 Lighting Edition of Shutter). Overall, though, it should be followed if you want to create natural-looking photos.


Balance in Lighting Is as Important as Location in Real Estate


Using the proper ratio of ambient light to flash is critical to creating images that look natural and not too “flashy.” Properly balanced flash looks like natural light and appeals to most eyes. Everyone’s aesthetics are different, and even if a client hires you because they love your style, to create sellable portraits, your images need to appeal to them. Natural images appeal to a broader spectrum of people than images that are more stylistic. Have you ever submitted images to sites like The Knot or WeddingWire and been turned down because the images didn’t fit their style? It happened to me a lot when I started in photography.


I could not figure out why we continued booking clients while every magazine was turning us down. This is because the magazines publish images that appeal to the broadest set of readers, rather than smaller groups that like our colorful style. Just this week, I was asked to resubmit images to a large publication with a more natural-looking style of post-processing. No thank you.


Go Big to Create Your Standout Image


This tip seems obvious. Unique images equal happy clients, large sales and more referrals and social media engagement. On every shoot, focus on creating one image that is portfolio-worthy. This means that everything needs to come together—light, pose, scene, clothes, expression. Once you have this shot, double- and triple-check it to make sure it’s perfect before continuing.


Our signature shots are done with a wide angle, 12mm or so. They are lit with two off-camera lights, and usually showcase the scenery. If we get great attire or incorporate something special to the senior, even better. Just remember, light is the anchor to your photo, and even if all the other elements come together, if your light sucks, the image will too.


Summing Up


Good light allows you maximum manipulation of your images in post-production, where the magic happens. We have Lightroom presets for every image that will become one of our signature shots, and they require perfect light to work. This helps us create a consistent product that we can deliver to every client, which has fueled our referrals to help us get this new line of business off the ground.


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the March issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Location Lighting: From Simple to Complex

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017


Location Lighting: From Simple to Complex with Michael Corsentino


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the March issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.


For me, anything beyond one light and a small modifier starts to fall into the complex category. Additional lights mean more stands, more sandbags, more triggers, more grip equipment, more assistants, extra time to set up, additional transportation logistics and permits. I opt for simple, especially on location. Sometimes, though, the shoot demands more complex solutions or a combination of simple and not so simple to get the job done.


In the shoot for this article, I was asked to photograph a spring fashion editorial on location for a high-end boutique. The location was a park. This required a lighting plan that would accommodate whatever the location threw at us the day of the shoot. Despite weather forecasts, you never know exactly what Mother Nature has in store for you. Conditions the day of the shoot can be anything from cloudy and overcast to harsh overhead sunlight or dappled light. You just never know, especially in Florida, so being prepared for all possibilities is key.


With that in mind, I put together a lighting plan that allowed me five options. The first tools on my list were a large 74-inch octabank with an 8×8 scrim. I chose this combination because I wanted to create a soft quality of light for some of the looks.


The general rule of thumb is the larger the modifiers, the softer the light they produce. When you’re working on location, a scrim or even a small collapsible diffusion panel can be indispensable for taming harsh overhead sunlight. Scrims and diffusion panels can also be used to create large softbox-like light panels used to diffuse either natural light or a strobe fired through it. I used a strobe for my keylight in conjunction with the octabank. I also chose a second strobe with a 7-inch silver reflector. I planned to use this second strobe with a color temperature orange (CTO) gel as an accent/rim light intended to replicate the warm specular light from the sun on my model’s hair and shoulders. I added this light in case conditions were overcast, which they were at several points during the shoot.


Along with four C-stands, grip heads, sandbags, triggers and other miscellaneous bits, the above equipment made possible four stationary lighting arrangements. I also wanted a setup that was flexible and mobile, something that would allow me to work quickly and easily, move the models from one location to the next, to shoot full figure and three-quarter images. For this, I chose my go-to setup, an Elinchrom 27.5 Deep Octa and Quadra pack and head system. This 400 watt-seconds head has more than enough power for the kiss of light I needed, with lots of juice to spare. Equally important, it’s super lightweight, which makes it perfect for use on an extension.


The five lighting options I put together were as follows: scrim and octabank, scrim and octabank with gelled accent/rim light, scrim with strobe fired through it, scrim alone, single lightweight strobe and small modifier on an extension pole.


When you’re working with a combination of strobes and ambient light, you have two sources of illumination at work. Each of these needs to be controlled independently. This is easily accomplished using camera settings and the power output control on your strobes. Once you’ve locked in the aperture setting you want, one that produces the desired depth of field, you’ll need to adjust the remaining exposure settings to achieve a balanced exposure. In other words, an exposure that is neither underexposed nor overexposed. In a fully manual situation, which is my preferred workflow, you’ll use shutter speed, ISO and the power control for your strobes to control this balance. If TTL is your preferred exposure method, you’ll also have flash exposure compensation control in the mix. Find this on your camera body or on your strobe’s compatible TTL-enabled wireless trigger.


With respect to which settings control which light source, ambient versus flash, remember these simple guidelines: Shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light contributed to the exposure, while aperture and the flash power control how much light is contributed by the strobe. In ambient light/flash scenarios, where ambient light is generally the dominant light source, flash serves as fill light and is therefore not the dominant source. In practical terms, this means when you’re making adjustments to create the desired balance between flash and ambient, you’ll use slower shutter speeds to increase the overall brightness of an exposure or faster shutter speeds to knock down the ambient light and create a more dramatic exposure.


I’m always looking for ways to keep things as technically simple as possible. This way I can focus on being creative rather than worrying about gear. One of the great things about shooting as sunset approaches is that you can use the sun as a warm-toned, specular accent/rim light for the hair and shoulders. For the images I shot later in the afternoon, in a meadow of dry grassy reeds, I didn’t need to introduce a second strobe and CTO gel because at this time of day, the sun was perfectly positioned and had the lovely orange contrasty glow I wanted for the accent light. Earlier in the day, I had to set up a second gelled strobe to create this effect. Always keep in mind that at the right time of day, the sun makes a fantastic accent light.


And when it comes to keeping it simple and still creating gorgeous pro-level lighting, nothing beats one light and a small modifier on an extension pole. Working this way provides maximum flexibility and allows you to move quickly from one location to another without ever lifting a light stand. Using an extension pole to hold your strobe also avoids any of the potential hazards of people tripping over light stands. Using this setup as your sole lighting solution avoids the necessity of a permit in many municipalities. Maintaining proper exposure is as easy as keeping the distance between the strobe and your model consistent once you have your exposure locked in.


