Tips + Techniques

6 Portrait Photographers Share Their Biggest Lighting Challenges

April 13, 2018

By Libby Peterson

Photo © M. Hart Photography

Photo © Felix Kunze


Occasion: Portrait for Elinchrom
Location: Near Langisjór, Iceland

My hiking group of 19 included a model, who I coerced into being photographed in a classic Icelandic wool blanket. In a mountain’s shadow, I wanted to kick back some light. I had an ELB 400 pack and a Rotalux Deep Octabox, but I did not have a way to bring light stands because we were so remote. I didn’t have a grip either, but I did have Manfrotto’s Off-Road Walking Pole, and a friend’s willingness to strain to hold the light up high where I needed it.

Photo © Sunshine & Reign Photography


Occasion: Wedding
Location: Home in Arizona

When it comes to a wedding reception—and the dancing in particular—you’ll never see us with flashes on our cameras and lights on stands. Our style is fast and furious, and we like to put the light where we want it, at a moment’s notice. More often than not, we’ll have a softbox or speed light on a telescopic rod of some sort (we favor the Impact QuickStik).

But in the case of this very dark party happening outdoors, we opted for a two-person, handheld off-camera flash setup, with Amii on the camera and Andy on the Nikon SB-910, with a MagMod MagGrid and MagSphere. Always prepared to adjust our usual, we keep a MagGrip on our speed lights at all times, because, well, you never know. In the case of this particular photograph, Andy is holding the light at camera left, directing it at the bride, and Amii decided to throw a bit of an artistic curve with some shutter drag.

Photo © Daryna Barykina


Occasion: Client’s hair extension line
Location: Studio in Jacksonville, FL

The client was looking for something more editorial and trendy, and our theme was metallic and vivid colors, something you would see in a music video. My team and I built a set incorporating a lot of gold and complementary colors. The first time I saw the wardrobe was on set—a white, form-fitting sequined gown. I wanted to do a long exposure and turn those sequins into fireflies.

I was planning to use modeling lights to expose the dress, but all available sources were in use and the only one I could use was my key light. I ticked my ISO to 100, adjusted my aperture to f/9 and set my shutter speed to 1.3 seconds, but the light only exposed half of the model’s body and skirt. It just wasn’t getting the effect I needed. I looked around and couldn’t find a single LED light, fluorescent tube—nothing.

Then it came to me: we could use our phone’s flashlights to expose the bottom of the dress! I grabbed three assistants and had them sit on the floor right next to me, pointing their phones toward the model’s dress. It totally worked, and the client, who was on set supervising the shoot, was completely thrilled with what a simple flashlight could do.

This shot was done in my studio, but when I travel for assignments, I always bring a fresh roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil. It is extremely handy in helping manipulate and direct light. I can convert an octa into a smaller source by blocking off sides of the modifier, use the foil to make a snoot or to flag off lighting spill, and in 2 minutes, I can have a small portable reflector to pick up shadows in isolated areas. It is pretty much a magic wand.

For beauty shots where I need to capture hair in motion, speed is essential. That’s when I turn to my Profoto B2’s freeze mode, which allows me to get the shot ten times faster, and gives me more time for experimentation.

Photo © Catalina Kulczar


Occasion: Portrait for Brooklyn Academy of Music
Location: Home in upstate New York

On the second floor of musician Stephin Merrit’s home is his recording studio, where you can find every imaginable instrument—percussions, string and wind instruments, electronic pads and synths. Once I shot the expected “musician-in-his-studio” portraits, I noticed a very small bathroom with a low ceiling. It was full of drums, literally. You had to weave your way between the drums to get to the toilet. But I was up for the challenge—being 5’2” works in my favor when shooting in small spaces.

I was shooting in Stephen’s bathtub, facing a wall of mirrors. My assistant and I eventually found the correct formula for my height to crouch in the tub as several hand towels hid some of the mirrors that would have caught my reflection, and where exactly Stephen’s gaze was relative to my camera.

I typically use large softboxes to light my subjects, but this bathroom would not fit my softbox or an umbrella. There was hardly any head space for my subject, let alone light modifiers. We tried shooting with one strobe in the bathroom, aimed straight up to the ceiling, but with all the mirrors, the stand kept showing in the images. My assistant ended up holding an Alien Bees B800 head with a reflector pointing straight up at the ceiling at the very entrance to the bathroom. Success!

Photo © M. Hart Photography


Occasion: Wedding
Location: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

This couple chose to have their cocktail hour and dinner all in the same space, an incredibly luxurious and striking room. They had given each guest a bell that they could ring that would signal the couple to kiss. As I saw the couple lean in to kiss, I noticed the opportunity to capture this portrait of them while also capturing the elegance of the room. We tried bouncing the flash first, which altered the color tones and flattened the image, and then tried flashing the couple directly, which killed the intimate and candid nature of the shot.

After that, I decided to have my assistant crouch down in front of the sweetheart table with my Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT, equipped with a MagMod grid and a ¼ cto gel, pointing it up at them, while I crouched down on the open balcony behind the couple. By using a rim light, I could still feature the bride and groom while also keeping the moment intimate, create separation between the couple and the space, and not overpower the leading lines on the ceiling or diminish the room’s opulence.

This portrait ended up being the couple’s favorite shot from the whole day!

Photo © Melissa Scheetz


Occasion: Editorial test shot
Location: Studio in NYC

I had an eight-page editorial all planned out that included beauty and fashion images against a seamless. There were some electrical issues with the studio that day that required me to cut back on wattage use. I wouldn’t be able to light the background evenly as well as light the model like I wanted to, so I quickly switched gears and worked with what I could.

My main light for the model was an Elinchrom strobe with a beauty dish and a reflector for bounce. For the background, I ended up using a bare strobe as a side and backlight with an intentional glare. All of the images took on a whimsical, cinematic feel that I was very happy with. There are a lot of moving parts and people on a shoot, but sometimes I have the most fun when things don’t necessarily go my way and I am challenged to resolve a problem quickly. Always be able to switch gears quickly and become friends with stress instead of working against it.

Related: How To Separate Portrait Subjects From the Background

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