Tips + Techniques

Using Bright Flash in Three Different Portrait Scenarios

October 11, 2019

By Jeff Brown

All Photos and Diagrams © Jeff Brown

Tight Space

I always want what’s being photographed to carry a story or become a character or feel like a memory, something you’d like to look at for a while whether or not you know why.

My niece, Mia, came to New York Cityfor her 16th birthday. Before she arrived, my sister and I had talked about taking her portrait while she was in town to mark the occasion. Our “studio” was my kitchen at the time—a small kitchen. I positioned the camera from my bedroom and my niece in the middle of the kitchen with the seamless in front of the sink. 

With space being an issue here, it was necessary to keep the lighting simple. An excellent trick I learned from an old college professor, Michael Grimaldi, is to use one light source for the background and the person being photographed simultaneously. It’s very helpful if you aren’t able to carry an extensive kit or if you are shooting in a confined space.  

I used a strobe to light the seamless and as a hair light on Mia. The main light was a Lowel tungsten light with barndoors. Exposing for the daylight-balanced strobe with tungsten as the key creates a nice separation of color temperatures with the warm and cold. It adds depth. 

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 75-300mm
Exposure: f/16 at 1/160 sec.
ISO: 800
Lighting: Speedotron strobe, Lowel DP 1K

From the outside In

Mitch McConnell was photographed at his favorite deli in Louisville, Kentucky. Initially, The New York Times Magazine wanted a headshot on seamless, but after landing in Louisville I learned McConnell’s camp decided it would be best for him to be photographed on location. At the time, I had only a 70-300mm lens, which would have been fine for a headshot but certainly wouldn’t be safe for a location of which the size was unknown.  

The next morning, I rented a 35mm lens and a two-light Elinchrom battery-powered kit to bolster what we had on hand for lighting: a Speedotron 1200 with two heads, an ARRI 150 and 650 Fresnel and two Lowel Totas. We decided to photograph McConnell seated with a sandwich and a coffee at the only seating area in the deli, a counter facing the parking lot at the front window. The camera would be outside, looking in. 

It was early in the morning and cloudy, which was lucky as there wasn’t much reflection from the outside. We were able to pick up some of the ambient light from outside and the fluorescents inside, which was helpful; we could use our lights to help illuminate specific areas and leave the rest in not-too-deep shadow.  

I had never used the Elinchrom lights but when possible it’s a comfort to have extra tools on hand without going over budget or creating too much of a travel burden.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Fixed Canon 28mm
Exposure: f/5.6 at 1/160 sec.
ISO: 800
Lighting: Lowel Tota, Arri Fresnel, Speedotron strobe, Elinchrom kit

Shaping a Scene

The opera Lulu deals with the rise and fall of a young girl who ultimately finds her demise via Jack the Ripper. I was assigned to photograph a representation of the opera for The New Yorker, which was looking for severe shapes and a highly expressive face mixed with dramatic lighting.  

Starting with the background, I thought it would be fun to create a stark contrast to back what Marlis, the model, would act out for us. For this we used a Lowel DP 1K using the light’s barn doors to cut a shape onto the seamless. 

For the lighting on Marlis, we wanted a lot of contrast. We created an acute source of light for her face so that the result would be different as she moved at her will and would rarely be completely lit.

As I remember, Lulu was somewhat of a two-sides-of-the-coin kind of character, so creating a nearly eliminating shadow on her face seemed to make sense. Behind her, we used a couple of Lowel Totas to create the hard edge sports-style lighting effect that would carry the same look no matter how she moved. 

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 75-300mm
Exposure: f/8 at 1/160 sec.
ISO: 1600
Lighting: Lowel Tota and DP 1K, Speedotron strobes

Jeff Brown is an editorial photographer who has shot for the likes of M le magazine du Monde, WIRED and TIME.

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