Lighting Sermon! Dark skin, white shirt! YIKES!!!

Over the years a substantial portion of my work has been magazine assignments, often technology-related mags due to my location in the heart of Silicon Valley. These shoots always go down on location where, partly by preference, we carry a lighting kit as heavy as 800 pounds, though I’m quick to leave it in the truck and shoot existing light with f1.2 lens – IF good quality light exists… In fact, we tend to carry a couple lighting kits – a large and smaller strobe kit + TTL strobes. I must be prepared to nail the gig using whatever lighting is required, from existing light to continuous lighting to a many-strobe setup.

How I choose to light a given assignment is mainly based on whim and practicality. When on location prepping for a shoot, the characteristics of the location and subject come into consideration, for sure, but since I CAN light anything in a variety of styles, my choice of lighting is often based on mood of the day.

Once you can light anything, lighting honestly gets a bit more confusing since then it’s a matter of HOW you choose to light things – the lighting design, i.e., the aesthetics of using light in both an effective AND appealing manner. There are more than 9 ways to light a cat…

I have zero standard lighting setups since locations are like geometry where the math regarding the physics of the shooting area is infinitely variable. What good is formula lighting in a variable world???

Tech buildings generally tend to be functional and practical so many are gigantic rooms featuring BORING seas of gray cubicles and solid white conference rooms. Alas, nothing so cool a photographer would get excited and, in fact, often quite void of interesting visual elements.


In route to finding another photograph, I stumbled upon this portrait of Kevin Ellis created for Information Week Magazine a while back – see old phone – and recalled the lighting I came up with on this shoot was an interesting puzzle-solving scenario. Light is light regardless of which phone was current at the time the image was made and this lighting scenario, created freestyle as always, interests me as a guy who’s done lighting for fun and commerce for decades.

Kevin greeted us upon arrival so I was immediately able to see he is a dark-skinned man who was wearing a crisp white shirt. Ok… One of my standing pre-shoot instructions on the executive portraits shoots we do directly for corporations is no white shirts since with darker skin blowing out the white can be a problem. This combination of very dark skin and extra bright fabric could yield a blown-out white shirt unless the lighting is precise and well managed. BUT this was a magazine shoot where I just show u p and do the shoot so I must usually accept whatever the subject happens to be wearing. Ok…white shirt…

It quickly became obvious I needed to light the man’s face and shirt separately since the contrast between the white shirt and skin tone was too extreme for a one light solution, at least, as I saw it on this day. To pull this off we tossed up two “main” lights. The shirt light was an extra small (XS) Chimera Super Pro soft box with a fabric grid that confined the light to a very narrow angle. In general, every light I use is contained and specific, rarely a broad light like an umbrella or unobstructed softbox, with exceptions.

When photographing white it’s typically necessary to create contrast via shadows by using cross-light so I placed the soft box with grid to camera right of the subject so it lit the shirt from the side in order to create shadows to show texture and detail on the white shirt – rather than using front light which would have blown out the shirt or simply rendered it excessively bright. In using a gridded soft box from the side, the result was a nicely toned white shirt with lots of shadow detail.

I allowed a bit of the gridded soft box light to fall on the left side of the subject’s face yet it was not enough for full facial illumination. To remedy this we tossed up a Dynalite strobe head onto a stand with a 5 degree 7” metal grid directed specifically and only onto the subject’s face with an exposure equal to or slightly more than the soft box cross-lighting the shirt to define contours. The face light with 7” grid was placed in front of the subject near the camera to light the subject’s very dark-toned face ONLY.

With this configuration I was able to light the face a bit more brightly than the shirt since the dark tones of the subject’s skin required a tad more exposure. The 5-degree grid confined the light squarely upon the subject’s face with no light dripping onto the white shirt at all. To add a bit of color interest we placed a Dynalite strobe head on the floor with a blue gel.

The background is why this older portrait caught my eye. It’s interesting since it is 1” thick translucent glass used floor to ceiling as a wall, an architectural feature to separate the area in which we were shooting from the lobby.

