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Martin Schoeller Inspired Portrait, Pt.1

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Feb 13

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The Lighting Process

Every photographer knows that perfect lighting is never achieved instantly. It takes multiple lighting setups and a good bit of experimentation to find exactly what it is you’re looking for. In this case for an editorial-style headshot, we decided we wanted lighting inspired by the likes of editorial photographers such as Martin Schoeller and Peter Yang. We had to go through about five different lighting setups before we finally found one we really liked!


Emma Watson

In the above photo of Emma Watson by Martin Schoeller, we can tell from the catchlights in her eyes that there are two separate light sources coming from the front, most likely softboxes. Paying attention to the eye catchlights in a portrait is a great way to dissect lighting, since the eyes basically act as little mirrors and show where lights are placed. If we zoom in, we can even see the reflection of the photographer between the two catchlights!



We decided to start with two strip boxes placed on either side of Chris in front of white seamless paper. The problem with this was that it was lighting the sides of his face and leaving his eyes and nose dark, which is the opposite of what we were going for. We tried switching out the strip boxes for parabolic reflectors, but the lighting was too flat and still not lighting the center of his face.

We finally figured out that placing the stripboxes directly in front of him gave us the look we were going for. Both stripboxes were aimed at his nose, creating fall off on the sides of his face. A 3-stop neutral density filter was placed over the lens in order to keep a shallow depth of field.

Final Image


Chris Todd Portrait

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s episode where we’ll be going over the post processing!

  • http://twitter.com/wallisphoto Jason Wallis

    I would add a large lightsource behind the photographer as well? You can see a third light in the model’s eyes compared to Chris’s eyes. It can be set at a lower fstop

  • laurel

    Look at YoTube. There are few photoshoot videos with Martin Schoeller where you can see clearly his lighting setup. I think he uses two strip-light Kino Flos (for those specific catchlights) and a beauty dish for lighting the face (thats probably the third light Jason was talking about).

  • http://www.facebook.com/nico.belazaras Nicolás Belazaras

    The final image looks great, but the catchlights are quite softer than in Emma’s eyes, why is that? Thank you for the tutorials you do, they help so much!

  • http://phlearn.com Aaron Nace

    Good point, that can be enhanced in Photoshop to match :)

  • Sadi Santos

    Great video Aaron! You should do more videos about lighting.

  • http://twitter.com/AngelaMaryBee Angela Butler ♔

    Wow, this image looks great!!

  • http://twitter.com/JacobBenjTaylor Jacob BenjaminTaylor

    You missed the hard light source the Martin uses in between the two strip softboxes. He usually uses a parabolic or a larger reflector boomed between the two soft boxes. I found that a white beauty dish is just as effective.

    http://jacobbenjamintaylor.com/html_gallery.cfm?menu_itemID=929448&load=html&parentID=1078026
    My results.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002585755160 David Moore

    the best tuto i’ve every seen online.
    better than SK.
    Fast and effective..
    Thank you so much.

  • Pingback: Shooting a Martin Schoeller Inspired Portrait | Fstoppers

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  • Miguel Q

    Love your work Aaron! Could you possibly post a lighting diagram showing what you ended up with? You said in the video the strip lights were above but a few moments later said they were in front. I want to try this out this weekend. Keep up the great tuts!

  • Bryan

    Just thought I would add this on, he does use Kino Flos like you’ve said but I don’t think the third light is a beauty dish, although I’m sure you could substitute one and achieve the same effect. In a photo shoot with a female body builder, you can see about half way through the video that he’s using two heads with standard reflectors, on camera axis about about 45 degrees above and below the subject.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=146900495 Joel Palmer

    That was painful! With
    some practice you can look at a picture and in just a few seconds figure out
    most of the setup. In this case, you can
    look at Emma’s eyes and have 80% of the lighting figured out. Fortunately in the picture of her, just about
    all the lights were very clear and obvious.
    It shouldn’t take anywhere near that long to make a similar image by a
    bunch of trial and error. Here was my
    thought process when I looked at the original:

    In the original picture, there are 3 lights visible. And the photographer’s head. There are 2 vertical soft light sources (softboxes,
    stripboxes, whatever, doesn’t really matter) on the left and right. They’re pretty large, making them very
    soft. They’re probably placed about
    1-2ft away from each other. You can see the
    photographer’s head because it’s partly obscuring the 3rd light source, which
    appears to be about a fraction of the size of the soft side lights. It’s probably a beauty dish or small
    umbrella. It’s just above the top of the
    side lights, creating just a touch of separation on her eyes and nose, and also
    brightening her forehead a tad. It’s
    also the same brightness as the side lights.

