Steal The Shot: GQ & Esquire Covers

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.

esquire redford cover


Although these photos were taken by different photographers (Marc Hom and Peggy Sirota respectively), they have a lot in common:

1) A plain, aqua-colored background (I believe that GQ used the “Ocean Blue” shade and Esquire used the “Teal” shade of seamless background paper);

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.

garage setup-9874

The setup for this shot really couldn’t be simpler. Set the seamless paper up with two C-stands, in a garage or a room with large windows. Put your subject in front of it, and start taking photos.


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.


  5 comments for “Steal The Shot: GQ & Esquire Covers

  1. Adrian
    March 15, 2015 at 1:28 am

    I’ve been wondering how she does this background trick. She’s actually doing it in the camera some how, but I don’t know how.
    Check out the video, you can see she’s shooting against white, but when it hits the Capture One Software it’s already Greenish before the settings of Capture One kicks in.

    hhhhmmmmmmm the mystery continues.

    • Alexander
      March 15, 2015 at 6:02 am

      I’m not sure how she is doing it, but one way you *could* do it is to shine a green light on the background. The easiest way to do that is to put a green cinegel like this one on a regular light.

  2. Adrian
    April 8, 2015 at 12:34 am

    Is that Ocean Blue that you used for the light blue shot?

  3. mike
    July 7, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    In the video, she is using a grey seamless, maybe dove grey. Then in Capture one, they go to the “Color Editor” use the eye dropper, select the seamless color, and pump up the Hue Rotation, Saturation, and Lightness. Because the background color is selected, this will only affect that color. Viola. You’re welcome.

    • Alexander
      July 8, 2016 at 3:00 am

      Nice catch, Mike! Thanks for pointing that out.

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