Marc Gouguenheim on lighting people


Working with light shaping tools for Fashion and Portrait Photography

Choosing the right light – and the lighting set-up

I’ve always been amazed by the discrepancy between the money most amateur studio photographers spend on their cameras and lenses, and the money they spend on their lighting equipment. Most of the time, all of their lighting equipment together costs less than their cameras. In my case, and for more than twelve years now, I’ve always spent about three to four times more cash for lighting, than for my camera gear.

What matters, when you are shooting fashion and beauty assignments, or even for more conventional portrait photography, is to be able to combine your flashes and corresponding accessories in such a way that you’ll be able to have good control of the shapes and volumes that deserve to be emphasised, for every image you take. Depending on the person you have to photograph, you will need to place your emphasis on very different things, and a people photo with no emphasis at all, or a misplaced emphasis, will at best be an average picture.

Emphasising the important parts of the face
Here’s my first example, to show you very clearly what I mean. The man shown in this picture  was a famous psychoanalyst, and the main qualities of a psychoanalyst are their perspicacity and the capacity to hear and understand his or her patients.The pose I decided to go for, in this case, was meant to show at the same time his ear – the ear that listens to patients – and his eyes, in such a way that you’d feel at first glance, that this man is always paying attention to what people have to say. Both the ear and the eyes needed therefore to be turned to the viewer – to the camera – and I thought my lighting emphasis should be on this ear and his very charismatic eyes. This, in turn, meant that I needed two opposite light sources, one from the left highlighting the hair and drawing therefore the contour and volume of his ear, and another light at right to take care of eyes, nose and lips.

To prevent the skin from being over-exposed, and to ensure that shadows wouldn’t be strong on his facial features, it seemed logical to use a diffused main light source, such as a softbox. But to still keep some soft shadows, which would help emphasizing his skin and beard textures, I decided, that the softbox should be placed a little higher than his face, and a little more towards the back, rather than by the side of the camera or suchlike. That way, the main light wouldn’t be lighting the cheek, and would cast gentle shadows under the nose, eyes and lips, revealing his wonderful skin textures as well. At left, I then placed a Fresnel spotlight, used as an effect light to highlight his hair and to cast some shine and hard shadows on his cheek.

So, just for a simple portrait, I had to decide 1) the number of flash heads to be used, 2) the direction and aim of each light, 3) the nature of each light (direct light, diffused light, reflected light), and last but not least 4) the relative power for each flash.

How could anyone imagine that these four decisions were unimportant? Then how could these choices be available to a photographer who just owns a single light source, or who works solely with standard reflectors or softboxes on his flash heads? My belief is that only the right type of equipment will allow the studio photographer to choose what’s appropriate for each particular person and circumstances of each photograph he will take.

Forget completely the amateurish belief, that light can be “done in Photoshop”. The light that hits a 3-dimensional subject travels in a real 3-dimensional studio space, whereas all the burning and dodging or lighting filters and such available in a software programme will never be more than tools available in the 2-dimentionnal world of a computer screen. If you want a dynamic and sound 3-D rendition of the persons or objects that you will photograph, you will therefore have no choice: you’ll need the right lighting equipment…

The right lighting set-up is the one that allows you to choose under all and any circumstances the right number of light source as well as the right nature, the right power and the right direction of each light source.

The way you light depends on what you want to highlight
Let’s move now to another example, which demonstrates that light alone can be responsible for a picture’s success or failure…

I’ve always found that legs were among the nicest opportunities on Earth for photographers to study form and volume, but there again, lighting will have to be just right.
You may sometimes be able to get a decent picture of this kind of subject matters using a single light source, but two lights are needed for a real 3-D rendition. What mattered for this picture was of course to highlight the jewellery – preferably in a fairly subtle way, meaning that the jewellery should not be seen at first glance and from a far distance, but should nevertheless appear quite quickly once the viewer has discovered the beautiful shapes and textures of the legs. Rendering volumes and textures in the best possible way was essential.
A Lencarta beauty dish covered with a honeycomb grid was placed at left in a fairly high position, in order to fill the shadow areas of the legs at left, and mostly to brighten up the jewellery’s darker areas. Then a large softbox was placed at top right of the set, which was meant to create this highlight on the back leg and to brighten up mostly the bottom rows of the jewellery as well as the front portion of the two legs.

The very  worst thing to do when entering a studio – unless you are already a very experienced photographer capable of “seeing” the best possible lighting set-up without even switching any light on – is to start lighting your subject matter with a light at camera left and another similar light placed symmetrically on the camera’s right side. That alone will kill all possibility of seeing any true tri-dimensionality.
I always say that a photographer is worth what his shadows are worth.