    All the lights aren’t terribly close to Emma – you can
    tell because of the size of the softboxes reflected in her eyes, but also
    because of how the light falls off so quickly towards the back of her
    head. This also shows that there are no
    backlights or rim lights.

    The background is lit with a light source from the left
    side as it’s a touch brighter than the right.
    She’s far enough from the backdrop that there is no rim light caused by
    the background.

    And there you have it.
    3 lights on Emma, 1 on the background, and no guessing around. Starting off with 2 light sources next to and
    slightly behind their subject is like starting a test without reading the instructions! Even in the final shot, you’re missing the beauty
    dish, and the side lights are entirely too close. The back of his head isn’t lit nearly enough.

    That brings me to the lens used. Just look at the ears. You can see Emma’s ears, but not
    Chris’s. That simply says you’re not
    using a long enough lens. Also, Chris’s
    nose is huge (no offense Chris, it’s just because of the way it was taken, I’m
    sure your nose is fine in real life!) and way too out of focus. That’s all because it was shot with a
    relatively wide lens, rather than a more portrait style lens. I’m guessing she was shot with either an 85
    or 100mm lens. Those lenses have
    excellent compression, but not too much (such as a 200) to make her look too
    flat.

    And for the settings, Martin definitely didn’t use such a
    wide aperture! Her nose is almost completely
    in focus, and her ears are just barely out of focus. The back of Chris’s eyebrows are just out of
    focus, whereas Emma’s are crystal clear.
    I’m guessing he probably shot at 2.8, especially if it was shot with a
    100mm lens, but maybe even a touch higher than that.

    As far as editing, she’s a lot brighter (I want to say
    close to 2/3 of a stop, if not a full stop!), but a lot of that is because of
    the missing beauty dish and the side lights being too close to the front. Her eyes also have an incredible amount of
    sharpening done to really get them to pop.
    Also having a smaller aperture would help sharpness and clarity,
    especially with that 50 1.4 (I try not to shoot it less than 2.0, just for that
    reason alone).

    So even though this took me about 15min to write up, understanding
    another photographer’s setup should really only take about 30 seconds. Understand the characteristics of light and
    how they show up on a subject, and you won’t be guessing when you try to
    duplicate it.

    So as far as this being a duplication of Martin’s
    picture, it’s pretty far off in the details.
    However, all that being said, this is still a great picture! There’s really not a thing wrong with it, and
    it would look great as a bio picture!

  • Pingback: Martin Schoeller Inspired Portrait, Pt. 2

  • http://www.facebook.com/markpnuttall Mark Nuttall

    Cheers Aaron, that’s a really useful episode. One question though – did you use the nd filter because you had a constant light source? If you were using hss speedlites would this not take care of that issue for you if you stopped down the shutter speed? Thanks very much, Mark

  • http://www.facebook.com/Philippemphotography Philippe Maurice

    awesome vid

  • Graham Irvine

    He used the ND filter to keep the aperture wide on the lens. Otherwise he would have had to lower the aperture. I’m guessing he was already at the lowest setting on his lights as well. The shutterspeed had no effect on this photo. It was just to keep a large aperature ( he used 1.8-2.0).

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  • Guillaume Megevand

    Hi Joel, just a question. Why do you say that because the lights are not very close to Emma’s face, the light falls off very quickly. I thought that according to the inverse square law, the closer you are from the light, the quickest the light falls off. Am I wrong? Thanks for your help :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=146900495 Joel Palmer

    You are indeed right! I think that was a typo on my part; I tried rephrasing that paragraph, and apparently dorked it up! The lights are quite close (probably 2-5 feet away). As you pointed out, the inverse square law means the light falls off more quickly the closer it is. Good catch!

