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Christopher Grey

Photographing Celebrity and Publicity Portraits

By Christopher Grey
Published by Sekonic

Christopher Grey talks about the particular nature of photographing performers and celebrities who present a public persona, and details lighting setups for publicity shots.

Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.




Celebrity and publicity portraits are portraits taken with a different mindset. You will be photographing people who are used to (for the most part) being on camera or performing before a crowd. When photographing a business person, your job is sometimes to take your impression of that person and manufacture a persona that can be imaged. When shooting personalities, your job is to work with the personas they present to the public. You may find that some celebrity clients are actually quite shy in your presence. Thatʼs not unusual. What Iʼve always found interesting is how they change when theyʼre "on."

The absolute greatest thing about becoming known as a celebrity or personality photographer is the incredible range of people and occupations that will find their way into your studio.

For shot below of a hip-hop singer, I used two softboxes. The key was a large 4x6 box, set to her left and high enough to get a contoured shadow. This is a very broad source, and will nicely wrap around a subject, so additional bookend fill is not necessary.

The hair light was a 1x6 strip light softbox set higher than the other light so the accent would be more on the top of her head and taper off as it fell down. They were powered equally, with light from the large box allowed to spill onto a medium gray background. Here's the setup:

And this is the resulting image:

Speaking of strip light softboxes, using two of them as cross-lights is very effective for photographing dancers in motion. When two dancers face each other, each light will illuminate one face while the other accents the back of the other. The trick is to place the lights far enough apart that the dancers have room to move. Also, placing them relatively far apart allows for several feet between the two lights where the exposure will be even. This is a phenomenon known as "depth of light" and can be exploited to your advantage once you understand it. You can do that easily by testing it in your studio.

Take two lights, powered equally, and set them 10 feet apart. With your meter facing toward the camera, pop the flash at about one foot intervals and watch how the light drops off as you move to the center, then regains strength as you move to the other light.

Now move the two lights 20 feet apart and repeat the exercise. Youʼll notice an area in the middle where the light stays constant over a few feet.

Move the lights 30 feet apart and try it again. Youʼll notice that the area of consistent exposure has expanded. When you set your lights up on stage youʼll have the same amount of room for your performing clients to move around in. At 40 feet apart, even more.

One thing to remember is that the further away a light is from a subject, the more contrasty it will be, because the size of the source will be smaller relative to the subject.

One other thing to consider: When metering, take note of where the exposure strength increases up to 1/3 over the cameraʼs aperture. As long as an unimportant body part (like someoneʼs back) wanders into that area, the extra kick from the light may produce a very interesting look. It wonʼt work every time, and you will certainly miss some images, but you will have some options that may work on the fly. If you have the opportunity to re-stage a shot, do so, changing the performerʼs positions if necessary, until you get what you want.

The greatest aspect of working with pros is that theyʼre used to repeating an action until itʼs correct. They are also capable of moving from one side of the stage to another, ending up on a mark that may have changed by as little as a few inches.

Cross lighting can be effective for evocative still portraits as well.

The next image was a bit more difficult, but only because it required extra bookends to baffle the light falling on the background. The lighting itself was simple: two medium softboxes, one on each side of the subject. They were set at equal distances from the dancer and powered to the same f-stop. They were also set far enough behind her that neither light would wrap around too much. I was mostly concerned that bright light might hit the side of her nose when she turned her head in either direction.

As you can see in the resulting shot below, there is a small amount of light feathering across the bottom of her nose. I did not find this objectionable, as it helps contour her face, but if it were brighter the risk would be that her nose would appear too large.

Notice also how the light contours her forehead, eyelid, lip and chin. This is a beautiful aspect of cross lighting, although it takes a bit of work to get the lights placed just so.

There was also a white bookend on each side of the camera. These would bounce light into the unlit shadows of her face whether she turned left or right and would also keep light from the softboxes from flaring into my lens.

Category: How-To
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Related Articles:
High-Key Lighting
The Five Basic Portrait-Lighting Setups
The Separation Light
The Two-Softbox Key

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