Editorial Lighting - The Minimalist Way

My model looked at me like I was crazy when we drove to a grimy alleyway behind an Italian grocer because I wanted to shoot 'a pretty summertime editorial look'. While I can hardly blame her, I live and work in Seattle, which can certainly live up to its overcast and rainy stereotype. So, I sometimes find myself in a certain mania to use the sun while it's out.

In this article, I'll walk through a quick and simple look where minimal lighting and a bit of color were used to turn our spot in the grocer's alley into a fashionable set - no studio required. In particular, we will look at how the shot was built up to allow creative control in a mixed-lighting situation, using a combination of external flash and available light.

The model fixing her hair.
f2.5, 1/60 @ ISO 200, with color adjusted in post-production

The primary flash was set at f2.0, the background flash at f3.5 which means the main flash is slightly less powerful than the ambient light  and the background light is more powerful than the ambient light. This is why the model's hair is washed out where the background light is shining in.

There were a few challenges for this shoot.  The location was certainly not 'naturally beautiful'. I was shooting in a sedan, which is a fairly constrained space. It was late afternoon. As daylight time was short and I didn't have an assistant with me, the lighting equipment needed to be simple and easy to set up.

As locations go, this is about as un-glamorous as they get.

Why this particular location, sandwiched between a dumpster and a crooked cyclone fence? To build up this look, I wanted to start with 'open shade' - a location that was open to the sky but not in direct sunlight. This gives the background a soft, even light. This was important because I was using external flashes as the main light source; having even light in the background meant that I could set my exposure without worrying about blowing out parts of the background scene.

I was also planning on shooting with a wide aperture to allow the background to blur nicely. The fence, when shot out-of-focus, would provide a fairly interesting visual texture, and the rest of the alley wasn't even going to be in the shot. Most importantly, however, this alley is not a high-traffic location, so I would be able to set up the car and lighting without disturbing anybody or getting passers-by in the photos. 

This is a test shot showing the look using only available light with no
post-processing applied. 
f2.5, 1/80  @ ISO 200.

In the image above note the difference in exposure between the model's arm, which was near the window, and her face, which was in the full shadow of the car. This would be difficult to adjust for without external lighting. Ideally, aside from edge lighting, the model's face would be as bright or brighter than the parts of her body that are in the background. If I hadn't augmented the available light with an artificial light source, the images would be very soft and flat, as in this example. Recall that I was shooting inside a sedan that itself was in open shade. This is an environment with very diffuse, low-contrast light. By the same token, however, this provided an excellent palette for constructing my own lighting setup.

To maximize the effect of the available light and throw the background out of focus, I was shooting with a very wide aperture, f2.5. This can be dangerous territory when photographing people. At f2.5, depth-of-field gets very shallow, particularly for subjects that are close to the camera. Slight movements by the model or the photographer can be enough to throw off critical focus. However, as this was a candid and fairly casual look - one that probably wouldn't be printed at 24 plus inches and hung in a gallery - coming away with something less than an absolutely tack-sharp image was not going to be a deal-breaker.

Metz Mecablitz CT 60-4 flash units. The unit on the right has the built-in diffuser panel in place.

These flash units are each about 10 inches (25.5 cm) tall; a good bit larger than an SB or EX class speedlight. They are powered by lead-acid batteries (lower-left, in case.) This is not exactly a lightweight setup, but it's certainly more portable than cases full of studio strobes and softboxes.

My lighting kit for this shoot was a pair of Metz Mecablitz 60 CT-4 flashes that I had borrowed from an assistant. This is a 2000's era flash system which has some very handy features for situations like these.

Most significantly for this shoot, the units can be hooked up to regular sync cables without requiring expensive adapters. This meant that I could fire the flashes using standard radio triggers - the kind that I already had lying around the studio. This gave me a tremendous amount of freedom in placing the flash heads. I could set one unit behind the model to provide backlight and one unit behind myself, facing the model as a key (main) light.

This is an arrangement that could be very difficult to trigger using a line-of-sight infrared system such as those built into dedicated speedlights. Additionally, the Metz flash units provide an audible recycle indicator - they 'beep' when they're ready to fire again. This was a useful feature since I was placing the flashes behind my back and behind car doors, where it would be difficult to see visual LED recycle indicators on the flashes themselves.

Building up the look: This image shows the added background light.
f2.5, 1/80 @ ISO 200

The background light simulates the angle and tone of bright, late
afternoon sun shining on the model's back.  This light was metered
at f3.5 @ ISO 200 - about a stop brighter than the ambient light.

