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Richard Avedon response – how to shoot on a white background

richard avedonrichard avedonIn my eyes, Avedon was a genius. A portrait photographer with a lust for life who could capture something unseen in a person, for someone who was supposedly in love with all things dramatic and energetic, Avedon was able to capture a calmness in his portraits, there is a candid quality to his photographs despite the obvious fact that they were setup. His subjects posses an innocence, or is it complete trust? either way the character that he has drawn from relative strangers only adds to the mystery and firmly cements him as one of the greats. It is my understanding that Avedon used daylight for these exposures and a combination of reflectors, flags and diffusers for this series as they were all shot on location.

Where we are in the UK it isn’t quite as sunny so in our version a simple lighting setup of two Bowens 400rx flash heads were used, as well as a large white piece of paper and a 4×5 large format Horseman loaded with photo paper instead of 4×5 negatives. Both lights are set to full power, one is placed behind the model pointing toward the background and the other is placed to the right of the model.

studio lighting setupThe light to the models right is elevated and angled down and across the face, this is commonly referred to as Rembrandt lighting or 45/45 lighting. Named after Rembrandt as it was typical of his portraits to be lit in this way and 45/45 because the light is at 45 degrees to the subject and angled down at 45 degrees. I recommend you use a lamp in a dark room and examine the light and how it falls across the face as you move it to see the effects. Rembrandt lighting is defined by the shadow in the shape of a triangle appearing underneath the subjects eye. The shadow of the nose completes the shadow, personal preference can dictate if the eye is illuminated or left in darkness.

rembrandt lightingMark Seliger and Nigel Parry are masters of simple lighting rigs and often employ the 45/45 technique, it’s a classic lighting method which every photographer should have in their arsenal.

Mark Seliger

mark seliger

Nigel Parrynigel parrycatchlightsThe beauty of photography is that no matter what the scenario the shadows and highlights will give away how it was shot. If we examine this shot of Robin Williams we can see that based upon our knowledge of 45/45 lighting the brightest part of the image is the cheek on the right and the shadow is created by the nose, therefore we can assume that the light is on the right hand side of this image and angled slightly downward (left side if you’re the model). Now the highlights in the eyes, otherwise referred to as catch-lights tell us exactly what lighting setup was used. The white lights in the eyes not only show us the direction of the light but also the type of light modifier used. A round white dot tells us that it’s either a standard reflector or a snoot, a white square box is a softbox, long thin line is going to be a strip light etc etc. In this case we can see that there are two rectangular shapes reflected in his eyes, these are two softboxes one at 45/45 above the subject as the key light or main light and the one below is the fill light which is used to soften the shadows and reduce contrast.

Back to our photo shoot

A simple two light setup, images exposed onto photo paper, developed, scanned and inverted.

richard avedon style portraitrichard avedon style portrait

richard avedon style portrait

  • Lasse Lundberg - Thanks for sharing. How do you control the ratio between the light on the background and on the subject? Seams like there is a risk of over powering the background light.ReplyCancel

    • liam - Hi Lasse, thanks for getting in touch.
      The Bowens flash we use has a power setting from 1-6, it took alot of practice to work out the correct ratios. The area which we shoot in is very small and creates alot of light spill so the portraits aren’t as good as they could be. However we use one light set at power 5 for the key light pointing at the model and power setting 1 for the background light.

      You can see from the negative of our portrait that there is still a shadow which I edited out in Photoshop afterwards, I guess further highlighting the genius of Avedon! Are you studying photography, let me know if you need any help.ReplyCancel

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