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Monday, October 19, 2015


I’m very happy to show these three portraits from a new series of fine art portraits. Portraiture is something of a lost art in Billings Montana, being a small city in a remote part of the country, our portraits usually consist of a person standing in a field, or on a gravel road somewhere in bright sunlight, smiling at the camera. But elsewhere in the world portraiture is thriving as an art that is far more complex and nuanced. Just look at any magazine rack and you’ll see diversely crafted portraits everywhere. Why? Because portraits are powerful, we make an immediate connection when we see a portrait. The goal of this portrait series is to show off the power of the portrait, to show that we can make fine art portraits in Billings Montana that are made with the same techniques that master portrait photographers are using around the world, and in doing so we can show Billings that we don’t have to settle for anything less. To schedule a portrait sitting please visit www.portraits.paulbellinger.com. Read on to learn about the inspiration and hard work that went into making these portraits.

Tips for photographers: Well I imagine this will become a long-winded story because it seems like I’ve been thinking about these photos for months now, and it took five sessions to get comfortable with the lighting setup and really start making portraits. It all started with Gregory Heisler’s book “50 portraits,” which I’ve been reading for almost a year every time I visit my friend and mentor Ken Jarecke, who always let’s me browse his library (as long as I wash my hands first). A couple of months ago I read about a portrait where Heisler was praising the use of a ring light to create a “shadowless” fill light (p. 86). I made a mental note of it, but didn’t rush out and buy a ring light or anything like that. Perhaps a month later I saw a portrait of Kareem Abdul Jabar by Dan Winters on twitter and it was so striking to me that I started an all out binge on everything Dan Winters I could get my hands on (look at my twitter feed @paulbellinger to find a retweet of the Kareem portrait). Of course Ken had Winters’ book “Road to Seeing,” so I spent a few hours with it before buying my own copy soon after. I noticed that for a lot of my favorite portraits, Winters often used a ring light too. There is a strobist.com post about Winters that has a behind the scenes video of Dan shooting Jack Nicklaus and even has quotes from Dan saying that he prefers to use the ring light mostly for the catch light it creates, and less for fill when possible (click here to view). I set about trying to replicate a Dan Winters look, specifically to achieve a similar lighting effect as seen in his portraits of Tom Hanks and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Analyzing Winters photos was the starting point. In the photos of Hanks (click here) and Cumberbatch (click here) the key light is hard, casting a sharp shadow and it's coming from camera right. Hanks is short lit, meaning his face is turned toward the key light so that the key light hits the short side of his face first and casts a shadow on the broad side. The shadow pattern on the broad side is a perfect Rembrandt triangle. Cumberbatch is broad lit, meaning his face is turned away from the light so that the light hits the broad side of his face first, casting a shadow on the short side, also with a tiny Rembrandt triangle. Whether the lighting is broad or short is somewhat obscured in these photos because there are shadows on both sides of the faces, but just look at the nose shadows to determine the direction and quality of the key light. The prominent shadow on the key light side of the faces is created by a flag, something that blocks the light to cut the light down in an area of the frame (I use black foam core but there are specially made flags you can buy too). This use of the flag on the key light side of the subject is what drew me to the Kareem Abdul Jabar photo in the first place, it has a very dramatic effect that makes the face really stand out from the rest of the image. The edge of the shadow is hard indicating that the light source is hard, and the flag is relatively closer to the subject than the light source (the closer the flag gets to the light, the softer the light will be one the flag and it will wrap around the edge, casting a softer shadow).

Okay so that was a lot of information about the key light, now for the fill light. Winters is a master at using a hard light source as a key light, something that’s usually not recommended because it’s difficult to do. He’s also a master of giving just enough fill light to bring up the shadows and give his portraits the feeling of a classic painted portrait. Remember this whole thing started with an idea from Heisler using a ring light as a fill light and Winters using it for the catch light? Both of the portraits in question show tiny catch lights in the center of the eyes, so we can guess it was a ring light or another hard light source very close to being on camera. If you scroll through Winters’ portraits you’ll see the ring light often as tiny catch light right in the center of the eye. So the ring light provides some fill, but this is supplemented by an additional fill source, a large and soft light source also on the same axis as the camera, usually directly behind the photographer at camera height. This super soft fill light envelops the subject and softens up the shadows from the hard key light. I figured this out by Googling “Dan Winters behind the scenes,” turning up a video of the Time magazine shoot with Cumberbatch that we’ve been analyzing (click here to view). The ring light and large fill light are shown at 55 seconds in the video. You can also see this same basic setup in the Jack Nicklaus video linked on the strobist page above. Lastly, in the pictures we are analyzing Winters uses a background light somewhat dramatically to create a vignette and to separate the subject from the background. The vignette is obvious and the separation is clear, even the darkest shadowy edges of Hanks and Cumberbatch are visibly separated from the background by a sharp line of contrast.