Just as important as knowing when to turn on your strobe is knowing when to turn it off. If Mother Nature is giving you gorgeous light that’s consistent with your creative vision, use it. It’s always going to be equal to or better than what you create with artificial light—and, again, it simplifies things. Even in situations where the sun isn’t giving you ideal light, you can modify it using a scrim or diffusion panel to create beautiful soft light. That’s why I always have a scrim with me for location work. This tool diffuses the sun’s harsh light and also softens and broadens it. Smaller diffusion panels can be used, but in this case, size does matter. The larger the scrim, the broader the source; the broader the source, the softer the light.


When you’re working on location, lighting conditions can change at a moment’s notice, and you need to be able to accommodate those changes and keep shooting. The technique above, in which I used a scrim to create soft natural light, works perfectly when the sun is cooperating. But what happens when the clouds roll in and cover up the sun? Now you’ve got an overcast situation without bright sunlight for the scrim to diffuse. In this case, you can simply substitute one or more strobes behind the scrim to create a light source with even coverage. I did this using a single strobe.


Just be careful of the wind, which can become a major issue. A windy day can wreak havoc on scrims, octabanks, large reflectors, etc. To keep your gear from blowing over and your talent safe, you’ll want multiple sandbags on each light stand. Even with sandbags, it’s best to have assistants to mind larger modifiers in case the wind picks up.


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the March issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Night Location Portraits

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017


Night Location Portraits with Michael Corsentino

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the February issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.


I love finding cool locations to shoot in. I’m always driving around scouting, jotting down street addresses, snapping iPhone pics, making mental notes for future shoots. Every town, no matter how large or small, has cool locations. I found the location for this night portrait shoot, a flat-fix garage, by just driving around one night. I’d never seen it at night all lit up by the fluorescent lights above it, and it immediately struck me how cool it looked. The wheels started turning. Along with all the tires, machines and garage grunge, it looked like the prefect location for a night shoot I’d been wanting to do for a while. The next night, I stopped by to take location pics, and sent them to my team along with pictures of the model so we could all start brainstorming wardrobe, props and general look and feel.


When I’m working on location, I like to keep things as simple as possible. For this shoot, that meant using a lightweight two-point light setup. I chose the most portable and easily handheld tools I have in my arsenal: light-duty stands, an extension pole, two Elinchrom Quadra 400WS packs, two companion Elinchrom strobes (these are very lightweight and therefore easily held by assistants), a Skyport HS Wireless Controller and a Sekonic L-478 handheld wireless flash meter.


For light modifiers, I also choose to keep things as light and portable as possible by selecting an Elinchrom 27.5″ Rotalux Deep Octa for my keylight and an Elinchrom 14×35 strip box for use as a possible kicker, accent or fill light if necessary. I love the small Deep Octa. It’s an extremely versatile modifier for its size and weight. It’s able to create looks from hard to moderately soft, and is also compact and easy to travel with. It’s always part of my travel kit.


Less is more with strobe lights on night shoots. Typically, you’ll be working with a high ISO setting and a slow shutter speed to capture the ambient light in the background while illuminating the subject with strobe. It’s a delicate balancing act, the goal being to maintain a moody night feeling by perfectly balancing the amount of ambient light and strobe light. Because the camera sensor’s sensitivity is boosted, you need very little flash power to do the job. (A speedlight would also work really well.)


The low amount of flash power needed has a couple of important technical benefits worth mentioning. First, because you’re not using a lot of power for each pop, you’re asking a lot less from the strobe’s battery. This allows you to shoot considerably more strobed images on a single battery change compared to shooting with your strobe at full or half power. I had my strobe set to the lowest power setting possible, which I believe is 25 watt-seconds for my gear. The second benefit is really fast recycle times. With a low power output, your strobe is ready to go again much more quickly, which means you can work much more quickly.


With respect to balancing ambient and flash, my preferred method is working in manual. TTL works but I prefer the consistency and simplicity manual allows me. My workflow is as follows: First, I establish an exposure for the ambient lighting conditions. To do this, I leave my strobe(s) off and focus solely on creating a good exposure for the background ambient lighting. That means the subject will be in silhouette. That’s all right because once I’ve got the background ambient light exposure dialed in, I turn on my keylight strobe and dial it in to match my ambient settings. How do I that? I use two things to guide me: the aperture setting of my lens and a flash meter. I have to make sure the amount of light being measured from the strobe by the flash meter matches the f-stop on my lens. In other words, if my lens is set to f/5.6, I use a flash meter to measure the light from the strobe until it reads f/5.6. It’s that simple. Using an incident light reading, the meter allows me to measure the amount of light from the strobe falling on the subject and match it to whatever f-stop I need. Of course, you could work intuitively and chimp, but why would you? This method is super quick, and time is money.


I get a lot of questions regarding models, so I think it’s worth touching on briefly. How do you find new models to work with? This is something all photographers grapple with, whether they’re building their book, working on personal projects or testing out new techniques or equipment. I’ve had zero luck with online resources such as Model Mayhem or One Model Place. These services have given me major flake factor. There may be others now that I’m unaware of, but none of them are my go-to sources anymore.


In addition to relying on my modeling agency relationships for access to models to “test” with, I use Facebook, something we all have access to. I post work regularly on regionally oriented Facebook groups serving the photography and modeling communities in my area. Even in Orlando, a relative modeling and fashion backwater, I’ve found some incredible local talent using Facebook groups. In fact, that’s where I found Jai, the model for this shoot. So I feel pretty confident saying that for all but the most rural areas, Facebook is a resource worth looking into.


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the February issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Applying Glamour Techniques for Stand Out Weddings and Headshots

Sunday, January 1st, 2017


Applying Glamour Techniques for Stand Out Weddings and Headshots with Phillip Blume


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the January issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.


Use your best James Cagney impersonation while reading the following: “Mmm, those dirty rats! They’ve hoodwinked us, see? They made us believe glamour was only for the bedroom. Well, I’m sick of carrying cameras and shooting naked women!”


If you aren’t sure who James Cagney is, get some culture, ya filthy animal. On the other hand, if you aren’t entirely sure how to define glamour photography, I might find it in my heart to forgive you. After all, its meaning has changed a lot over time.


In the era of Cagney’s gangster films, glamour was associated with the bright lights of Old Hollywood sets. Imagine almost any frame from an Ingrid Bergman or early Audrey Hepburn film, and you can envision the high-contrast black-and-white glamour of classic Hollywood. Long before cinema was born, the word glamour meant a magical spell that made reality look different to its targets.


