Assignment: Studio Portraits On White – Indoor Location Studio vs Outdoor Makeshift Studio

A technology magazine I often shoot for has a mid-magazine special feature where a major executive – photographed on a washed-white background – is published vertically across two pages of the magazine so you must turn the magazine sideways to see the full image.  Very nice use of photographs.

In the past few months I’ve done two of these assignments, each leading to very different lighting solutions. The end result required the exec (or guru, as the case may be…) photographed on a perfectly lit white background – leaving room for type all around. The magazine art director couldn’t care less how I lit the image as long as it ultimately fulfills the requirement.

SHOOT #1:  Facebook’s Stuart Crabb, Head of Learning & Development, Facebook, Inc.- (at right above – lit with 9 strobes…)

At Facebook – see photo on the right – there was a medium sized conference room no more than 50′ from nice-guy Stuart Crabb‘s office so we used our heavy-duty MagLiner dolly to haul in several hundred pounds of DynaLite strobe equipment, other accessories, and the white seamless.  Wiz kid video photographer Mikul Eriksson, my assistant for the day, and I quickly set about constructing a location-studio in the roughly 25×25′ conference room I’d selected as a decent spot to setup.  Since I’ve done this sort of setup location dozens if not hundreds of times, this 9 strobe-head setup was fairly quick to accomplish.

This lighting diagram shows roughly the placement of my preferred strobes – lightweight DynaLite 1000ws and 2000ws strobe power supplies – used when white-washing the seamless background paper and lighting Stuart Crabb.  Although there are many ways to create an evenly lit, ultra-clean white background this is the approach I took:

Background Lighting:  In tight rooms where a pure white is desired, I often use use FOUR strobeheads on the vertical portion of the background – 2 on each side of the seamless – one head high on a stand, one down low on another stand.  A total whitewash can be accomplished with 2 lights (or even one) on the background, in some cases. Lighting is infinitely variable based on the geometry and size of the location where you setup.

Seamless floor behind subject:  Depending on distance of background to the subject’s back, I often direct a couple of strobes – or one boomed strobe overhead – so the light strikes the floor immediately behind the subject.  Even if the vertical portion of the background is fully washed out, it is possible to get less light on the floor of the seamless, which results in less than a pure white background, ie, white often fades to bluish or grayish.

Lights on subject:  The subject needed to be reasonably well-lit from head to toe so I selected a Chimera 3’x4” Super Pro Plus Softbox knowing with a fabric grid over it, I could contain and direct the light so it would light Stuart well from about the knees up.  In this case I liked the bit of drama created by not lighting him fully and evenly from head to toe, jeans fading to darker from the knees down. Directing the eye is key.

YET one softbox lighting on a subject creates flat light I don’t really like so much (ie, light that is too even) so I slightly underexposed the softbox light illuminating the body then used another strobehead with a 7″ metal grid – at the correct exposure – on a light stand directly in front of the Chimera softbox to PUNCH Stuart’s face, so it would pop just a wee tad brighter than his clothing and the rest of his body, illuminated from the softbox, as is the key facial punch light.  This is one cool way to create drama in an otherwise plain white scenario.

Remember, how you light the subject is irrelevant to how you light the subject in front of that background, be it dark or light, dramatic or plain.

Fill light:  One small softbox behind me to the right was directed at a far wall, set to a weak power, simply to introduce light fill light onto the subject’s face to soften in any hard shadows and add a bit more detail the clothing on the right side.

SHOOT #2: NO STROBES OR OTHER LIGHTS!!! Subject: Gary Hamel, International Management Consultant dubbed, “The world’s most influential business thinker” by The Wall Street Journal

Shoot #2 was created without a single light, except that fantastic, harsh, bright orb of light in the sky, in this case at 12 noon, the nastiest time of day, lighting wise, to make outdoor portraits.  Gary Hamel, my subject, is a renowned author and “the world’s most influential business thinker,” as described by the Wall Street Journal.  Gary’s home was lovely but there was literally no place to setup a seamless background inside without moving a lot of furniture.  It made sense to this photographer to see if we could possibly setup the white seamless outdoors, a risky and treacherous thing to do since even a small puff of wind can flip or rip a seamless background in a flash.  Turns out there was a little wind so that idea was zilched…  Hmm…what will we do…

Photographer Gary Parker clamps an 8’x8′ silk into place over the makeshift set to transform unflattering harsh noon sunshine into nice soft light, resulting in the look and feel of a studio portrait. Supplemental subject-lighting was a 4’x8′ framed silk – used as a reflector – and a 42″ round silver/gold reflector.

It occurred to me if we had Gary Hamel open his garage door, we could setup the seamless just slightly inside his packed garage – out of the wind so natural disasters could be avoided.  However, it was smack at 12 noon when on sunny days light is typically far too contrasty/harsh/nasty overcome with lights alone, so we pulled out a 8’x8′ silk diffusion panel and clamped it firmly to the garage door and a couple light stands OVER the subject so that awful noon light would be diffused and our subject would be in nice even light – free light!!!!!  (no expensive lights – I love it!)   A simple 2×8′ silk panel was used just out of frame, entirely as a reflector, to illuminate Gary evenly then a standard 42″oval PhotoFlex gold reflector lected slightly warm light from a distance and to one side, so as to avoid making the subject squint.

With no supplemental lighting at all other than that wonderful mega-light in the sky, I was now free to simply make pictures of Gary, no strobes required!

MORAL:  Compare the end results from both the multi-strobe setup and the natural light studio setup. Learning lighting is without doubt THE most important ongoing, cumulative series of lessons a photographer – still or video – can learn.  Photography doesn’t exist without light.  The ability to perceive, control, direct and manipulate lighting effectively under any circumstance is often the difference between an average photographer and a great one.  


SamaraFrance - December 8, 2014 - 5:24 AM

My brother suggested I may like this website. He was once entirely right. This submit actually made my day. You can not consider just how so much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

Paul S. Reaves - July 30, 2014 - 4:12 AM

Thanks for share, your information is really helpful for us

George - April 9, 2013 - 12:07 PM

Great job as always Gary! You do an incredible job with hi-key. In addition to everything else as well!