Fresnel lensed lights – retro portraits

Aug 30, 2008 | Studio | 36 comments

From time to time a new technology emerges that changes the way I light or shoot. I seem to be on this ever progressing conveyor. A photographic journey fueled by the endless supply of new bigger, better, more sensitive cameras. However it pays to look back from time to time. This is my recent shoot with the wonderful Fresnel lens spotlights of the motion picture industry.

Timeless elegance created in the Lovegrove studio with an Arri 300 Junior Fresnel spotlight. A classic style reborn...

Timeless elegance created in the Lovegrove studio with a pair of Arri 300 Junior Fresnel spotlight. A classic style reborn.

Several generations after the development of studio flash lighting, using tungsten lights to make portraits seems so yesteryear. However the film and TV industry hasn’t ever let go of the one bit of lighting kit it thrives on. The Fresnel lensed spotlights that grace every set make excellent lights for taking still pictures too. Now that digital camera sensitivity has caught up with film and 400 ISO is completely usable an exposure of f4 at 1/60th is easily achievable with low wattage tungsten lights.

It helps to have a gorgeous model to shoot. Here Laura Brisland provided the pose while I shot with my Canon 5D.

It helps to have a gorgeous model to shoot. Here Lora Brisland provided the pose while I shot with my Canon 5D. ISO 400, 1/60th second at f/4.

When I shot TV at the BBC we used f4 continuously when shooting drama and we lit our sets to 800 lux. We mainly used Fresnel spotlights with a few soft sources to provide shadow fill and contrast control. It was easy to take the luminaries for granted but the light they produce has a wonderful quality that has ensured they will never become obsolete.

A pair of Arri 300 Junior lamps in my studio.

A pair of Arri 300 Junior lamps in my studio.

I decided to rekindle my passion for lighting people with this unique hard light and I bought a pair of Arri 300 Junior fresnel spotlights on EBAY. Buying Arri lighting equipment second hand is a safe bet because of the excellent build quality of all TV and motion picture kit.

The fresnel lens is like that used in a lighthouse. It is made of concentric rings of glass with increasing angles near the outside. This gives the power of a very thick lens without the bulk of glass required. The lamp side of the lens has a slight dimpled surface to scatter any chromatic aberration.

add it here
1: Cross section of a Fresnel lens
2: Cross section of a conventional plano-convex lens of equivalent power
(Image from Wikipedia)

The look of the light it produces is one of beautifully smooth transitions from the hot spot to the unlit zone. The bulb is moved forwards and backwards inside the lamp housing to create a flood or spot effect. On full flood the light emits an even illumination level over an angle of 60 degrees and then a smooth transition to unlit. In this mode the barn doors on the light can be used to shape the pattern of light produced as a flooded light is a hard light source. Virtually all of the lights in a TV studio will be set to full flood. The shape the barn doors are set to suit the shot and the barn door configurations have their own names like ‘boxed square’, ‘Chinese letterbox’ ‘English letterbox’ and ‘slash’ etc.

Here I've used one light to form a slash on the background and I placed Lora in the beam.

Here I used one light to form a slash on the background and I placed Lora in the beam.

On full spot the light pattern created by the lens is a tight spot of light that goes from unlit to fully lit and back again in a beautifully smooth sine wave style. In this mode the barn doors only attenuate the light and cannot be used to create light shaping. This full spot mode gives softer shadows and more light intensity in the hot spot. It is most often used in theaters and when trying to create a ‘snooted’ look.

ere goes

Eyelashes set of the retro look nicely.

One small lamp can be used in so many ways and because it is a continuous light source what you see is what you get. There is a magic romantic feel to images taken with Fresnel lights. It’s sound equivalent would be an old valve radio that has a warm rounded timbre.

Tungsten lights have a nominal colour temperature of 3200k although it is rare to get more than 3000 out of a partly used bulb. In the TV studio we would set the colour temperature to 2950k and line up at that colour. With digital stills and RAW shooting I suggest you set the white balance to the factory set tungsten setting and make any final tweaks in post production.

Another timeless shot utilising the classic Hollywood cheek triangle of light on the unlit side.

Another timeless shot utilising the classic Hollywood cheek triangle of light on the unlit side.

If you are mixing daylight with tungsten lighting then you need to use colour correction gel on the lights or use HMI versions of the Fresnel lights. HMI lights are bluer and approximate to the colour temperature of daylight. They give a far higher level of light for a given wattage but require a separate ballast in order to work. I always use half blue Lee 202 gel to correct my tungsten lights. As it is only half blue, I often need to double it up to get to daylight or 5600k. For portraiture one layer of 202 is usually perfect giving a warm flattering look and by correcting for it in post production the ambient daylight takes on a subtle cool blue that I love.

ere is

Baby pink works well with the yellow headband to make this 50's style image.