That’s how I prefer to think about glamour photography—not as erotic photography, but as a set of magical techniques early Hollywood used so well to lift subjects out of the everyday and place them on a pedestal of perfection. Perhaps they were not what they seemed, but they represented an ideal.


With that in mind, let’s look at a few of those techniques and how to apply them for “perfection” in our wedding and headshot photography.


  1. Greater Contrast Ratio


Old Hollywood largely relied on bright lights to illuminate stages for low-tech cameras that struggled to see in the dark. The result was that iconic high contrast, a mix of both dark shadows and well-exposed highlights in the same image. The glamorous light conveniently suited the melodramatic themes of classic cinema. What is exciting about today’s high-ISO cameras is that they allow us to achieve the same look, whether we use supplemental off-camera strobes or stick with natural light.


But where do you find that kind of light? You have to know where to look.


When shooting available light, look for naturally glamorous light anywhere indirect sun is filtering in from one direction. Look down an alley, under a low-hanging tree bough or in a large entryway. The important thing is to make certain the light is coming into your space only through a relatively narrow opening. An awning over a long walkway is probably no good since light is still coming in from all around. The point is to not block overhead light, but to leave your subject mostly in shadow and underexposed. Deep shadows create a sense of mystery in glamour photography. A singularly controlled light, then, allows you to draw attention only to the most flattering and desirable elements of a face or body.


Remember the inverse square law? It’s crucial to getting your lighting ratios right. As light travels, it loses its power a lot faster than you might expect. Wedding photographers pay homage to this principle in ugly getting-ready rooms every time they shoot a portrait by window light.


You learn quickly that if you want that trendy bright and airy bridal portrait, you have to move the bride farther from the window. If you’re too close to the light source, the front of her white dress looks blown out, even as the back of the dress (farthest from the window) disappears into shadow or ugly orange hotel light.


For glamour, though, you want that quick falloff. Move your subject closer to the light source and expose for the highlights. You’re not trying to show everything in your glamour portrait. Let the background go dark and crop away the unimportant bits. This is your perfect opportunity to light those glamorous details, too.


I love the control I get with portable strobes, which allow me to create glamour light in any environment. Don’t get confused: High-contrast light is not necessarily the same as “hard light.” In fact, I tend to shoot through an umbrella that is as close as possible to my subject. This creates softer, flattering, romantic light without a hard edge. But because the light is close to my subject, the falloff is still quicker. That means more shadows, more specific points of interest left in the light and more glamour.


  1. Higher, Faster, Farther


Now, where to place your light for a glamour look? Think “higher, faster, farther.” Subjects tend to look more glamorous under a more elevated keylight, which accentuates the shape of the face and cheekbones, casts shadows down the nose and neck, and brightens the eyes.


If you’re totally dependent on natural light, this might mean waiting until the perfect moment before sunset, or “golden hour,” when the sun is overhead at a 45-degree angle to your subject (or even higher, but never directly overhead). To complete the effect, have your subject face the sun, but turn her face aside until a shadow is cast along one side of her face. An overcast day will also get in the way of this look; the last thing you want is omnidirectional light filling in your shadows. Look for direct sunlight, and feel free to soften it with a diffuser—as long as you keep it directional.


As the sun drops lower, you can create a unique but equally glamorous shot using sunlight behind your subject. Now that the sun is near the horizon (too low to cast those shadows down the cheek and neck), turn your model around. Keep the sun itself out of frame to reduce flair, or place your subject’s body directly between your camera and the sun to obscure it entirely. Either way, your model is now glowing with a seemingly celestial light. You can bring in a reflector (high above your model’s eyeline but not so high as to leave her eye sockets dark) and direct the sun’s rays down across her face. For glamour, a silver cover on your reflector works wonders—it increases the power of the reflected light and magnifies your high-contrast look, plus it lends additional specular highlights reminiscent of Old Hollywood.


The point is to make sure the main light is farther from you, always coming in from a different direction than your shooting angle. Your camera and the light need to stay farther apart, so this is not a genre for on-camera flash shooters. (Well, that’s only partly true, as I’ll demonstrate in the video below.)


If you’re using a strobe, place your light farther around the side of your model than you’re used to. Get used to extreme light angles. Again, raise it higher and point it down more sharply. Have an assistant lift the stand and dangle it over your subject, aiming it at the ground in front of them. This technique, known as “tabletopping,” shapes cheekbones dramatically. If you use a softbox or umbrella, the indirect rays coming through the modifier will light your subject, while the middle of your light (pointed toward the ground or a reflector below) will bounce back up and help fill any shadows that are too deep with lost information.


The “faster” part comes into play with strobe, too. For manual strobe, you’re limited by your camera’s shutter sync speed. You can’t shoot faster than about 1/200 second on most cameras, so don’t shoot any slower than that, either. In general, you want to keep out as much ambient light as possible, guiding your viewer with the light you’re adding to the scene.


  1. Multilight Setups and Natural Direction of Light


I’ve heard it said that effective commercial photography is often the result of “more flashes, more specifically focused on more elements of the image.” That’s certainly the case for many old and glamorous films, and for cinema today. For glamour photography, it doesn’t hurt to get brave and make the big jump into multilight setups. For now, though, let’s just touch on the value of using at least two lights.


Glamour requires something the art world calls “sprezzatura.” Your subject should look unaffected, distant and transcendent. One way to make any model seem “above the fray” or even otherworldly is to subtly defy the laws of nature.


A photographer should generally position any off-camera light to illuminate his subject from the same direction as the natural light visible in the image. In other words, if the clouds and trees in your background are lit by the sun from frame left, you should also light your bride from frame left. Although the lighting now looks beautiful, it’s not too good to be true—you’ve created the illusion that all the light in the image is natural.


Glamour gives you the opportunity to learn the rules so you can break them. So mix things up and try a cross-lit pattern—a hair light from camera left, a keylight from camera right. Or, while shooting outdoors, set up so that the setting sun paints your background directionally from camera right, then light your subject from high camera left. The composition can be stark or subtle, but it leaves the viewer with that glamorous flavor in her mouth, as if the subject is unaffected by the laws of nature, illuminated by celestial light.