It struck me if I used two medium (36”x48”) Chimera Super Pro soft boxes side by side “behind” the 1” glass wall background – in effect a 72” X 48” soft box – pressed firmly against the glass and aimed directly at the camera – the lights themselves would be the white background, though concealed behind the translucent/frosted glass wall. The glass served to diffuse and conceal the two soft boxes while creating light approximately 2 stops brighter than the main subject lighting in order to create an ultra-white background which made the subject’s white shirt separate from the background nicely.

I intentionally overexposed the background lights just a bit so they gave me a tad of light-wrap around the subject’s face, a look I subjectively like a lot, on a given portrait. To eliminate this effect I could have simply reduced background light power OR moved the subject further from the glass wall but I’m fond of the look on some subjects so this was subjectively ideal as my mind saw it this day. Lighting is infinitely variable and subjective, style-wise, so it’s up to you to create whatever look/feel you can sell.

Please note since this was a magazine shoot, flattery was not as critical as it would be had I been hired by this corporation to create executive portraits. A more dramatic/less flattering approach is fine for magazines.

The exposure of the background is key. In order to shoot white on white successfully, it is typically necessary for the background to be ultra-white whereas the white shirt is comparatively a darker tone of white. I typically light white backgrounds 1-3 stops brighter than the subject, especially when a subject wearing white needs to be cleanly separated from a white background.

In all photography we’re actually photographing reflected light. That reflected light is not so obvious on light skin yet it’s very apparent on darker skin. We use makeup to reduce reflection (not handy on many magazine shoots) OR we can image-out reflections OR we can fill reflections entirely with Photoshop to create what might work well or, on the other hand, could result in a too-perfect, unnatural looking face. My general rule with dark-skinned or oily-skinned people is eliminate or reduce only the reflections that feel distracting, a somewhat subjective call.

Learning to quickly adapt the lighting you use to any given environment is typically a skill or even an art perfected over time. It’s easy to do a couple standard lighting setups but those quickly take on a look of the sameness you should avoid if you want your work to appeal to a variety of clients.

The best lighting is philosophy-based, that is, learning to use whatever lighting setup is necessary in a given location based on aesthetics, imagination and a solid vision of light.


After doing hundreds of portfolio reviews during lighting lectures across the country, I can say with certainty it’s a FACT the most feared area of photography is lighting. Even experienced pros with enviable awards often fear lighting so here are a couple tips:

• Make a strong effort to learn lighting even if you prefer existing light since National Geographic may call with an assignment to shoot soot-covered workers in a coalmine where the light is torchlight. What would you do??? Once you make efforts to learn lighting well – or well-enough, based on your photographic goals – you can then choose to light it or use existing light. You’re screwed in the figurative coalmine, though, if you don’t know lighting. Be ready for the coalmine.

• Practice lighting constantly. If you feel even slightly inadequate with lighting, force yourself to use lighting. Light your friends, relatives, pets, family or anyone you can drag in front of your lights. On assignments (self-assigned included) start setting up at least one light – on a stand – on your shoots. You can always shoot most of it using your old familiar methods but USE the light! Your lighting skills will never improve if you avoid using lights…

• If you’re comfortable with one light, try two lights. If you’re comfortable with two lights, try three. If you’re comfortable with three lights, try four.. Etc… It is no more difficult to use four lights than one or two lights. Whether you need 1 light or 10 is another consideration but, to bottom line it, learning to use multiple lights can expand your career capabilities enormously.

• Drag your lights around. Get irreverent with them! Toss a light on the floor and one on a shelf, make some frames and see how it looks. Put whatever light you have on a stand(s) and move it all over in relation to the subject location. If you want to produce a ton of boring photography, memorize one lighting setup and never stray from it. Once you’re a top pro you may decide one light is your style but learning to use multiple lights can only make your perception of light stronger.

• Lights don’t have to be fancy or expensive. No need to get an equity loan for lighting… Light modifiers are great but unnecessary if you’re resourceful with light. Consider that bouncing one light off a large white wall creates a gigantic, soft, reflected light source – no expensive attachments required! It’s nice to have the good stuff and all the attachments but anything that emits or reflects light can be used. defines the word photo as “a combining form meaning “light.” Lighting is fundamental. Embrace it and watch your photography improve!