Glamour Lighting: On Set with Sue Bryce and Felix Kunze

August 19, 2014

By Jack Crager

One of the hallmarks of portrait photographer Sue Bryce’s visual style over the years has been deft use of natural light. “When I started photography in the late 1980s we were moving away from studio lighting and using more natural light, and it just became something I mastered,” explains Bryce, who specializes in making everyday people look fabulously glam. “I love the way natural light looks, so I never really went back and learned about studio lighting.”

But times change. In late 2012, not long after Bryce moved her successful studio from Auckland, New Zealand, to Los Angeles, she trekked to Seattle to teach a series of online workshops for the instructional web platform CreativeLive. There she met New York–based editorial and commercial photographer Felix Kunze, a master of imbuing scenes with subtle but effective studio light.

“Felix appeared as a guest lighting expert in a workshop, and we became fast friends,” Bryce says. “I just love meeting people who not only know what they’re talking about, but also are open to sharing their knowledge and are not afraid to teach.”

Fast-forward to early 2014, when the video-creation service Animoto approached Bryce about an ad campaign themed around the high-contrast look of classic Hollywood glamour. “At first they asked me to model,” Bryce recalls. “I told them I’d love to shoot the campaign, but they said, ‘Obviously we’re going to need someone to do studio lighting.’ And I said, ‘I’ll get my friend Felix to light it, because he’s a lighting guru.’ So we ended up both shooting it and both being in the campaign, kind of tongue-in-cheek.”

Animoto’s humorous, behind-the-scenes video of the shoot was an instant hit online. “We posted it on our Facebook pages and our websites and blogs, and everyone went crazy over it and said, ‘You two need to do a workshop together,’” Bryce says. “So we did exactly that.” Adds Kunze, “It just grew and evolved on its own—like all good things, right?”

The pair’s collaboration resulted in a new CreativeLive workshop called “The Lighting Challenge: Natural vs. Studio.” Filmed in May, the 34-video workshop combines Bryce’s expertise in posing sequences and natural illumination with Kunze’s studio-light techniques. “We’ve come together to produce my genre both ways,” Bryce says. “It’s like, ‘This is how I shoot with natural light,’ and then Felix takes the same model and replicates the same image with studio lighting.”

One of Kunze’s key principles is to keep artificial lighting soft and inconspicuous, so that it doesn’t call attention to itself. “If it looks like you’ve used lights, if it has that look like it was obviously shot in the studio, that’s distracting,” he says. “It’s always a problem when the light overtakes the message of the image.”

With this in mind, Kunze utilizes indirect lighting techniques—such as bouncing single-source light beams off walls or white reflectors, using black backdrops as light-directing devices, and sometimes shining light through scrims to replicate the warm, next-to-window glow that Bryce uses for her natural-light shots.

Both photographers share bracketing and filter-use tips for fine-tuning the exposure. “I like to keep my f-stop at 2.8 to get maximum depth-of-field,” Bryce says, “and I make changes in the shutter speed as needed. But I also want my shutter speed to be at least 1/60th or faster, so if necessary, I change my ISO.”

Kunze’s methods are rooted in practicality. “My approach isn’t purely technical,” he notes. “I’ve just kind of picked up a lot of those tips and tricks, and then retrofitted how to make them work for me. I’m still going to throw out the light if it doesn’t work and put someone next to the window, in terms of my own shooting style. But we’re explaining how to handle any light in any situation.”

Bryce explains that when she poses women, she tries to work with the curves of their hips and upper bodies to accentuate their fluidity, but with male subjects, she tends to emphasize the “strong, triangular” shape of the torso from the shoulders down. In both cases, she works to make the model feel comfortable and beautiful in front of the lens—sprinkling friendly compliments in with her forthright instructions and generously doling out positive reinforcement. “I find that just taking them through that vulnerability of seeing themselves and feeling good is probably 80 percent of the journey,” she says. “You can do a lot with posing, makeup, and styling, but the trick is to bring out their inner beauty.”

In fact, Bryce is spearheading a project for Olay on that very subject. “Olay is creating a community on its Tumblr page—at—called Best Beautiful Stories, and they approached me to partner with them,” she says. “I’ve been doing still shoots and video stories on these amazing women over the past few months. One woman decided to embrace her long gray hair as beautiful, and now it’s radiantly silver. Another segment is on skin-cancer survivors. It’s all about remarkable stories and transformations of everyday women.”

It’s a subject close to her heart. “People tend to think we all want to look like young models,” she says with a laugh. “We don’t. We just want to look the best we can look. I’ve never met a woman who didn’t appreciate a beautiful portrait of herself. Part of being a portrait photographer is giving that gift.”

Related Links:

How to Light Bomb Senior Portraits Like Shawn Lee

6 Lighting Set-ups, 4 Photography Masters

Editor’s Pick: Felix Kunze