  1. Set the Scene (Props, Locations, Play of Light)


Finally, keep in mind that glamour techniques are not suitable in every situation. If you’re shooting portraits or a wedding at a classic art deco building, you want to pull these tricks out of your bag. But while shooting a barn wedding, not so much. I like to play with glamour style during the individual bridal portraits and groom’s portraits on a wedding day. During a headshot session, I always get my standard, well-lit money shots first. That’s what clients are paying for. But I never miss the opportunity to create more stylized glamour shots to keep myself creative and impress the client. These images aren’t about smiling at the camera; direct the expression (as I’ll show you in the video below) to add to the mood. The more glamorous shots are often what clients choose for book covers and album sleeves.


Glamour photography may sometimes seem like an advanced, unobtainable genre with too much fancy technique. It’s the very glitz and glamour of this style that makes celebrity look unobtainable. That’s the power of perception. But it’s one of the best genres in which to explore and perfect light. It is a bold and unapologetic genre, full of extremes. Learn this, and then you’ll be ready to move on to the nuance and subtle techniques of any other genre.


To download a free behind-the-scenes lighting video shot on location with Phillip Blume, visit (this month only).


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the January issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Pageant Glamour: 4 Tips for Shooting Beauty Queens

Sunday, January 1st, 2017


Pageant Glamour: 4 Tips for Shooting Beauty Queens with Moshe Zusman


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the January issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.


Second to the world of modeling, the world of beauty pageants takes the cake for all its glitz and glamour. Photos of contestants need to be a step above a regular portrait.

When pageant girls step into my studio, they’re looking for a final image that represents who they are in the most fiercely confident and over-the-top, gorgeous way possible. In addition, the girls have complete trust in what I’m doing because I’ve been both a pageant photographer and judge, and their confidence in my expertise always helps.

Here are my top four tips for delivering great pageant shots to clients every single time.

  1. Set the Mood

We know this is important when we photograph any client. We have to create an environment where they can feel at ease in a normally uncomfortable situation. With my typical headshot clients, I do this by making small talk, offering them something to drink and so on. With my pageant girls, I do the same, and then some.

In addition to making them feel comfortable, I need to make them feel “confidently beautiful” (a theme of the Miss Universe pageant), and that doesn’t always come easy, even to beauty queens. As an added way to make them feel as beautiful as they are, I have a hair and makeup stylist on site. Stylists primp and make her feel like she’s being taken care of. Getting the right makeup artist is key to this because they also need to know how to make the subjects feel amazing.

Music is the final key to mood-setting. It’s always amazing to watch how quickly the right music can bring people into the right mindset and drastically change the expressions I’m getting from my subjects. On pageant shoots, I have upbeat music with a hint of sexy in it, which works every time.

  1. Lighting

When I photograph headshots, I usually start with a butterfly lighting setup. With fashion and pageants, I go for a more glamorous look, so I start with a clamshell setup and work my way from there. I use a Profoto D1 1,000-watt strobe just above my client’s face with a 2×3 softbox positioned horizontally. I use my 1,000-watt light because I want to shoot with higher apertures to get the most detail and sharpness as possible throughout the entire image.

Then, I have either a reflector or another Profoto D1 250-watt light just below her face with a 1×3 gridded softbox also positioned horizontally. It’s a run-of-the-mill beauty light setup that creates a gorgeous catchlight in the eye and highlights the subject’s cheekbones for a glamorous lighting pattern on the face.

Depending on the look we’re going for, I throw in a hair or rim light with my Profoto D1 500-watt strobe. I adjust the clamshell setup to utilize my Profoto soft-white reflector (beauty dish) instead of the softbox, and have fun from there. The key thing is to remember to never lose the catchlight in their eyes and watch for any harsh shadows underneath the chin.

  1. Posing and Props

There are two types of pageant shoots. I take photos for girls who need them for their application to the beauty contest, and that they’ll use in the pageant program and for judges’ eyes later during the competition. I also photograph the titleholders: girls who have just won a competition and need their winning photo session results. Their photos will be used for publicity and for the next-level competition (Miss Maryland would then be competing for Miss USA).

For submission images, the photo needs to be representative of how the woman looks in person. The judges see this photo before meeting her, and if it’s overly retouched to the point that they don’t recognize her when she walks into her interview, it will annoy the judges. The photo should be posed naturally, not too sexy, and accentuate her best features. If she has great teeth, have her show off her beautiful smile. If she has great hair, highlight that. You want to create an image that is beautiful and more than just a headshot, but also one that is a true reflection of who the girl is and what she looks like.

For titleholders, we add sashes and crowns. It can be a little tricky to work with props like these without making the image look cheesy. You’ll develop your own style. I take the traditional image of the winner wearing the crown and sash, then play with her positioning, putting her anywhere but where she is supposed to be.

In contrast to the submission photos, titleholder photos should be over-the-top sexy and glamorous. Concentrate on her best features, but add more sultry posing and varying expressions. Whatever the girl is good at, go for it. The only caveat is to know the difference between a Miss and a Miss Teen. Teens shouldn’t look too sexy, while more mature contestants can be a bit more provocative.

There is also a difference between Miss USA and Miss America. Miss America is like the “girl next door,” while Miss USA is the girl you wish lived next door. You can’t go too sexy with Miss USA.

  1. Post-Processing

Again, remember what kind of shoot you’re doing. Submission photos shouldn’t be overly retouched or alter how a girl looks since judges don’t like deception.

Titleholder shots can be retouched more heavily. Go to town with the retouching. Lower the shoulders to extend the neck, smooth out the skin, and brighten the eyes and smile. Take care of any blemishes and flyaway hairs. Nip and tuck as you see fit. These photos will be used for the next level of competition, and judges look for flaws first.

Want to see how we work firsthand? Get yourself to ShutterFest 2017, where I’ll be doing a live beauty queen photo session complete with music, hair, makeup and everything I talked about here. It’s going to be the most talked-about session at the show, so don’t miss it.


Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the January issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Edgy Black & White Fashion Lighting

Sunday, January 1st, 2017


Edgy Black & White Fashion Lighting with Michael Corsentino


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Working With a Team


When you work as part of a team focused on a common goal, the results are almost always far better than those produced working alone. Collaborations are the de facto workflow for fashion, editorial and commercial shoots. Your team typically includes one or more models, assistants, a wardrobe stylist, a hairstylist, a makeup artist and the client.


When you’re tasked with producing images based on someone else’s concept (which is standard with fashion, editorial and commercial work), communication is key. Mood boards can help keep the team focused on the desired result. These are collections of images grouped together by category. You can use PDFs, Word documents, folders in Dropbox or a Pinterest board. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, as long as everyone is clear on the mission statement for the shoot and the expected deliverables. Make sure everyone on your team is in sync.


