Anatomy of a portrait

Luke White of Kingsize Studios breaks down a painterly portrait into simple lighting elements

Finished portrait of Evan and Ultratec

The portrait photographers I admire the most are those for whom mastery of light is second nature. In my opinion, some of the greatest portraitists who ever lived were working with oils in the 16th and 17th century — the likes of Vermeer, Titian, and Caravaggio. I am also a huge fan of the work of contemporary photographers Nadav Kander, Annie Leibowitz, and Dan Winters, and feel their use of light links them directly to their artistic forebears in Renaissance Europe.

When I was planning to make a portrait of my studio intern, Evan, I pre-visualized it would take a painterly form, with dramatic lighting referencing all these people, and more. My visual subconscious is stuffed with images like Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, Kander’s portrait of Benicio del Toro, Leibowitz’s Les Miserables series, and countless others.

We had neither an ermine nor a basket of fruit available on the afternoon we made this portrait, but when Ultratec Thermal Radar, the studio cat, strolled in we knew it was a sign. I generally use flattering longer lenses for portrait work but chose a 50mm focal length here, as I wanted to get in close and use the slightly distorted perspective to bring attention to Ultratec, and Evan’s tattooed arms in the foreground. The 50mm works with the slightly comic feel of the image, too.

Building the lighting

Portrait lighting set-up

When working with multiple light sources it is easy to get into a mess very quickly, and not have a clear idea of what each light is doing. I like to imagine the effect of each individual light as a layer. In order to see exactly what every light is adding to the image, it is essential to fire them individually and observe the results in turn.

Key light

The key does the heavy lifting when it comes to shaping the light and giving a portrait a certain feel. Often it is enough to use a key light by itself to light a portrait. I had Renaissance painting in mind, and the idea of a sitter being placed by a small window when I selected a small strip softbox as my key light. The thin, rectangular shape is useful in that it can be angled to best suit the subject without light spilling to unwanted areas. The egg crate is fitted to the front diffuser of the softbox to further control the throw of light and prevent spill.

Fill light

The purpose of a fill light is to provide a baseline of flat, even illumination to a portrait in order that no area be completely lost to shadow. The fill light must not cast any shadow of its own. To this effect, the source of the fill needs to be in line with the axis of the lens. A perfect fill light can be provided by a large, soft source (softbox, parabolic umbrella etc) set to low power and positioned directly behind the photographer. For this portrait, I chose to use a ring flash around the lens as fill.

Being a relatively small source, it gives more definition than the soft alternative (see the neck and collarbone) which is generally not as desirable in a fill, but in this scenario it suited my vision perfectly. The ring flash also makes for pleasing catchlights in the eyes.

Background light

I chose a tatty black board to give a little texture to the background. I wanted a very dark backdrop but didn’t want it to fall to complete blackness. With the other lights being so controlled and directional, there is no light hitting the background.

This is a very delicate light, but important to the overall feel of the portrait. My choice to add a green gel was simply that I thought it would work well with the overall tonality of the image. Several of Raphael’s portraits have a green/black backdrop which, for me, is as good a reason to do something as any.

Hair light

I often like to work with a hair/rim light to separate the sitter from the background and add an element of three dimensionality. In this case, Evan has especially black hair which would disappear into the background without extra light. A hair light is generally positioned behind and to one side of the sitter. The high, central location I used here was a stylistic choice. The barn doors are to control the spill of light, ensuring it doesn’t affect any other areas of the image, or flare into the lens.

Equipment

  • Canon 5D Mark III
  • Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art
  • Broncolor Scoro pack x2
  • Broncolor Pulso Lamphead x3
  • Broncolor ringflash
  • Modifiers as listed
  • Stands, sandbags, etc.

Special thanks to Evan and Ultratec, you can follow their adventures on Instagram: @evanwhooo, @ultratec_thermal_radar.