Minimalist Studio Lighting ~ Pictures and techniques

1. The pictures in this article were shot on recent studion lighting workshops in 2011. They are previously unpublished and I wanted to share them with you. This shot is lit with just one light! How did I do that? Have a think.

1. The pictures in this article were shot on recent studio lighting workshops in 2011. They are previously unpublished and I wanted to share them with you. This shot of Marie - Francoise is lit with just one light, in one exposure! How did I do that? Have a think about it.

In lifestyle or reportage portraiture the environment completes the narrative. The story is all around the subject and the viewers eyes can wander the scene reading new information with each pass. In my studio I have abandoned the narrative to reveal just the subject in isolation. I’ve opted for purity of design. A sumptuous immersion into minimalist shape and tone. With everything in control – well, nearly.

2. The lovely Vicky Waghorn is always on hand to provide the make up and hairstyling.

2. The lovely Vicky Waghorn is always on hand to provide my studio models with make up and hairstyling.

My ideal studio is a black box. A space without stray light. Any light that exists is there because I put it there. With such control comes responsibilities. There are no external factors to blame when the lighting is poor.

3. I love simple pictures. One light shots.

3. I love simple pictures. One light shots.

4. Another one light shot taken using a single gridded beauty dish.

4. Another one light shot taken using a single gridded beauty dish.

5. A second light added a splash of rim to this fun shot of Marie - Francoise.

5. A second light added a splash of rim to this fun shot of Marie - Francoise.

When I have a six or seven light set up each light is rigged and set in turn. I start with the backlights. With all other lights switched off I set them to do exactly what I want. I then rig the kick light, the background lights, the fill light and finally the key or principal light. By isolating each light in turn I can concentrate on setting it just so. Finally with all lights switched on I take a frame and analyse the picture on the camera. The camera screen is a powerful tool it shows exactly what information is in the file. Or an 8 bit jpeg representation of the file to be exact. I use this image as a guide to adjust the power of my lights to give me the lighting balance that I want.

6. I used 3 lights for this simple image.

6. I used 3 lights for this simple image.

5 lights were used in all for this more formal look. All of them were fairly hard sources.

7. Five lights were used in all for this more formal look. All of them were fairly hard sources.

8. A bit more fun to lighten the moment. It is posable to have control and create dynamic images in the studio without the need for a soft box.

8. A bit more fun to lighten the moment. It is possible to have control and create dynamic images in the studio without the need for a soft box.

9. I used a bit of stage smoke to exaggerate this rock chick look. The dominant back lighting helped too.

9. I used a bit of stage smoke to exaggerate this rock chick look. The dominant back lighting helped too.

10. We all had some fun with this smoke and lighting set up.

10. We all had some fun with this smoke and lighting set up.

I never use or rely on a light meter in the studio because there is no ‘correct’ exposure in many of my images. My work can often be exposed over a three or four stop range with each setting rendering an acceptable image with a different characteristic. I do break rules, allow areas of peak white to sit alongside pure black. I don’t hanker after every pixel having a tone of discernible value between 1 and 254 on the eight bit levels scale. There are times when a print comprising perfectly rendered grey tones make it an object of desire. I first realised this when looking at Ansel Adams prints. The prints were somehow more important than the subject. A lone tree in an arid landscape had something of ‘so what’ about it but the print was amazing rendering every tiny detail. The subject is nearly irrelevant when the craft is this good. I liken the experience to listening to a virtuoso musician playing a musical scale. It can have a wow factor.

11. Another classic Lovegrove look. I absolutely adore near symmetry and wonderful light.

11. Another classic Lovegrove look. I absolutely adore near symmetry and wonderful light.

12. Blow me a kiss, blow me another.

12. Blow me a kiss, blow me another.

13. This is the colour my grey studio wall becomes when lit through gel number 20 in my studio collection.

13. This is the colour my grey studio wall becomes when lit through gel number 20 in my studio collection.

When I’m lost for inspiration I just switch off all the lights between three and nine via six. All the down stage lighting goes off. Usually this does the trick and magic is restored.