A car can be used as a quick and easy set, but photographing a person inside a car does present some difficulties. There are a limited number of places where the photographer can go. Using a large car or one with very adjustable seats can give you more possibilities for situating yourself. There are likewise a limited number of locations where lighting can be placed - nominally, pointing in through the car's exterior windows. To get around this, lights could be boomed in through an open window or held by an assistant if necessary.

For this shoot, I wanted the background light to be directly behind the model, pointing towards the camera. I put the light on a stand aimed through the passenger-side window, behind the model and about two feet away from the car. This created a strongly backlit image, picking up color in the hair and putting lighting artifacts (glare) in the frame.

In order to avoid the temptation to zoom out and capture more of the model in my frame, I used a 50mm prime lens for the shoot (65mm equivalent focal-length after crop factor on my APS-H sensor). This was wide enough to get an acceptable amount of the environment and create some separation between the subject and the background, but not wide enough to cause unflattering wide-angle distortion of the model's features, which would have been a risk if I was using a zoom lens and zoomed out too far.

In progress: adding the key light.
f2.5, 1/80 @ ISO 200

The key light was metered at f3.5 @ ISO 200, much brighter than the
ambient light. This direct, non-diffused light is too flat and washed-out
for the intended mood of the image. Also note the strong shadows cast
behind the model's head; this underscores the fact that we're using
artificial light.

The background light alone did not help to open detail in the model's features, so I added a second flash as a key light to illuminate the model. This flash was about 3 feet behind my shoulder, firing through the open driver's side door of the car. However, the raw flash looked too flat and harsh for my intended treatment. Further, I originally set the flash to be about a stop brighter than the ambient light. This gave the image an obvious 'artificially lit' look.

To remedy this, I lowered the flash's power relative to the ambient light and covered the raw flash bulb with the unit's built-in diffuser. I also moved the flash closer to the model. This slightly increased the size of the flash relative to the subject, which further softened the quality of the light. This diffused light was gentle and closer in intensity to the ambient light, which made the lighting look more believable and natural.

Note that I introduced the background light before adding the key light. The background light has a less significant overall effect on the image; I often find it easier to visualize the contribution of lights going from darkest to brightest. The dim lights take back stage after the big lights are added; if I had started with the key light in place, I might have mistakenly tried to adjust this image by lowering the background light.

The main light has been corrected.
f2.5, 1/80 @ ISO 200.

Here, the key light was metered at f2.0 @ ISO 200 - slightly less bright
than the ambient light. At this ratio, the key light is providing a strong
fill without overpowering the natural light.

I had fairly limited options as to where the key light could be placed. If the key light were aimed through the windshield or rear window of the car, the model would have had strongly defined shadows on her features. This would not be appropriate for the mood I wanted to achieve. Placing the light so it was facing the model directly provided even illumination with few shadows. This suited the intended mood of the shoot.

It is worth noting that I metered and adjusted the lights manually, rather than relying on TTL (through-the-lens) metering and exposure compensation. This allowed me very precise and deliberate control over the relative power of the key and background lights, even though the background light was sometimes firing directly into my lens.

Technical lighting has been dialed in.
f2.5, 1/60 @ ISO 200.
The key light has been set at f2.0, the  background light at f3.5. The shutter speed was slowed down slightly from the previous images to account for the setting sun.

Some of the lighting artifacts in this image are distracting. The placement of the background light and the shadow on the model's leg from the key light make it obvious that this was not shot using fully natural light.  Although I liked this image, I felt that these elements detracted from the desired natural look.

As I wanted the lighting in the image to look natural, I also needed to make sure that the background light (our proxy 'sun') was coming from a plausible angle. This meant raising the light to a location where it didn't seem to be shining through an unlikely gap in the fence, which was otherwise backed by solid vegetation.

The final look, with post-processing applied. The lens flare artifacts were deliberately left in the image.  f2.5, 1/60 @ ISO 200

Finally, I added some color in post-processing to give the image a warm, pink sunset tone. This was done using a split color filter in Nik Color Efx Pro 3.0. Nik's software allows filter effects to be adjusted in selected areas of an image, such as the skin, with far fewer clicks than traditional masking. In this case, I reduced the effect of the filter on the skin in order to keep the model from getting an atomic suntan.

Beginning to end, this look took about 15 minutes to set up and shoot. Keeping the lighting simple, thinking about the environmental lighting and paying attention to lighting ratios between the flashes and ambient light allowed me to establish a consistent and predictable look very quickly. Best of all, this isn't the type of lighting set that sometimes shows up in photo magazines, where a small truck full of lighting gear and grip equipment is required to get the look. This can easily be done with a pair of external flashes and your neighborhood specialty grocer's alley.