The Concept


The concept for this editorial fashion shoot for wardrobe stylist Rachel Nicole Velez was “androgyny.” Rachel emailed two mood boards to me, our model Audra Seay, and our hair and makeup artist Evelyn V. Ruiz Resto. One board was for the lighting and general mood, and one was for hair and makeup. The boards conveyed a strong, masculine look in the lighting, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the model’s poses, movement and expressions.


We all agreed that to create visual tension, we needed to juxtapose Audra’s strong femininity with a more masculine styling. We also decided to use edgy lighting, contrast between black-and-white elements, and a strong use of patterns for the hard-edged look we wanted.


Light Design


Now that I knew the desired look for the images, choosing the tools and techniques to create that look was straightforward. This is the value of having a plan—you’re not flying blind. The look for the shoot called for black-and-white final images with a harder, contrasty quality of light. My plan was to shoot a variety of images, from tight to wide, of each of the two looks we’d be capturing. I needed to create a lighting plan that illuminated both the face and garments for head and shoulders, detail, three-quarter length and full-figure captures (see “Varying Poses for Layouts” below). These considerations helped me create a lighting roadmap to achieve these goals.


Choosing the Right Lighting Tools


I chose a Mola Softlights Sollo beauty dish for my keylight and an Elinchrom 20×51-inch Strip Softbox for fill. We placed this second light just below the keylight to help create even illumination from top to bottom, especially useful when capturing full-figure images.


The Mola has a highly reflective silver interior with a deep conical shape and a white opal glass diffusion disc in its center. This modifier creates beautiful, cool-toned, contrasty light with a slightly softer center core owing to the diffusion disc. It was the perfect tool for the edgy black-and-white fashion look we wanted.


When you use this kind of modifier, more light will be thrown onto the scene. This is known as the efficiency of the modifier. The more reflective the interior, the more efficient they are at delivering the light from the strobe inside.


I’d initially planned a separate lighting zone for the background comprising four 500WS strobes, but ended up not needing them. I call that a win. By keeping the model and lights relatively close to the background, I was able to achieve the look I wanted with a much easier-to-manage two-light setup that also required a lot less space to execute.


We placed the keylight and stripbox 7 to 8 feet away from the subject, who was 2 feet from the background cyclorama wall. This arrangement provided the coverage we needed to capture everything: full-figure movement shots, head and shoulders, and detail images.


Using a Meter


Readers of this column know I’m a big fan of handheld light meters. I use one on just about every shoot, especially if that shoot involves strobes. You can spend 15 minutes fiddling with your camera settings, repeatedly adjusting your lights and endlessly chimping. Or, you can use a handheld flash meter and capture a perfect exposure the first time you click the shutter. There’s no better way to inspire confidence in your clients, talent and team than showing them a prefect image the first time you step behind the camera.


Unlike your DSLR’s built-in light meter, handheld meters allow you to measure light in two ways: by taking an incident reading or a reflective reading. Your DSLR relies on less accurate reflective metering. What that means is your camera’s meter measures the light being reflected off whatever you’re photographing.


In the images in this feature, you see a tremendous amount of variation in the amount of light reflected from the white and black elements in the same picture. Here we have black fabric, dark skin, a white background, white clothes with black stripes—all of these elements reflect very different amounts of light.


With the incident readings possible with a handheld meter, all of this becomes immaterial. This is because incident readings measure the light falling on the scene rather than being reflected from it. Consequently, incident readings are far more accurate and less prone to error in high-contrast situations like this one.


Directing Models


When directing models, the photographer is like a film a director. You’re trying to create a mood, feeling or look. Learning to interact with and direct your models is essential to getting the expressions, poses, movement and attitude you’re after. You must be proactive. Being a wallflower simply won’t cut it. Take baby steps—it gets easier. Coach your models. Reassure and praise them throughout the shoot.


Varying Poses for Layouts
I’ve touched on this in previous articles, and it’s worth repeating. Regardless of the type of photography you’re doing, variety is king. If your end product is a magazine layout, a series of ads or spreads in an album, you want variety. By creating an assortment of images—some wide, some tight, some detail shots—you give yourself or your client the options needed to create much more interesting layouts. By pairing tight shots with wide ones, full-figure images with detail images, head shots with three-quarter images, you’ll create the contrast of scale between images you see constantly in editorial work. Your client wants options, the designer wants options, you want options—so shoot tight, shoot wide and shoot details.


Creating the Right Black-and-White Look


The great thing about applications like Capture One Pro and Lightroom is they allow you shoot tethered, which I always do. But it gets even better. Not only can you shoot tethered, you can also do it in black and white or anything else your heart desires.


These applications let you create or select a preexisting black-and-white recipe that’s applied to your images as you’re shooting them. This way, every image that pops up on your monitor or laptop is already being displayed as black and white. This is indispensable, saving a ton of back and forth when refining the final look of the images with your team, because you’re doing it on set in real time.


Using Capture One Pro, my team and I were able to select a black-and-white preset we loved from a variety of awesome styles, and have our processing look nailed down right out of the gate.


This is helpful for tweaking your lighting as well, because different black-and-white conversions impact the shadows and highlights very differently. If you know going in what the finals will look like, it makes dialing in your lighting that much easier.


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Conquering Obstacles on Location with Craig LaMere

Thursday, December 1st, 2016


Conquering Obstacles on Location with Craig LaMere


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This month I show you how I choose lenses, light and modifiers in a challenging real-world shoot to overcome obstacles and create the images I want for my clients.


The Consult


I have a supercool client whose sons are boxers. I’d shot the older son a few years before, and it was time to schedule the shoot for Austin, the other son. A lot had changed with my studio and how sessions are planned since the shoot with her first son, so we met at the studio to talk.


The best business on earth is repeat business. You are familiar with your clients, and they are familiar with you. One thing that’s really important when dealing with repeat clients is the amount of time between shoots and the changes in your business since the last shoot.


If there has been a large gap in time since the last shoot, it is vital to bring your client up to speed on any changes. The most important is any change in your pricing model. Your repeat clients do not take into account your growth, and remember only what they paid the last time. Your repeat clients want a similar experience, and when you drop the new bill on them, it can be a not so fun experience if you have not prepared them. This is one of the many reasons it is so important to have a presession consult.


We covered the changes, and my client was cool with it, so we planned the shoot.


Getting the Lay of the Land


I’m a firm believer in preplanning shoots and scouting locations so you have a game plan. Sometimes in the real world, though, you do not get that opportunity. This was the case with this shoot. My client wanted to do the shoot in a boxing gym her son worked out at. I asked to get into it before the shoot, but I couldn’t.