My studio shoot is a journey. I start with nothing rigged and make each shot from scratch. Building the lighting rig as I talk to my client. I study my subject well as I light them. Setting a light gives me an excuse to really look at them. The shape of their nose, the cut of their hair the asymmetry of their facial features etc. I am seriously hung up on detail. every strand of hair, the shade of the eye liner or the sheen in the skin is all under my scrutiny.

14. Hats, I love hats. We even give our models drinks on the go. Haha.

14. Hats, I love hats. We even give our models drinks on the go. Haha. The coffee cup is not a prop it's for real.

15. Identical lighting to the shot above but from a different angle. My resting Venetian blind is the background and the light is coming from a single Lupo 1200 with a soft box.

15. Identical lighting to the shot above but shot from a different angle. My resting Venetian blind is the background and the light is coming from a single Lupo 1200 with a soft box.

16. A single Lupo 1200 with barn doors was used to create this shot. I teach how to use continuous light in my workshops because it is the future for sure.

16. A single Lupo 1200 with barn doors was used to create this shot. I teach how to use continuous light in my workshops because it is the future for sure.

17. Again this was taken with the Lupo and my magic water trick :)

17. Again this was taken with the Lupo and my magic water trick :)

18. A simply elegant and elegantly simple shot using 4 lights.

18. A simply elegant and elegantly simple shot using 4 lights.

Once the shot is taken there is no going back. If I was to try and recreate it again the shot would be different. The mood of the moment would be lost and no matter how hard I tried the shot would show a different narrative. I watched Rankin on TV trying to recreate some original images by other photographers that inspired him. In quite a few of the shots, the original images had so much more about them. They were not the result of a technical exercise they were the result of one moment captured on a creative journey. Some of the originals were less perfect but it was often the lack of perfection that made them fabulous.

19. This rock chick look for Georgina was created with one light.

19. This rock chick look for Georgina was created with one light.

20. My Venetian blind and a Lupo 1200 was all I used for this shot.

20. My Venetian blind and a Lupo 1200 was all I used for this shot.

21. Vicky has given Georgina a timeless look for this portrait. I used my magic water trick with my Lupo 1200 and I used the studio house lights as a contrast reducer.

21. Vicky has given Georgina a timeless look for this portrait. I used my magic water trick with my Lupo 1200 and I used the studio house lights as a contrast reducer.

22. A decent hair and make up artist really finishes off the look. Georgina looks sensational here.

22. A decent hair and make up artist really finishes off the look. Georgina looks sensational here.

I love to get it right in camera. Once it is captured I leave it pretty much as it was shot. I learned my trade shooting transparencies and there was no jiggery pokery with post production then. Somehow I think this will add value to my work in years to come when the plastic wrapped blemish free perfect skin and perfect body look of the naughties has run it’s course and looks dated.

23.

23.

24.

24.

25.

25.

My one light portraits rarely use one light. I nearly always have another light hitting the wall behind me as a fill light. This pumps light around the room and puts the shadow detail just above the noise in my image. It can always be dropped back to black later taking the noise down with it and this technique works just like Dolby noise reduction did on my audio cassettes in the 90s.

26. Lit with just 3 upstage lights.

26. Georgina was lit here with just 3 upstage lights. It's a fun shot to finish a studio workshop with.

I’m not a histogram shooter. I don’t use a highlight alert on my camera screen. I just guess an exposure check it and tweak it in. 1/3 of a stop accuracy is fine for me. That’s all the resolution my camera affords me and it keeps things simple. After a while shooting in manual mode and guessing the exposure I became a bit of a human light meter able to predict the exposure in just about any situation. This really is a useful thing as a photographer. It lets me work out my strategy before I pick up the camera. Will I need a monopod, will I shoot high ISO or let the shutter speed drop right down? If I want to shoot at f/2.8 will I need to use an ND filter and so on.

27. I showed how to create a circular gradient background using just one gel. Having 36 hues in the Lovegrove collection and a vast number of luminance values to hand means it's easy to match clothing.

27. I showed how to create a circular gradient background using just one gel. Having 36 hues in the Lovegrove collection and a vast number of luminance values to hand means it's easy to match clothing. This was my first shoot with Chloe Tweedie from Gingersnap agency in Bristol.

