Faces: Telling a Story Through Portrait Lighting

All images by Joel Locaylocay. Used with permission.

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I am most proud of the lighting that I did for my Faces project. This series is inspired by the look and feel of the portraiture of Dan Winters. Well, at least it started out that way. I surely didn’t have the equipment he was using. I lit my subjects using hot shoe flashes triggered off camera. And over the months that I worked on the series, I found that I had developed a look that I could call my own.

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Concept and Creative Inspiration

I was in a creative slump and was looking for inspiration to create new work. I found myself drawn to the work of classical painters, specifically those of Rembrandt and Vermeer. They both understood the essence of light. There is a sincerity in the way that they captured seemingly ordinary people and scenes in an extraordinary manner. I was able to find a contemporary parallel in the work of Dan Winters (although a lot of his subjects are not so ordinary). They all made me understand that in a portrait there are two essentials: the subject and the light.

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And with this insight, I set out to craft the lighting setup I used for the series. I didn’t have a studio and would have to work around my subjects’ schedules, so I knew I had to come up with something portable with a consistent output. After a few weeks of testing, I was finally ready to work with my first subject. I set out to capture the character of a subject’s face (hence the title of the project) and the way it interacted with the light. I understood that this wasn’t a beauty or glamour portrait. What I wanted to capture was the person’s essence in a photograph.

Most of the subjects that I worked with weren’t models. Some of them were surprised when I asked them to be part of the series. Many of them didn’t see themselves as beautiful enough in a prototypical sense. I assured them that this wasn’t about that and that I would do my best to put them in the best possible light. During each session, I would talk to my subjects while I set up my lights (I often didn’t have the luxury of preparing ahead if I had limited use of the space). I found that this would put them at ease. It also gave me time to look at their face and decide where best to position the key light.

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At the start of each shoot, I would tell my subjects that they didn’t have to smile if they didn’t feel like it. I explained to them that a quiet portrait would stand the test of time better. That there is a serene  elegance to just being still. I would just ask them to relax and guide them with a few directions (e.g. slowly turn to the left, chin down, etc.). I would shoot a number of pictures and then take breaks in between. Sometimes I would catch the subject doing something (e.g. fixing her hair, looking thoughtfully to one side as we talked, etc.), so I would then ask her to hold that action as I took a quick shot.

Technical Execution

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I used 3 flashes to light these portraits. The key light is shot through a Westcott Rapid Box Octa. I decided to use the deflector plate with the modifier, but left the front diffusion panel off. As I brought this light close to my subject, it had both a soft and contrasty quality to it. This light is gelled with a warm color (either a 1/4 CTO or a pale pink). I would also flag this light with black foamcore to keep most of the light on the subject’s face. It is positioned about 3 feet away from the subject (at around 45 degrees), a foot or so above eye level, and then angled down.

The fill light is shot through a white shoot-through umbrella. This light is gelled with a cool color (either a 1/4 Tough Plusgreen or a 1/4 Blue CTB). It is positioned behind and slightly above the photographer to act as on-axis fill. I am able to control the depth of the shadows in my image by adjusting the power of this light accordingly.

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A third light is used to illuminate the background (a custom-painted canvas mounted on a wooden frame). I used gaffers tape to cover parts of the dome diffuser that was attached to the flash to selectively light the surface.

I killed ambient light contribution with a smaller aperture and a shutter speed close to or at my flash sync speed. I built my exposure in the order of fill, background, and finally the key. The angle of the key light reveals the character and features of a subject’s face. It’s not the most flattering, but there is an honest and raw beauty to it.

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I am proud of how I developed and executed the lighting for this series. First, there’s the color contrast between the key and the fill. Pushing a warm color onto a cooler one and allowing them to complement each other as they mix. Second, I was able to achieve this unique look with relatively meager equipment (Yongnuo Speedlites, Cactus V5 triggers, Rosco gels and the modifiers mentioned). Third, as I don’t have my own studio to work out of, the whole setup is actually portable. It’s not very convenient as I still have to carry a lot of stuff, but this means I could set up and shoot even in small spaces (which is what I had to work with often).

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