Tips + Techniques

3 Ways to Make Your Subjects Look Larger Than Life

January 10, 2018

By Jay Watson

All Photos © Jay Watson


I remember a few things from my high school photography instructor, and although he said I had the worst case of senioritis he had ever seen in 25 years, he showed me a lighting setup he called “45º/45º.” It’s a classic Rembrandt style that places the light roughly at a 45-degree angle between the camera and subject, then aims it down 45 degrees from a height above the subject’s head. This is the starting point for almost everything I shoot.

“Do what you want, work with creative people doing interesting things, and get a front-end alignment after shooting epic locations” was basically the art direction for this assignment from G-Project Gear, the makers of ruggedized Bluetooth wireless speakers. The goal for this shoot was to build a library of marketing images for the client, so even though we were shooting over several days, we still had to keep things moving quickly with simple lighting setups.

A mid-large Octa box is super versatile. It’s the Kristaps Porziņģis (a New York Knicks basketball player who’s over 7 feet tall) of lighting—that is, it’s big enough for shooting a single person full length and stunning when brought in close for a waist-up portrait. It’s the only thing I used for this 45º/45º setup of rock climber Jacob Forrer after his bouldering session at The Buttermilks in Bishop, California. Set 10 feet overhead, the light is directional enough to have fall-off and contrast, but it’s really feathered. Most of the mod is in front of Forrer. The light is very soft and it’s giving the shadow side softer edges. No reflector is needed, but a two-stop neutral density filter was placed on the lens to cut back on the ambient light and to keep a relatively shallow depth-of-field at f/4.

Curiously, there was so much haze in the atmosphere from nearby forest fires that day that I could never recreate these colors again.

Camera: Nikon D4S
Lens: Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4
Exposure: f/4 at 1/250th of a sec
ISO: 125
Lighting: Westcott 48-inch Rapid Box Octa XXL

Two By Two

Samurai Sportswear wanted a signature group image with an athletic look and stylized treatment for their U.S. launch.

We chose to arrange all 12 people symmetrically into two separate groups at our CrossFit gym location in San Francisco. The windows at the gym were masked out with black plastic sheeting from Home Depot to remove the strong incoming sunlight. It’s not as nice as Duvetyne, but the sheeting is light, opaque and inexpensive. Using a 7-foot Westcott Parabolic Silver Umbrella with a white diffusion cover on an overhead boom, I painted with light to optimally light each grouping, two athletes at a time.

Starting with six athletes arranged for the left section, the 7-foot umbrella was placed over players 1 and 2 for five to ten captures. The boom was then moved to expose five to ten captures for players 3 and 4, and again for players 5 and 6 to complete the left section. Six new players were switched in the arrangement, and the process was repeated for the right section. Each pairing of athletes was completed once the art director selected an image with the best expression of both athletes in a single capture. Everyone from each section stood in place the entire time it took to shoot their section to avoid changes in gestures or overlapping shadows.

Behind each section, the set was flanked by 41-inch horizontal strip boxes with grids to create separation from the concrete wall background. These strips where roughly 12 feet high and aimed down toward the athletes’ shoulders. Lastly, we shot clean plates of just the background wall at the gym that was merged with a separate image of a concrete wall to remove the distracting windows at the location.

Each capture was in perfect registration since the camera was on a tripod and triggered from Lightroom. In Photoshop, the pairings of athletes were combined and the two sections were stitched into a single panoramic. Masks were created to add the new background wall. I chose to paint with light over multiple captures because I was able to make a 7-foot mod perform like one large 21-foot overhead softbox (which is too expensive to own and too impractical for location work). The 41-inch strip boxes became 10-foot banks. We were able to get everyone in with a consistent quality of light using the tools, time and budget available.

Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 (at 62mm)
Exposure: f/11 at 1/100th of a sec
ISO: 125
Lighting: Westcott 7-foot Parabolic Silver Umbrella, two medium strip banks with grid

One For Three

Using one big light source created three things for this assignment from Bicycling magazine of road racer Peter Stetina: an evenly lit background, edge light to a face and contrast by allowing fall-off.

Highlights and shadows give us a range of tones in black-and-white photography, yet too much of each can give us too much contrast. The visual style here required the background tones to be a flat, light gray while the portrait needed to be soft with a bit of contrast and some fall-off. Usually, I use the back edge of the light so the softest part is in front of the subject. Here, I did the opposite. Using the front edge of a 7-foot Westcott Silver Parabolic Umbrella with a white diffusion cover at camera left, I lit just a slice of Stetina’s face. Since there was no light in front of him to create a wrap-around or fill, the back of his head falls off into shadow values. The largest and softest part of the 7-foot umbrella (the back) was used to evenly light the background.

A large white panel was used to bounce light back onto the background at camera right yet tilted away from Stetina to keep the right side of his head dark. He had arrived to the shoot from a training ride, and the directional lighting shows some of the real-life character of being a road racer, like the sweat from his jersey in the portrait.

The separation between the background and his face is so subtle that it would be lost if the light or background distance had changed just a few inches.

Camera: Nikon D500
Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.8 (75mm equivalent)
Exposure: f/7.1 at 1/200th of a sec
ISO: 100
Lighting: Westcott 7-foot Parabolic Umbrella, large reflector for fill

Lighting Tips

1. Experiment with different modifiers to push your lighting boundaries. Each mod has its own set of characteristics. I’m never bored with lighting because the mods in my kit seem to change every six to 12 months.

2. Build your kit wisely. When I started out, I purchased light stands, grip, clamps, reflectors, light panels umbrellas, soft boxes and grid spots before I owned my strobes. Your kit is you. Strobes are just light sources that can easily and affordably be rented. White sheets, shower curtains and foam core are the world’s cheapest reflectors.

3. Think about size, distance and power. Mods are softest when they are large or moved closer to the subject. They become a point light source with more specular contrast when moved farther away or made smaller. Start with the largest practical mod based on the conditions and distance from the subject needed. Too much power can override a mod’s soft qualities.

4. Shape your subject. Don’t just aim the light directly at your subject unless you want an on-camera flash look. Rake the light across your subject to give it shape, direction and fall off.

5. Avoid the center. Boxes, octas and umbrellas have hot spots and more contrast in the center. Place your subject near the back edge of your modifier to allow the majority of the surface area in front (where it’s softest) to do its magic. I file this one under “Things I Wish I Learned Sooner in Life.”

Jay Watson is an editorial and lifestyle photographer based in San Francisco, CA. His client work consists of action sports, automotive, apparel and corporate subjects.

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