28. The Lupo 1200 and my Venetian blind again.

28. The Lupo 1200 and my Venetian blind again.

29. Shot through the blind.

29. Shot through the blind.

30. I used a Lupo 1200 and a Chimera softbox for this shot of Chloe Tweedie.

30. I used a Lupo 1200 and a Chimera softbox for this shot of Chloe Tweedie.

When I tell my delegates on a studio lighting workshop that my studio is an f/11 studio they hardly believe what they are hearing. I say “set your camera to ISO 100, 1/125th second and f/11. You won’t be far out for any of the straight flash images here”. I can shoot the whole day in the studio without touching my camera settings. If I find a light is a bit bright I will pull it back a bit or turn the power down a bit. It is quite an organic process relying on the camera screen all the time. I will zoom in to check the seams in a pair of jeans or the sheen on a black leather jacket. I will look at the life and vitality in my clients skin and tweak the lighting as required. By going through this process I’m not just looking at light level in the way a light meter could do I’m looking at the captured image and the balance of the elements. Once the technical check is done and adjustments made I concentrate 100% on my client. I don’t need to refer to a shot unless I think it is ‘the one’, a keeper. In that case I check eyes, pose, and the story in the image before moving on.

31. This was taken with the same lighting as the shot above but taken from a different angle.

31. This was taken with the same lighting as the shot above but taken from a different angle.

32. One Lupo with barn doors created this classic look.

32. One Lupo with barn doors created this classic look.

33. As above

33. As above

After the minimalist one light continuous light shoot we went back to multi flash set ups.

34. After the minimalist one light continuous light shoot we went back to multi flash set ups.

35. It was time for some fun with a hat.

35. It was time for some fun with a hat.

My favourite wall in my studio is painted with Dulux Ice Storm 2 paint. I spent ages researching the ideal and there you have the result of all that effort. I have a near white corner too at the other end. The other panels of colour and wall paper in the studio are changed regularly. I currently have a panel of Wickes ‘Aqua’ and four drops of an Osbourne and Little wall paper. Paint is great because I can change the colour at will to almost any shade imaginable for under £10 and in half an hour (plus drying time).

36. Vogue style of an era.

36. Vogue style of an era.

37. And a bit of pin up wow because we can. With great lighting any genre can come alive.

37. And a bit of pin up wow because we can. With great lighting any genre can come alive.

I’m tending to use continuous light more and more now in my studio. I use a pair of fabulous new HMI lights from Lupo. I have an 800 spot and a 1200 spot plus a Chimera soft box for them. Occasionally I just use the modeling lights in my flash heads just as I did with 800 ISO film in the 1990s. As modern cameras have nearly no grain at ISO 800 the punchy gritty monochromes I used to shoot with continuous light have been replaced with perfect, clean imagery. Some say it allows the subject to live without the print having an influence on it. Im not sure about that, all I know is i like my canon 5d mk2 at ISO 1600 because the images start to have a discernible character.

38. Great lighting is timeless.

38. Great lighting makes timeless pictures.

I’d love you to join me and my team on the adventure that is a Lovegrove studio lighting workshop. Workshops are limited to just three delegates for the perfect learning experience. Details are here. You can also browse our range of upcoming photography training courses here.

Please feel free to comment on these pictures or the techniques I use. Which is your favourite and why?

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About Damien

Damien Lovegrove learned his trade as a cameraman and lighting director during 14 years at the BBC, working on programmes such as the Clothes Show, Top of the Pops and Casualty. Fifteen years on, Damien has become one of the foremost trainers of photography and entrepreneurial business strategies in our industry. A published writer and regular columnist, Damien has travelled the globe sharing his knowledge and expertise. “Photography fascinates me” declares Damien. "Much of my photography is inspired by a burning enthusiasm within me” explains Damien. “Picking up a camera gives me such a rush that I’m instantly driven to create pictures.”

29 thoughts on “Minimalist Studio Lighting ~ Pictures and techniques

  1. Great post as ever Damien.
    The classic simplicity, look and feel of these shots underplay your talent and expertise, but hey that’s why we follow you.
    Excellent

  2. Fantastic pictures and a great article Damien. What you achieve with minimal lighting is an inspiration. Loving the simplicity of 6 and 11.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. WOW! Pick a favourite….how?!