  • Guillaume Megevand

    Thanks for replying!! I appreciate it :)

  • Guillaume Megevand

    Check it out. The Blog Guess the Lighting analyses a Martin Schoeller’s photo. Same kind of portrait. Very interesting.
    http://guessthelighting.com/2010/09/13/martin-schoeller-lighting-setup-henry-kissinger-close-up/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Angelo-Noziglia/707582987 Angelo Noziglia

    That’s why his nose is out of focus at that Aperture, I read Martin uses 5.6.
    Anyway nice tutorial… :)

  • Pingback: Fstoppers Lighting Diagrams: The Martin Schoeller Portrait | Fstoppers

  • http://arcadiusphotography.com/ Arcadius Kul

    so – u added blur i PS ? not so pro :) but Image is still impressive – well done

  • Lee Trevino

    Schoeller like Peter Hurley uses very expensive kinoflo lights. The lights to the right and left of the model are not softboxes and are very close, less than 2 feet away. There is also a beauty dish very close to the top of the model thats flashing for some shots, maybe mostly for females? There are several youtube videos that show the setup. Joel Edelman does a DIY 6 light florescent bank that is very effective but you have to shoot at less than 1/125 to avoid the flicker which results in bad color fluctuations. They cost about $150 to make versus the $1000′s for Kino’s! I made one myself and looking to make the other one this spring. I was trying for the Peter Hurley type headshot and had some success with the florescent light on one side and a soft box of the other. Recently was given some lowel omni lights and have some ideas to create this type of headshot’s with those. Not sure what aperture he is shooting but its not wide open, I would say between 3.2 and 5.6 but at very close range to get a softer depth of field. Plus I’m guessing he is shooting at a decent focal length to get some compression and not the flatness that less than 85mm’s produce. I also tried something I saw from Nick Francher, he has a setup with white foam board v-flats and a small square cut out in the middle that make for a great catch lights right in the middle of the eye. He says to use a 35mm but I used my new nikon 70-200 f/4 and it worked fine at 70mm on a D7000. I would say that the final example needs to be more in focus if you are trying to emulate Martin’s shoot, the fall off should start near the ears.

  • Pingback: Martin Schoeller Tutorial | Jessica Mchugh

  • Alex

    i have to agree with joel above… it was painful

    this is how he does it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZTGXhWjAf4

  • Eugen Brodner

    so… this is what I came up with 2 months ago after I saw this post and the one on fstoppers. just playing around https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=559877010714159&set=a.151912351510629.22268.100000755965391&type=1&source=11

  • Saul Bejarano

    DOF, is not there yet, eyes are in focus, nose is not in focus on Schoeller’s portraits, nose, chick and eyes are in perfect focus.

  • Brian Sugden

    Yeah, this seems like a pretty overly done tutorial. I was able to shoot this one in about 5 minutes with an 85mm.

Episode Transcript

Today we’re going to take you on a journey as we go through the process of imitating master photographer Martin Schoeller.

Hey guys. Welcome to Phlearn, my name is Aaron Nace. You can find me on Twitter @AKNACER. Today we’re taking the journey as we imitate some of the amazing portraits by Martin Schoeller. Let me tell you a little bit about why we did this and then we’re going to talk about how we did it and our process all the way through. This is part one and then part two which is going to air tomorrow we’re going to be doing the retouching on this image.

The reason why we did it, it really helps in photography to find an image that you like and try to repeat it. As long as you credit the person that you’re actually going for it can really help to push you. Maybe you’re stuck doing the same lighting setup over and over and over again and you’d see a photograph and you’re like, “Wow! That’s actually really cool. Maybe I could do that lighting setup as well.” In doing so it’s going to cause you to … there’s some trial and error. You’re going to be doing some things at the beginning that you’re really not that comfortable with. You’re probably going to get it wrong to start off with but if you keep on going and going and going you might wind up something with a lighting setup that maybe you’ve never done before, a portrait style that you’ve never done before and you might wind up really, really liking it.