Thomas Park is a fashion / fine art photographer and educator based in Seattle, Washington. To find out more about his work and workshops, please visit http://www.thomasparkphoto.com

Model: Ira Z
All images © 2011, Thomas Park

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 89
By makofoto (Oct 9, 2011)

Only problem ... I wouldn't call that a fashion shot?! If I as the clothing designer I would have felt a bit cheated. I thought we were going to see the environment used as an element.

By llamacide (Oct 9, 2011)

Editorial fashion.... its about selling mood too!

By huser (Oct 9, 2011)

Agreed, commercially it is always first and for most about a product, the mood must of cousrse promote the product,

It can not just be mood there must be context

By thomaspark (Oct 10, 2011)

For the record, I don't disagree with you. I personally never called this a fashion shoot; I titled the article "Portable Editorial" when written =)

By samphoto2007 (Oct 18, 2011)

The more I think about this the more it frustrates me that people hide behind the anonymity of a forum to make complete rude jerks of themselves. I truly doubt that anyone would talk to you like they have here in person, why is it okay to be that way in a forum?

I'm sorry things went this way, maybe they should all just stick to shooting snapshots of things they are good at and not bother reading about anything new. It seems they really have no idea how to communicate and I would expect their photography is equally ignorant.

1 upvote
By DuckShots (Oct 9, 2011)

Well written, informative and inspiring. Building the scene. Have to learn this. Need to know so much to produce creative works. Not my look, but that's the point. I need a look. Sadly, every time I see what others do, I want to throw my lens into a fire and take up reading. Maybe not this time. Thank you very much.

By thethirdcoast (Oct 10, 2011)

You're not the only one who sometimes feels that way about lenses and reading!

By thomaspark (Oct 10, 2011)

Thank you so much for reading! I'm glad this was worthwhile for you, looking forward to seeing your future work.

By Baladam (Oct 10, 2011)

Really nice to see Metz 60 CT-4 still on work after almost 20 years. Their power is manually adjustable from full power (GN 60, about 200w/s) to 1/250th of full power, and thanks to low voltage (about 4v if memory serves), it is usable with virtually all modern digital cameras even with direct sync cable though TTL may not work, but auto and manual modes work perfectly.
By the way, I like the way you share your experience. Thanks.

1 upvote
By Nikonworks (Oct 11, 2011)

This is photography?

You had to use 'grimey, and 'ltalian deli' in the same sentence?
On Columbus day in the USA?

Where are you going to use/deliver your final image?

It is useless as is your article.

PS. One should not suggest a photographer stay in an alley with a car filled with photo equipment. It is not a wise thing to do.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
1 upvote
By Cwada (Oct 11, 2011)

Thank you!

I think you did a good job describing what you did and why, along with the step by step photo's it makes a nice article.

Ignore the rude remarks.

By thomaspark (Oct 12, 2011)

Grimy, no "e". Grocer. Get it straight. ;)

By Wanganuilad (Oct 16, 2011)

I kept waiting for the actual shots after all the overexposed phone cam snaps in the car. Was shocked to see they were the photos !

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
David J Vickers
By David J Vickers (Oct 16, 2011)

Wow, now I remember why I never comment here very often. Very short sighted, self centered, downright rude comments from people that are obviously better than the rest of us. That being said, great article on minimalistic equipment, working in a non ideal location to produce a pleasing editorial style shot. I like the photo next to last a little bit more than the last one, but thats just my personal taste. Great job explaining what you did, why you did it and looking forward to future articles.

Comment edited 7 minutes after posting
By Ken7628 (Oct 18, 2011)

Great photo and great article, Thomas. Wow, it's really amazing how vicious some of the negative comments are. I can totally understand if this particular shot is not your cup of tea, but how about some basic decency.

By samphoto2007 (Oct 18, 2011)

I really like the first shot and feel like all those who don't get it are allowed to have an opinion but really is is nessessary to blast him for something you don't agree with?

I will tell you that this type of photography is really quite in style right now and as a working professional, knowing how to do it when the client asks for shots that look like this is very helpful.

I get the feeling that most of the negative comments (I didn't read them all) were from people who have never shot for a client's editorial needs and might just be better off not trying.

Thanks Thomas, I enjoyed the article and learned a few things along the way.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
By nelgraine (Nov 14, 2011)

I like this article, It gives us an idea about how do we mixed the lighting in some situation like this. I'll probably do this kind of photography rather than in the studio setup.

Total comments: 89