If you happened to peruse the magazine rack at your local bookstore this month, you may have done a double-take … GQ’s cover photo featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and Esquire’s photo of Robert Redford are virtually identical.
2) Soft, frontal, single-source lighting;
3) Composition framing the subject from the waist up;
4) An actor named Robert wearing a jacket.
This is a great setup to duplicate, because it’s so simple (aside from finding someone named Robert to photograph).
The lighting on Redford is extremely even, and coming from directly in front of him, while the lighting on Downey is coming more from above him (notice the highlights on his nose and forehead). Of the two, I find lighting on Redford more appealing. It’s very soft, very natural, and quite flattering.
It’s also a good example of what I like to call “garage door lighting,” because the easiest way to get this look is by putting someone in front of a doorway or window, the bigger the better.
One of the beauties of seamless paper is that it can be set up anywhere. Robert Redford seems to be leaning on a marble countertop, leading me to suspect that this shot was actually taken in his kitchen. If so, it was probably because the room has huge windows.
Stealing is bad, but using successful work as a reference point to demonstrate technique is good. In order to show just how easy this method is, I enlisted the aid of my frequent co-conspirator Michael Fischbach.
Michael and I didn’t have hair and makeup stylists like the Roberts did, so we may not look quite as good as those guys, but you can see how the basic lighting approach is very, very similar.
If you prefer the Downey portrait, it’s also easy to emulate. Peggy probably used a large softbox of some kind, but you can achieve a similar effect with bounced light. Use blue background paper instead of teal, close the garage door, and fire a strobe into the ceiling directly behind you. Voila.
As I mentioned initially, this artificial frontal light isn’t my favorite lighting setup, but you do see it a lot in published work, so it has a place in your bag of tricks.
Personally, I prefer to keep the door open. Natural light allows for an easy, classy and versatile upscale portrait setup. As you can see, it works well for regular folks as well as for celebrities. By changing the composition and background color, you can use this method for bridal portraits, headshots, senior portraits, and corporate imagery.