    Ok here goes… 11 is my ultimate favourite – so pure and clean and simple but so damn beautiful! I too am a sucker for hats so 15 is another favourite. You can feel the emotion in 23, feels like there is so much going on in that photo but can be interpreted so differently! 32 is stunning – again just that focus on the face drawing you in is sublime!

    What an amazing set of images – truly inspirational! Can’t wait to one day learn what it all means!! Until then I await more amazingly open and detailed posts :)

  4. Damien,
    The “LIGHT” ,you have created is fantastic absolutely ,No’s 16,22,30,32 & 34,are the ones i like they Do it For Me The Most,You have the Ability to make me want to try Harder & Harder you give me Inspiration ,Thats why i follow your blog ,Thank you

  5. Thank you Bob,

    Your continued support and words of encouragement give me the momentum to keep learning. I really believe the best way to learn about lighting is to get into the studio. It’s the purest and most challenging environment.

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  6. Simon and Bruce,

    Thank you for your kind words. Behind every powerful and dramatic picture is a subtle and deft hand that sets the light. Your feedback and kind words rally matter.

    Thanks again,

    Damien.

  7. Hi Ali,

    You make me smile and that is a great thing. Your passion shines through your words and one day this will carry you on a journey to produce excellence in your photography. I hope to be part of that journey.

    Best regards,

    Damien.

  8. Images 1.Fantastic image and my guess is, Main Light high camera right then a triflector camera left.

  9. Damien,

    Awesome images, like always. How did you light the first image? I have an idea but I think I’m over engineering it!. Beautiful wrap around light for just one light!

  10. I keep coming back to the first shot, it’s mesmerising.

    I reckon it’s the exposure looking after the effect – I think it’s just one light, as simple as that, but its rim effect comes up even more with the underexposure? I reckon its delicate effect would be gradually lost the more the exposure came up? Anyway, the mystery endures!

    I really like this set, there’s something refreshing about it. It’s great the way you never stay still Damien!

  11. Thank you Damien – you inspire me everyday and I can’t wait for the workshop in April to soak up loads! Makes me so excited for my first wedding a few days later!!

    Ali :)

  12. Hi Damien
    Im sorry…………. but I couldn’t thing of anything funny, witty or stylistic to say apart from

    Wait for it

    Stunning

    and i wish I had your talent and style

    Lloyd

  13. Hi Ken,
    The main light was a wafer soft box high and beyond my subject with a tri-flector from below. Nearly correct. Cheers, Damien

  14. Hi Rudy and Markus,

    Thank you for your kind words. The first shot was lit with a softbox pointing down towards the floor and a tri-flector pointing back up towards the light, both rigged beyond Marie Francoise.

    The secret is out.

    Best wishes,

    Damien.

  15. Hi Ali,

    Thank you for your kind words. I know that you are on a steep learning curve and that you will soon be comfortable with the technology. The fun will really begin as you develop your style. I hope your wedding was a great success.
    Best regards,

    Damien.

  16. Hi Lloyd,

    If you continue to feed your desire with knowledge and experience you too will have the talent and style. I’m still learning and practising three days a week, every week. Thanks for your lovely comments and continued support,

    Damien.

  17. Hi Mandy,

    Thanks for your compliments. You have the kit and the space in your studio for all of these. Give it a go and rock the public of Wight :))

  18. Hello, this may be a dead post after 3 years but I just saw this article and WOW, beautiful! I want to know how you set up number 37, my favorite one. How many studio lights/strobes did you use to give that pin up effect? With regards.

  19. Hi Betty, Thanks for your kind words. No post is dead here :) I used 2 flash heads with gridded reflectors as 3/4 backlights on full power. 1 large soft box to the right of the shot. A spot of light from a head with a gridded reflector on the background and a few other reflectors completed the look. I love shooting bright punchy pictures like this from time to time. The key is to let the backlights really burn out so it looks like sunlight.

    I hope this helps :)

    Damien.

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