Three Ways to Remix the Usual Portrait Lighting Setup

May 31, 2018

By Clay Cook

All Photos © Clay Cook

Sitting Up

Many months in production, I had the privilege of photographing Albert Blaise Cattafi, who has danced for Cirque du Soleil and Florence and the Machine as well as choreographed Broadway shows such as Spiderman, Billy Elliot and Flashdance. He flew in from New York for a day just to work with my team for his publicity campaign. In partnership with production designer Gunnar Deatherage, we built a set of stacked chairs to symbolize a man at the top of his game—one, unfortunately, that could tumble down at any moment.

The challenge was creating a light scenario that would fill the scene and reveal the scale of the set but also preserve the dramatic shadow depth. With that said, we set up a 6 x 6-foot Butterfly Silk Diffuser from Lastolite’s Skylite Rapid Kit, then placed a Profoto D1 strobe modified with a 46-inch Photek Softlighter behind the silk, which filled the set with soft light. Once the set was lit, we added another strobe modified with another 46-inch Photek Softlighter to act as key light, highlighting our subject. With a few simple changes in the power of each light, we had our perfect balance. Luckily, Albert made it easy for us—his experience in front of a camera meant we got the shot in just a few frames.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: 24-70mm f/2.8L
Focal length: 35mm
Exposure: f/5.6 at 1/180
ISO: 100
Lighting: Profoto D1 packs, 46-inch Photek Softlighters, 6 x 6-foot Lastolite Skylite Rapid

Wading In

I had the fortunate opportunity to capture a marketing campaign for DayOne Response, a company that has created a waterbag filtration system so that over 20 countries that need it may have clean water. After much discussion, we decided to photograph the campaign, which focused on clean water, at sunset on the shores of Convict Lake in the Sierra Nevada. The promotional shot would require some underwater or split-surface shooting, so I placed my camera into an EWA-Marine bag to keep it from getting wet. I stripped down into my shorts to get in the water. It was shockingly cold. Hypothermia cold. The wind was strong and the sun was slowly sinking behind the Sevehah Cliff.

I counted on my usual environmental portrait setup: a Profoto B2 head on a Benro Adventure Series Carbon Fiber Monopod with a 46-inch Photek Softlighter on the head. But the Softlighter just wasn’t up to battling the wind; the umbrella arm retracted and the diffusion popped off, even with the binder clips securely fastened. It was like having a giant sail on the water. I stripped the black fabric off the backside of the umbrella to convert the modification into a shoot-through umbrella so that my assistant could hold the modifier into the wind rather than against it.

I couldn’t allow more than a few minutes in the frozen water, so I snapped the shutter frantically, doing my best to avoid swallowing the water in between every shot. I dipped my camera under the surface and held it in place while calling out positive reinforcement. Shivering, with no sunlight left, I called it. As I packed my haggard, wind-torn equipment, I felt confident we had a winner.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: 24-70mm f/2.8L
Focal length: 28mm
Exposure: f/8 at 1/200
ISO: 400
Lighting: Profoto B2, 46-inch Photek Softlighter (umbrella only)

Standing Tall

This past year, I worked closely with the team at Uproxx, Comcast and Watchable to create an engaging campaign for an online series that reveals a real-life basketball webisode series in Hazard, Kentucky, entitled “Us Against The World.” The series, which is an Emmy contender for “Outstanding Sports Documentary Series,” is built upon layers of race, cultural division, dejection and hope.

The team at Comcast asked to stick to a white background, but the light was at our discretion. Immediately, I knew I wanted to use hard specular lighting with one single light.

I set a Profoto D1 strobe with no modifier, 45 degrees at camera right and 8 to 10 feet away from the subject. Then, I raised the light stand approximately 10 to 12 feet high. The strobe was tilted down toward the subject’s face, which created a long shadow on the background about 2 to 4 feet at camera left. A tip: Use the strobe’s modeling light to find a good starting point on both the subject’s face and the hard shadow on the background. This style of hard light allows the subject the freedom to move around without the constriction of close light.

With that, we played with various positions, posing and action, including tossing a basketball at the camera. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: 70-200mm f/2.8 L II
Exposure: f/16 at 1/160
ISO: 250
Lighting: Profoto D1 bare bulb

Clay Cook is an editorial and advertising commercial photographer based in Louisville, Kentucky. His client list includes publications and brands such as Time, Forbes, ESPN, NFL, Livestrong and Red Bull, among others.

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