That’s what we did. We set aside, push ourselves how we can create a lighting style a lot like Martin Schoeller. We’re going to take you guys through the process. We started off, our lights look nothing like what we wanted them to. We thought they were going to look pretty decent from the start but they really didn’t. We went through multiple iterations of lighting setups to finally get to something that we like. We’re going to show you guys these with some behind the scenes images and we’ll just go through the whole process.

Here in lightroom, this is actually the entire photo shoot and you can see where we started up the beginning. We wanted to take these portraits for our website for Phlearn for the bio page. This is actually Chris, he’s our CFO. This is where we started off with the lighting for our shots. Basically with two strip boxes either side. Now in looking at Martin’s work a lot of the catchlights are right on the sides of the people’s eyes. That’s a really, really great way to analyze lighting. Look deep into a person’s eyes and if you see reflections of lights you can probably guess about what the lighting is. There’s an umbrella actually right here lighting me right now and you can probably see a reflection of it in my eye. It’s really great way to see the lights that might be around your subject.
Being that they were lit from the side, we started to put two strip boxes both the right and the left of our subject and we could see … let’s just zoom in to about here. You can see the light right there in his eyes as well. There were a couple of problems here. The light really comes in from the sides really nice but you get this dark space in the middle of his face; dark face space. That might not be horrible, maybe that’s what you want in your image but the Martin Schoeller images did not have that at all. Then we switched up from there, still working with our lighting. We’re still using the strip boxes that you can see here lighting on the side as well and we’re shooting with a 50 millimeter 1.4. Now the lights are turned really, really down in power because we wanted it relatively shallowed up the field as well.

Now the next change we made is you can see here the background is relatively dark because there were just lights on our subject but there were no lights on the background and in all the portraits that we saw the background was a little bit lighter. We decided to put a third light and that’s a soft box there on the right. This is the soft box you can see and it’s actually lighting up the background as well. Still they look pretty horrible, no offense Chris but it’s pretty much our jobs to make it look better. That’s one of the big lessons I’ve learned as being a photographer is a great portrait of anyone is totally out there. It’s your job to make it. If you deliver this to a client they’re really not going to be too happy with you because it’s not as good as it could be but you’re probably just a couple of lighting setups away from a great portrait. Keep trying if you’re not there just yet.

Scrolling through these we decided to put … it’s like well maybe the lights coming too much from the front so we put the strip boxes behind the back and then coming even back around the front a little bit more. We’re shooting a little bit wide here and it’s at 50 millimeters with the 1.4 lens. It’s relatively wide, a little bit wider than a standard portrait but it’s the look that we wanted for these images. The lighting coming around towards the front, maybe trying it a few angles.

We’re trying this over and over again and it’s like … the catchlights are not that far off but I just really didn’t like the lighting. It was much too … dark in the center and too bright on the outside. It just really didn’t come together that well.
What we did is basically tried to switch everything up. We went from here in the switch to 200 millimeters. You can see what the difference that which is shot at 50 millimeters and that which is shot at 200 millimeter. It’s going to really compress his face and make a lot more flat. I thought it was way too much, way too wide at 50 millimeters so we went to 200 and I was like, “Well, I don’t like that either. Trying to zoom in, going something like 70 but I really didn’t like that either. We went back to the 50 again and then bringing the light out from the front, we’ll talk about this in a second.

You can see during a photo shoot a lot of things change. Now often times you’re not going to have time when you’re actually working with your subjects. You are actually photographing a celebrity or something like that. You’re not going to have the time to go and change your lighting five or six times. What I recommend doing is getting your lighting setup with a test subject who’s wearing something similar to your actual subject, similar skin tone and things like that. That way you can get everything set up with your test and then the real subject can come in, you might have one minute to shoot Jay Leno’s, first person that comes to mind for some reason but if you have one minute to shoot Jay Leno you’re not going to spend that time getting all your setup. You want to do all your setup beforehand and then shoot your subject.

Continuing all with that we decided that the soft boxes were a little bit too small of a light source so what I did is I switch to a parabolic reflector which is just a giant light source and you can see it here in the reflection of the eye. That’s me standing right there in the middle of the parabolic. With this as well you could see our exposures weren’t exactly perfect in all this. The same thing with this as well, the lighting was just a little bit too flat. It wasn’t that interesting and it wasn’t falling off really well.