After figuring everything out in my head, it took five sessions to get comfortable with the lighting and start dialing it in. To start, my friend and lighting partner in crime Zak came to the studio and we set up the lights using a bare strobe with small reflector as the key light. I still haven’t bought a ring light, so we used a 22-inch metallic beauty dish directly above the camera and slightly to the right to simulate the ring light catch light. At some point we put the white diffusion sock on the beauty dish to reduce it’s output as low as it could go. The fill came from a large octa-box also just above the camera and to the left side of the camera. Due to my small studio and the wider composition, we couldn’t fit it behind the camera so it had to be slightly to the side. The background light is an 18-inch gridded beauty dish a few feet above and behind the subject. I like my background lights either above or to the side of my subjects so they don’t come into the frame during full body portraits, but if you don’t have a nice boom stand then you could easily put them on a regular stand behind the subject, or even on the floor for poses like these.

It sounds like that should be it, but it isn’t. Finding the right ratio between the key light and the fill lights is really difficult. If you have too much fill the key gets washed out and is not as dramatic, but not enough fill and the shadows go black. This is really what I love about Dan Winters’ portraits, the shadows appear dark in contrast to the key light, yet even the darkest shadows on Hanks and Cumberbatch’s faces are not black. In dark hair, or on dark fabric, sure there might be some black in the frame, but never on the face thanks to the fill light. I wanted as wide of an aperture as possible to shorten the depth of field, but to achieve the right ratios we had to be flexible. I like to start by testing each light one by one, starting with the fill because it’s really the base, then the key and then background. Sometimes I do it in a different order, but this is how I like it. The fill lights were at minimum power and we were at f/8 ISO 50 so that was our base exposure and we tested the key and background from there until we got them situated right. It sounds simple but over the five sessions it was the fill to key ratio that required the most tweaking.

Next come the flags on the key light. One vertical flag just out of frame camera right creates a vertical shadow on the face and blocks the key light from hitting the ear. From there we noticed the key light was lighting up the hands of the subject too much, they were distracting from the face, so we clipped a horizontal flag to the vertical flag to block the key light from hitting anything below the subjects chin. We also felt the foreheads were a little too bright, so we put another horizontal flag to cut the light down on the forehead. The forehead flag is a little closer to the key light than the other two, so its shadow line is a little softer. Overall our flag shadows are softer than in the two Winters portraits we’ve discussed, because we chose a wide composition where our flags can’t be as close to the subject. It’s a tradeoff, you can make the flag shadows harder by bringing the flags closer to the subject, but then your composition will be limited to a closer crop. Dealing with three flags, I eventually found it best to put each one on a separate stand so they can be adjusted independently. The nice thing about placing flags in front of such a hard light source is that it’s pretty obvious with the modeling light where your shadows will fall, so there is no guesswork. Follow me on instagram @PJBellinger to see occasional behind the scenes photos.

These three portraits were made after thinking about this idea for over a month, and from my fifth session with this lighting setup. I put a lot of time in because I’m dedicated to mastering my craft. I did tests with my friends, with myself, and my team, and each time I would look at the photos and make notes on what I wanted to change. At first we had the subject too close to the background, which was causing the fill to illuminate the background too much, ruining our dramatic vignette. We broke down the entire set and shifted it 90 degrees to better utilize my small studio. We surrounded the set with black foam core to make sure there wasn’t any light bouncing around, except for the white ceiling of course (wish I could paint it black!). It was a labor of love and dedication and I’m only now comfortable with this setup, but I’m not finished perfecting it.