I arrived at the gym and started assessing what I could do and what I could not do in the space. The images that popped in my head when thinking about a boxing gym included high ceilings with a few rings scattered around, heavy bags hanging in open areas and speed bags in the corners. I was thinking of the scenes in Rocky. That’s not quite what I found.


The gym was not open at all; everything was in very tight quarters. The ceilings were low, with florescent banks of lights. They had used the space the best they could by cramming in as much equipment as they could, which is great for a gym but not so great to shoot in. There were some challenges and decisions to be made.




I brought what I thought would be good modifiers to give me the looks I wanted. I brought 7-inch sliver pan reflectors with grids, two strips lights with grids, my 22-inch beauty dish and my 16-inch beauty dish. The commonality among all the modifiers is that they are made to control light precisely and produce a more specular light. With the environment and the subject, I knew I was not going to shoot any soft diffused images. I don’t shoot speedlights, so I brought mono heads, power packs and extension cords. For lenses, I had my Nikon 14-24 2.8 G ED, Nikon 24-70 2.8 G, Nikon 85 1.4 G and Nikon 58 1.4 G.


Ring Shoot


The room the ring was in was small. It was about the same size as the room, and there was access to the ring only from the right side and the front. That limited the angles I could shoot. The back wall and the side wall were close to the ring, so I knew I would not be able to get any real depth of field if I wanted to shoot Austin in the back of the ring with an inside-the-ring perspective. If I wanted any kind of depth of field, I had to stay to the front of the ring and shoot from the outside looking in. There were two ring shots I wanted. The first was to have him in the corner of the ring, surrounded by the ropes, which I would use as leading lines. The second was him at the front and inside the ring, leaning on the ropes.


The first shot I set up was the corner shot. Because the walls were so close and they were pretty rough, I thought it would be cool to pull them in and make more of an environmental portrait where the background told part of the story rather than a regular portrait focused just on Austin.


Because I was in such tight space and I wanted to see as much of the room as I could, I shot my 24-70 at 24mm. At first, I wanted to shoot the image with one light and use my 22-inch beauty dish. But it was just too big a light source for the area, and kept making hot spots on the walls.


I moved to my 16-inch dish and put the grid on it to contain the light. It worked great for Austin, lit him up just the way I wanted, but it was not enough light spill for the rest of the image. The dish was just too small to make up for the lack of ambient in the room. The solution was to bring in another light to add fill. The ring was brighter on one side than the other because of the front door. I had to pick a modifier that let me pinpoint the light better. I used a strip light with a grid. It worked well. I was able to mix the light enough to get it to fill in what I needed, but it wasn’t too specular on the background.


The front of the ring shoot was pretty straightforward. I still wanted directional light with a lot of contrast, but because I didn’t want to use two lights, I used a strip light with grid. The strip light gave me the latitude to shoot whatever pattern I wanted. I shot some images with the strip, but in the end, I liked the ones shot Rembrandt the most. The front of the ring was close enough to the windows that there was plenty of ambient light, so all I had to do was move my shutter down to whatever speed I wanted to give me the amount of fill I wanted.


Heavy Bag Portrait


The heavy bag area was the hardest area in the gym to deal with because of the height of the ceilings, the height of the lights and the gaps between the bags. When I first looked at the room, two types of images came to mind. One was a pretty standard portrait and the other was more of an action shot.


I wanted to shoot some wide shots to take in all the cool equipment and showcase the environment, and I wanted to shoot closer to be more traditional portrait style. I tried my 14-24 lens first to take in most of the area, but it was just too wide below 24mm and started to distort the edges and bend them too much. I went to my 24-70 and stayed around 24-30mm. Because the room was so dark at the wide angle, I needed to have more separation between Austin and the background.


In most cases, if I want separation, I throw a kick on the background, but because I wanted the image to be badass, I decided to rim-light him and slow the shutter down to pull more light in to bring the background out. When I rim-light in my studio, I use a strip, but in this situation, with the gaps between the bags and how I had to place the light in the tight area, when I was at 24mm, I could see the strip in the shot and I was getting spill from the light in the lens.


My next choice was to use my 7-inch silver pan reflector and put a grid on it. I used a 20-degree grid, which is tight but still open enough to cover your subject almost full length. The other good thing with this setup is you don’t get the flare like you do from strips. Once I had the accent light worked out, it was easy to pick the main. I used a 22-inch beauty dish.


I used the same setup for the closer portrait images, and just shot at 70mm.


Speed Bag and Heavy Bag Action


I wanted to capture Austin laying into the heavy bag. I wanted to rim-light him for drama, even more than for separation. There was enough ambient for the background to be seen. I used the 7-inch pan reflector and grid again for the same reason I used that combo in the last shot. For the main, I used a gridded strip light; instead of keeping it vertical, I turned it horizontal so I could get the most coverage width-wise. I wanted the most width so the light would spill the least on the ceiling.


I told Austin to go crazy on the bag, and I would freeze the movement. When you are freezing movement with strobes, you have a couple of limitations. The first is sync speed. Sync speed is how fast your camera and flash work together. With most bodies, max sync is somewhere between 1/200th and 1/250th of a second.


The second and maybe the more cumbersome limitation is the recycle time of the flash you are using. The more power you have to use to get proper exposure, the slower the power source will be in regenerating to the correct power level. When I’m freezing movement, I know I will be making some adjustments in how I shoot to give my strobe and power source the best opportunity to keep up with the speed I am shooting at. I adjust the power and the ISO of my camera until I get the perfect marriage of speed and power.


I start by moving the power down to about quarter power. At quarter power, your battery pack should be able to recycle almost instantaneously. The trick is to move the ISO up until you get the f-stop you want. Once I meter to about f4 to f5.6, I’m golden. Most of the time, I am somewhere between ISO 320 and ISO 500 to get the right combination. With today’s bodies, shooting at ISO 500 to ISO 2000 is no biggie for noise and image breakdown.


The last shot I wanted was Austin hitting the speed bag. We shot some images the same way we shot the heavy bag. That was cool, but I wanted something different that conveyed movement. I slowed the shutter way down. I still shot the strobe, which would freeze an instance in time, but by keeping the shutter open, the camera would record what was moving. The reason the camera would record the movement of the speed bag beyond the duration of the flash is because there was enough ambient light in the room to fully see the bag without introducing artificial light. The effect was a cool blur that gave the image a feeling of movement.


