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Martin Schoeller Inspired Portrait, Pt.1

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Feb 13

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.

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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… :)

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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