Meaning that I strongly believe that
1) shadows are the key to great studio photography, and
2) a good studio picture is a picture where the shadows are at the best possible place and have the ideal dimensions and angles. And that’s exactly why I seldom use softboxes alone – or if I do, I place them very near to the subject, rather than pouring light all over the place.
Here’s an example of the way I generally use softboxes when I use them alone

Softboxes can be very useful tools and especially when they are used very close to the subject to control the spill of light and also when they are used as a fill light when other lights are used, but in this picture I used the softbox alone.

To light this picture,  a tall rectangular softbox was placed at left, just about 3 feet away from the model’s face.

A wall about 3 metres behind the model at right was used as a very mild reflector for the darker side. And that’s about it.

What I thought was interesting in this case was to have a very nice soft shadow of her hair on her back eye, in order to add depth and to create a little mystery at the same time.


Fresnel Spotlight

One of the lights I use most often is the Fresnel Spotlight – which is pretty rare in most studios, but which I feel should be present in each and every one of them.

It is basically a straight copy of these cinema lights with this characteristic front lens and concentric circles on it.

Fresnel Spotlights were already the key light source in use for most of the great Hollywood actor portraits of the 50s and 60s.

For you to better figure what Fresnel spots do, just have a look at the picture to the right – for which nothing else but a Fresnel was used. You may have seen this picture, Wayang, before as it is quite well known and was nominated in the Pro Fashion category of the Black and White Spider Awards.
And here is another quite different example to show what a Fresnel Spot used alone can do for close-up portrait, fashion or advertising  photography.

This was taken for a jewellery poster ad. Most important was

1) to have very dramatic and spectacular lighting, which would help to highlight the model’s eyes – in relationship with the slogan – for which an approximate English translation would be: “You can read his/her mind” and
2) to get a fairly dark, highly contrasted and almost monochromatic image, in order to make the silver (white-looking) bracelet and ring stand out. The model was wearing both the bracelet and the ring when during the session, but since the Fresnel was too dramatic to yield the perfect lighting for the jewels, the jewels were then photographed separately with a Fresnel as an effect light and a large softbox as the key-light and with reflectors all around, and they were later added as a montage on the computer.

But for most pictures, more subtle lighting set-ups will be needed, so as to obtain the right tonal gradation between any two contiguous areas of an image.

To better illustrate what results you can get when combining various kinds of direct and/or reflected light sources – with or without the addition of the diffused light from a standard softbox, let’s take a few more examples.

Getting moody images with subtle lighting, while keeping good skin tones and skin textures…

To get the mood right or to find the best possible interpretation of a given subject, you will often need direct lights, or Fresnel spotlights, or the reasonably hard lighting of a beauty dish or silver umbrella, at least. The “problem”, when combining several direct and/or reflected lights together, is that you will easily get unwanted double shadows and lighting conflicts. This problem will be tough to solve, and even if you add a softbox with a higher power to light your entire subject, these unwanted shadows will be toned down, but will still remain visible. And increasing the power of your main diffused light source will also result in a considerably reduced 3-D feel: less mood, less textures, flatter volumes. You will also need fairly powerful lights; cheap lights with just perhaps 150 W/s of power are not enough for creative lighting.

The first question then becomes: how to avoid these unwanted shadows, while retaining the shadows that will serve my purpose, and while keeping the mood I wanted…?

But there’s another – equally difficult – question: how to add direct lights, reflected lights and/or a Fresnel Spot, without giving the skin a truly horrible texture…? All “hard” or even more so all “harsh” lights placed by the sides of the model will increase skin texture and emphasise pimples and such, which you’d rather hide, in general…

Using a ring-flash
Well, I found out that with Lencarta’s ring-flash system, I could use several hard lights together and get all the subtle shadows and gradations needed for any beauty or fashion portrait, with no unwanted side effects at all on the skin, and no unwanted shadows at all. Especially when combining a beauty dish and a Fresnel Spot to light and give volume to a face, the ring flash would actually work wonders.

Here’s first a demo picture, where you will be able to see the characteristic little chin shadow and overall flat look that you get with a ring flash used alone:

Now, see three different ways to light the same model when combining together some Lencarta lighting of different types, for three totally different outcomes.

First of all, let me get this clear: for all three pictures the background was a couple of meters behind the model, and lit separately by a background light, so don’t let it fool you, and just look at the model when following the explanations that now follow.