In the end, I was happy with the shoot and the challenges I had to overcome. Every shoot is a learning experience.


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Lighting in Tight Spaces with Michael Corsentino

Thursday, December 1st, 2016


Lighting in Tight Spaces with Michael Corsentino


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Whether you’re in a studio, office or on location, space is always an issue. A large studio with plenty of room is wonderful, but space is at a severe premium. What do you do? This month, I walk you through the considerations, tools, techniques and ways to get the job done when space is super tight. We also go behind the scenes for a fashion portrait shoot produced in a 10x10x10-foot space so you can see what’s possible with a limited footprint.


Let’s start with gear.


Equipment is a major consideration when you’re planning a shoot in a confined space. Things like large boom arms, lots of heavy-duty grip equipment, gargantuan octabanks and a ton of lights aren’t normally feasible; even when they are, they end up being more of a burden than an advantage. Your best bet is to work light on your feet. For the most part, that means one or two lights. I like moonlights due to their compact, lightweight form factor. Add small modifiers, grids to keep the light from your strobes exactly where you want it, and a backdrop that fits your concept, the space and the method you’ll be using to transport it. For this shoot, I used a 10-foot painted canvas backdrop that rolls up for transport. For something more compact, try Lastolite’s variety of high-quality collapsible backgrounds that fold down to a very manageable size.


My modifiers of choice for lighting in confined spaces, and often on location, are small octabanks, strip boxes, beauty dishes and ring flash. Each of these is easy to transport, quick and easy to set up, and they can be supported on a compact, foldable C-stand that’s ideal for transport. I typically rely on grids for all but the ring flash in order to keep the light from my strobes from spilling everywhere.


The value of grids quickly becomes evident in tight spaces where light can end up bouncing all over the place, creating a very flat, boring look. For the shoot featured in this article, I used two Elinchrom 500ws ELC monolights, an Elinchrom Deep Octa and an Elinchrom 14×35 Strip Box, both fitted with Lighttools soft egg crate grids. When you’re working in confined spaces, 500ws heads provide more than enough power in most cases. You don’t need as much power as you would in situations that call for more distance between your lights, subject and background.


With limited space, typically one of your biggest challenges is controlling the amount of light falling on the background. In a studio with ample space, it’s easy to move your subject away from the background and control the amount of illumination using either distance, separate lighting zones or both. In a confined space with little to no space between your subject and the background, this isn’t possible—you’ll need other tools and techniques to shape and control the light falling on your subject and background.


To do that, you’ll need to rely on the angle of incidence, which is the direction of your lights in relationship to the model and backdrop, as well as the tools you use to modify and shape those lights. For this purpose, honeycomb grids, both soft egg crates and hard grid spots, are indispensable tools. This is because grids take the light coming out of a softbox, beauty dish or reflector and channel it into a much more narrowly confined beam, allowing you to place light precisely where you want it and keep it away from areas you don’t—in this case, the backdrop.


The other essential component in controlling the light falling on the backdrop is the direction and placement of your lights. Even with a grid in place, if your lights are pointed directly toward the backdrop, you’ll have a very limited amount of control over its illumination. You’ll be lighting your subject and the model without a mechanism to help separate them. This is where light direction and placement are key. By simply moving your lights to the side of the backdrop, you’ll not only help avoid putting too much on it, but you’ll also avoid boring flat lighting; you’ll add shadow, volume and drama to the lighting on your subject.


I’ve included example images to illustrate this point. With the light positioned over the camera and pointed directly toward the backdrop and subject, you light both pretty equally and flatly. By moving the keylight (an Elinchrom 500ws ELC monolight with an Elinchrom Deep Octa) camera left and channeling its light with a Lighttools soft egg crate grid, I was able to more precisely control the light falling on the subject and the background as individual elements. The bonus, I think you’ll agree, is that the light is considerably more interesting and dramatic.


I’m an advocate of working one light at a time, so I always start with the keylight and progress from there, seasoning to taste with additional lights as needed. Once I’ve nailed a few winners using only the keylight, I add a second light, third light, etc. That’s exactly what I did here. I added a second Elinchrom 500ws ELC monolight fitted with an Elinchrom 14×35 strip box and a Lighttools soft egg crate grid. Arranged in a cross light pattern, behind the subject and opposite the keylight, this strobe served as a kicker light and alternative keylight. Cross lighting is great because it gives the model the flexibility to turn freely from left to right, with each light alternating as key and kicker.


Lens choice and aperture also play a pivotal role when you’re working in close proximity to your subject and background. For this shoot, I chose an 80mm and 150mm lens and set the aperture to f/11, with medium format that’s like f/5.6 when using a DSLR. This kept the front of the model’s face shape but allowed me to create the falloff I needed between the model and backdrop. If the backdrop is too sharp, it can easily become a distracting rather than enhancing element. We chose a retro-inspired fleur-de-lis-patterned red and black painted backdrop consistent with the gothic fashion direction of the shoot.


You can see that with a few simple tools, the right techniques and a creative vision, it’s easy to achieve great results even in the tightest spaces.


Check out this month’s companion video, and let’s keep the dialog going. Hit me up on the ShutterFest Facebook page with your lighting questions.


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Turning the Ordinary Into Extraordinary: Lighting Receptions with Michael Anthony

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016


Turning the Ordinary Into Extraordinary: Lighting Receptions with Michael Anthony


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Lighting challenges are present in almost all aspects of the wedding day, but seldom do photographers face more problems than when they light receptions. There are many reasons for this. First, receptions often take place indoors or outdoors in the evening in very low-light environments. Second, we often encounter mixed lighting situations, or, at best, we may have a single dimly lit tungsten environment. Lastly, every aspect of the reception is going to be documentary-based, so having control of your environment is pretty much out of the question. Nonetheless, it is our job to ensure the client receives a professional, quality product, and that means we have to be at the top of our game even when circumstances are hard.


As with most things in photography, there is no “one size fits all” for every situation, but there are simple rules that will make your job easier.


Going into photographing my first wedding, the only area I wasn’t comfortable with was reception lighting. I read Neil Van Niekerk’s Off-Camera Flash: Techniques for Digital Photographers three times leading up to my first wedding. Unlike many photographers, I did not start in wedding photography by second shooting for other photographers, so everything I had set up, I had done so on my own without knowing what the outcome would be. Over time, my setups have evolved to account for some of the problems I ran into early on, but the foundation of how I shoot most receptions is still the same.
Equipment for Lighting Receptions


I primarily rely on four Canon 600EX-RT’s or three Profoto B2’s plus one Canon 600EX-RT, depending on if I am working with a second shooter who is using my lights. (The B2 has a much faster recycle time, but requires you to use a third-party trigger like the PocketWizard with your on-camera flash.) The key is that your lights remain mobile. You have to continuously move your off-camera flashes around all night long, so don’t be tied down to cords plugged into a wall. The other thing is that you don’t want to be too top heavy. If a guest knocks over a stand, a monolight could do considerable damage to someone’s head.