Continue on going … I know some of these aren’t exactly exposed perfectly but we decided to keep on going and we put the strip boxes back on the lights and instead of having the strip boxes come from the side we decided to put them directly from above. Looking at the reflection in the portraits we still wanted those strips in the catch lights but instead of coming from the side we did basically directly from the front.
Now what we found out working is front pointing in really lit the sides of his face but if there each like very close to his face and they’re both pointing at basically his nose what it does is it creates a really nice highlight here in the center of his face with a nice fall off out towards the edges. Here we’re just starting to get actually what we want out of our shots.
This is the lighting that we came across and you can see it really is quite a bit more dynamic. We tried a couple of things like having Chris cough in the middle of the shoot just because it was funny and then he laughed which is some great portraits as well. I always try to do stupid stuff in the middle of a photo shoot just because you never know that might be the best photo of the day.
Okay, the next thing we did is we put actually a neutral density filter in front of the lens so he was so close to the lights that the lights were really, really bright but we still wanted to shoot at a shallow depth of field. In this case we’re shooting at 1.4 but there is a three stop neutral density filter in front of the lens so it’s really cutting down the amount of light that’s coming from the strobes that are literally right in front of his face but you can still get a correct exposure.

The lights that you see here off to the sides, both these … let’s just make this medium gray so you can see how it gets really dark towards the sides and the reason that is is because that’s literally the strip boxes in the frame. I had about a gap maybe two or three inches wide in which I was shooting through and the strip boxes were literally right to the left and right of the frame. Getting that close turned out to be the key.
This is an exposure that happens if you forget to put your neutral density filter on. This is properly exposed and this is three stop overexpose. That’s a really big difference and a neutral density filter can really do a good job with that. We’ll put links to all the stuff down below in case you guys are interested.
Then we kept on doing some interesting shots and this is actually the shot that we wound up sticking with in the end. Let me just disable this. Okay, this is the shot that we wound up sticking with in the end and you can see it’s a really nice portrait, everything is really close cropped and the eyes were in focus, we have a really nice catchlights and it’s basically what we want.

What we want to do now is I’m going to go back to our grid view and I’m going to pop open, let’s actually pop open the develop module. I’m going to go over here, lens correction. Now since we’re shooting at 50 millimeters, it’s so close it’s really going to cause a lot of distortion, not only that but we’re shooting at … in this case 1.8 which is going to give you a lot of vignetting around your edges as well.
Any time I’m doing something like this I always make sure to go to enable profile corrections, click on that and what that’s going to do is it’s going to fix a little bit to that perspective distortion and it’s going to help out with my vignetting right around the edges. If you want to even add to that you can fix it even more right here in lightroom without having to go into Photoshop or anything like that. Very cool effect there.
Now what I can do is I don’t want to have to do that with all these images so what we’re going to do is I’m going to go over here to … let’s just bring this back over here and I’m going to hit command A. We’ve got this selected, command A is now going to select all of them or you can hit sync settings. Those couple of changes that I just made, it’s going to apply them to everything. We’ve got all these checked, you can hit either check none or check all. I usually leave like crop off just in case I did some custom cropping and then we’re going to hit synchronize and then you’ll be able to see that it’s actually just changing all of them at the same time.

That is basically how we went through the photo shoot, how we got to this image from going through many different lighting setups that really didn’t look that good but in the end we came up with something that was really great that we liked a lot and we even went through an outfit change. I don’t know if you guys saw that earlier actually but earlier we were wearing … not we; Chris was wearing a blue shirt with a red shirt underneath it which I thought just a solid color would work just a little bit better and match his hair. Little changes like that throughout a shoot can wind up making a big difference.

That’s how we actually did the shoot. Join us tomorrow for editing this image; we’re going to make it really standout and a real piece of art. Thanks so much for watching Phlearn, I hope you learned a lot and I’ll Phlearn you later. Bye everyone.
In case you guys are wondering why lightroom was really yellow, I have this program called Flux which basically warms up your screen to help your eyes accommodate to something at night. That’s what I disabled in the middle of the episode. Don’t edit with Flux on.

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