On picture 1 (left), you can see what you get when combining a high position (almost vertical) beauty dish and a ring flash with a power ratio of about 3 or 4 to 1 – i.e. a ring flash 3 to 4 times more powerful than the beauty dish. You basically get a very flat high-key look, but you can still notice under the cheekbones and by the sides of the arms, that some very gentle shadows do remain. The shadows under the cheek bones and under the nose as well as this very mild shadow of the head on the neck are caused by the high position of the beauty dish, and the ring flash acts here as an extremely strong fill, virtually killing (overpowering) the whole of these shadows. And the Ring flash by itself will cast these very light shadows that you can see here just under her chin and jaw, on the contours (outline) of your model and by the sides of her arms. Admittedly, this is a fairly extreme use of hard lighting, and it will rarely be used, but will be very convenient to get a true high key in a minute.

On picture 2 (centre), the same beauty dish was used – covered with a honeycomb grid, and falling this time at an angle of about 20° or 30° from the front-top of the model, and the ring flash is still in use. In short, it’s almost the same set-up as for picture D1, except for the fact that a Fresnel Spot was added, falling down at about 20 to 30° from above the model – slightly to her right, as head shadow direction shows. As you can see if you look very carefully in the chest and neck’s shadow areas, the Ring Flash (fixed around the camera lens) still casts some very mild shadows of this fence on the model’s skin. But the Fresnel is the main light, this time – the most powerful one – and that’s why it “kills” all the shadows produced by the ring flash on the chest’s brighter areas. Exposure being set on camera for the face’s medium-bright areas, the impact of the ring flash and beauty dish on this photo is considerably less than in picture 1. The Fresnel Spot rules, this time. Last but not least, I should add that the Fresnel spot was pointed at the model’s head and brightest shoulder, but the ray of light was rendered narrow enough to leave her other shoulder untouched. Which means that the dark shoulder’s light and the light in the shadowed areas under her cheek bones is now just lit by the combination of ring flash and beauty dish – but under-exposed this time -, and not by the Fresnel Spot.

Whereas the look of the model in picture 1 & 2 was made very hard for two impactful and almost scary portraits, Picture 3, at right, is a lot more gentle and a lot more sensuous: anyone will notice it at first glance. For picture 1, the skin was almost blown everywhere, so the skin tones didn’t matter. For picture two, skin tones were meant to be reworked at post-processing stage, and so they didn’t matter.

Please note that as shown on this original, the strength of the Fresnel light – comparatively to the strength of the other two light sources – has given the skin a slightly unflattering look.
Only the skin tones of this picture (where skin wasn’t even retouched) were meant to be flattering, and how we got there probably requires a little explanation as well. The only two differences between these pictures were as follows:

Firstly – and that’s the main point – the Fresnel Spotlight’s power was cut down by half – brought down to the same power as the ring flash. Exposure was set accordingly and contrast was then considerably reduced.

Secondly, the Beauty dish was moved back just by 2 to 3 feet, and fell down from top of the model at about 40 or 45° this time, whereby it became more significant in the overall lighting set-up, and rendered the whole atmosphere a lot more gentle.

This goes a long way, I suppose, to show how important the choice of your lights is, and what an impact the relative power of your lights will have on the outcome.

Finally, let’s have a last example of another picture from the same series, taken with a different model and a slightly different lighting set up.

This time, the Fresnel spot was set to be the main light – about two to three times stronger than the other lights in use. The Fresnel was positioned top left, at the exact position of the so-called “Hollywood Lighting”, whereby a triangle of light appears on the darker side of the face, just under the eye.

Lencarta’s Beauty dish was covered with a honeycomb grid – no diffuser – and positioned at top right to fill-in the shadow areas, and Lencarta’s ring flash was used at a very low power to act as a second fill-in and to brighten up the hands a little. Whereas a softbox was used far behind the model and aimed to the wall, in order to obtain a very bright background.

Basically, with just a couple of flash heads and appropriate accessories, and with a good understanding of light, you will be able to take many more variations of any given portrait, than you even imagined possible before getting that equipment.

In the word “Photo-graphy”, let’s not forget, there is this word, “Photon”, which means “light” and “graphy” means drawing, so we draw with our light…

Many thanks to the make-up artists who worked with me on some of the images presented in this article, namely Elodie Casimir and Béatrice Jaquet. And thanks to the models featured on this page that allowed me to publish this article, namely Angel Ivanoff, Blandine Elle, Marie Rossetti, Darling Suon and Malia.

All the best for your next pictures!

Marc Gouguenheim,

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