Use sturdy but light stands. I recommend the Manfrotto 1004BAC. You need at least three of them to cover most environments. Get Manfrotto umbrella adapters and a good hot-shoe adapter.


You can use any type of light source you want, but just make sure it is reliable and you can trigger it via radio. Do not rely on optical slaves for reception lighting.


Keep in mind that you will need to have flash on your camera at all times during the reception because you will not always be able to place subjects within the bounds of your off-camera flashes. Your trigger on-camera must be able to control your off-camera flashes remotely.


Light Settings


Your settings will always vary, but you’ll want to keep two things in mind. You need to balance the ambient light in the room with the flash power from your lights properly. This ensures less contrasty shadows and a better overall aesthetic. Shoot at f/4–f/5.6, because in these fast-paced environments, you want your subjects in focus. This means you will likely need to bump up your ISO quite a bit, which helps keep a moderately quick shutter speed and conserve power on your flashes so you are not running out of power on your flash at inopportune times.


Light Color


One of the biggest problems I see with photographers lighting receptions is that their flash light is competing with the ambient light and creating a mixed-color situation. Ninety percent of the receptions we shoot are in an incandescent environment. This means you should be matching the color of your flash to the light in the room using CTO gels. If you retain even the slightest amount of ambient light and use an unbalanced flash color, you will run into problems with color. Have gels available for all your flashes, as opposed to just your on-camera flash.


Lighting a Dance Floor for First Dance and Parent Dances


Here you will see my basic lighting pattern for first dances and parent dances. You will notice that I use three lights positioned in a triangular format on the dance floor. I also turn off my on-camera flash because it’s understood that the couple will likely be dancing in the center of the floor. If your couple is coordinating their dance and will be traveling throughout the dance floor, you may need to move your lights out a bit farther, but most of the time, my lights are positioned around the edges of the floor.


There are two things you need to consider when choosing your shooting angle. The first thing is your background. Pick an angle that allows you to shoot into uplighting or into a darker environment. Using off-camera flash actually allows you to hide some of the clutter commonly found in a reception, but if you choose the wrong angle, you will just add to it. Avoid an angle that forces you to shoot into the spill area of your flash.


Typically, if a room is rectangular, you should shoot toward the part of the room that is farthest from your flash. If your couple chose uplighting, you will get great results with this technique.


The second thing you need to consider is the position of your couple in relation to your light. I always tell couples that did not coordinate a dance to do two things: Keep spinning when you are dancing, and stay at the center of the dance floor. I also instruct the bride not to bury her face in the groom’s shoulder, which causes bad shadows on half of her face as the light comes across the groom’s shoulder.


You need to time your shots to get the best possible light on the subject’s face. This takes a lot of practice, and eventually you will find out the best time to shoot for your particular light pattern. Keep in mind you will need to adjust your light position if your angle and light are not lining up correctly. You can use one of your off-camera flashes as a backlight, but be careful of the fly-away hairs that the backlight can accentuate. I learned this from placing way too many retouching orders when designing a client’s album.


Lighting Speeches


Usually after the first dance or parent dance, the DJ will move right into speeches. This is why mobility of your lights is so important. For speeches, the couple has their backs to a wall somewhere, and the speaker will either be out on the dance floor or right next to them. Either way is good, but you have to light them both correctly. We use two lights off-camera, and no on-camera flash.


The trick to photographing speeches is to make proper use of angles. Position your lights at a 45-degree angle to the subjects. Avoid getting the light spill that hits the wall into your composition. This usually means you will have to get close to your subjects and shoot at a 90-degree angle from the light source.


When lighting speeches, it is important you are telling the story for your wedding album. Get photographs separately of both the speaker and the couple reacting to the speech. You could do this all in one shot, but I have found it to be less visually impactful on an album spread.


Time the subject’s action/reaction in order to get the most emotional moments of the speech, and keep in mind that the couple will embrace the speaker at the end of the speech. Don’t miss that moment.


Lighting and Shooting Dancing


I love shooting dancing shots for our clients. I will warn you that most of the dancing images don’t make it into the client’s album, but it’s a great way to make sure you are covering all of the guests and the action at the wedding. I typically use the same lighting diagram you saw from the couple’s dances, but instead of a triangular pattern, I remove one light and use cross lighting. This allows for better integration with my on-camera flash.


I also move the flashes into a less obstructive place farther back and higher up. This is when I activate my on-camera flash, because the tendency of drunk Uncle Joe flailing his arms about can create shadows on my subject’s face.


I always point my on-camera flash over my shoulder in the same direction the subject is facing. This ensures that when the light bounces and comes back down, we have perfect short-side lighting on the subject’s face.


Dancing shots take patience. Wait for the right moment, lock focus and take the shot when you can get the best reaction. If you miss, no big deal—shoot again, but when you lock in a subject, work to get the shot you want. Don’t be afraid to interact with guests to get the moments you want.


Do not use a 70–200 from across the room. It’s lazy, and you will never get the results you want. Your composition will be off and you will not show the action. Instead, grab a 24 or 35mm lens, and get a handshake’s distance away from your subject. The wide angle emphasizes your subject while telling the story in the background.


Lastly, back-button focus is crucial to capturing the moment. The reason for it is that you can line up your composition and wait for the moment to happen. If you are using the shutter button for focus, and the subject moves when you line up your focus and press the button again, your camera will refocus and the moment will be over. I am a strong believer in using back-button focus because it allows you to create better compositions and wait for moments to happen.


Shooting Details


Shooting detail shots in low-light environments can be a challenge. When building relationships with vendors, you will be judged not on the shots of people you take but the quality of your detail shots. If natural light is not available, make the lighting on your details look as natural as possible. We use video lights and longer exposures on our details, but if we need to create dimension, we get out the speedlights. Use flash for a detail like a cake. Cross lighting looks great on a cake.


Being able to work in low-light environments is something every professional should be able to do. It shows potential clients that you have a well-rounded skillset. The reception images usually close out an album, so having good-quality reception shots is essential to delivering a professional final product.


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