I used one Arri as a key light and one as a back light. Occasionally I used a third tungsten light as a kicker or a second backlight. The main objective is to set the key or principal light first. Set it too steep and eye sockets become black holes, too shallow and the subject looks as though they have come straight out of a horror movie. A lot of the images were taken with the key light ‘upstage’ that is, leaving the shadowed side of the face towards the camera. I like the angle set so that the tip of the nose shadow touches the cheek shadow and leaves a triangle of light nearest the camera.

Once the key light is set I always add a backlight beyond the subject looking straight back towards the camera. Barn doors and lens hoods are needed to avoid flare.

Finally I add a background light to help with the separation of tones. This can be a slash or a spot depending upon the retro era. A reflector can be used to lift the shadows out of the noise zone. The shadows can then be darkened later in Lightroom. This ensures wonderfully clean shadow detail and files that are a joy to print.

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Attention to detail is a must with retro pictures like these. The only thing missing in the 21st century is a cigarette holder.


  1. Ory

    I’m glad the amateur community is discovering fresnels. They serve a useful purpose in keeping the model warm in winter. But guys, do not bother with the peppers. Get yourself at least a 2k Junior. I’ve used my Arri Juniors for a decade or more for small set fashion shoots or big name ones. You may need the power if you are shooting closed down or using 50-100 ISO and need a harsher light source and remember, you can place a smaller bulb in it.


    • damien

      Thanks Ory,

      I use the fabulous LED fresnels by Lupolux. You get the same output as a 1K Junior and at a fraction of the weight, heat and power. On set where tungsten practical lights, candles or fireplaces are to be balanced with I’ll use Arri 300, Arri 150 and Lowel iD lights. Here are a few of my fresnel lit location images:

      Perfect pictures every time with decent lighting :)


  2. Matt Adams

    I recently acquired an old railroad wayside signal. The lens in it was slightly broken and I had to destroy it to remove it for my continued effort to refurbish it. Not knowing much about lenses, I got some from a friend and they turned out to be Frensel lenses and were much too small. Doing a google search today for “Plano convex lens” (because I saw it in the text-only catalog for signal lenses I have) I came across this website. Turns out the lens I had to destroy was one of these Plano jobs. Thank you for saving me $50 or more in unneeded signal lenses by having the cross-section image above!!

    This is probably the weirdest reply to this page, but I thought you’d get a kick out of knowing somebody in a completely unrelated field benefitted from your information.

    • damien

      Thanks Matt,

      I hope your signal is restored to former glory soon.

      Regards, Damien.

  3. James W

    Hi Tig,

    I was interested in using fresnels with strobes as well. Someone I read recommended Walimex which are relatively inexpensive, a large size, and have different adaptors for different strobe brands. But weight may start to be an issue for location work.

    After reading Damien’s comments about the benefits of hot lights I think they make more sense for use in the studio. Thanks for a great blog post Damien!

    • damien

      Hi James,

      Fresnel adapters for strobes dont work particularly well because of the limited power of modeling lights. The advantages of continulus light are lost and camera focussing becomes difficult. Real Fresnel Lupos with daylight colour temperature are available from under £500.

      Cheers, Damien.

  4. Tig

    Hi Damien, I agree with you about the visible light. It must be very helpful when composing the strong shadows. However, I am still compelled to try the Strobes just because I want to use them outdoors and without the pain of having a fire hazard on location :D… Look forward to more from your blog.

    • damien

      Hi Tig,

      Strobes do offer some advantages. Thanks for your kind comments, Damien.

  5. Tig

    This is such a wonderful blog post, I love your images and the writing is very informative. What reflector do you use for the shadows? It seems that it needs to be very subtle like a soft white cloth, and I could imagine it to be far from the model.

    I am looking for a way to take out the hot lamp from Arri’s or Mole’s and have a small strobe replace the lightsource inside. I was wondering if that has been done before.. instead of paying the premium for a profresnel (profoto) or the lower speedotron model. love that light! Seriously great shots!!

    • damien

      Hi Tig,

      Thanks for your compliments. It’s not easy to create a similar look with strobes. Most flash companies have ‘flooters’ or fresnel attachments. They are pricey and inefficient. I would not even consider destroying a Mole Pup or an Arri to try and convert it to flash. You’d never get a working modelling light and these lights need fine tweaks. The art is in being able to see what you have when you set the lights. Flash cannot deliver this. Hence me using continuous lighting.

      I hope this helps.


  6. Jason Little

    Hi Damien,

    I trust and hope you and the team are all well.
    I was looking at the bowens fresnel adaptor and then thought, the Arri’s would make a much better choice. I am going to be doing a hair shoot soon and they are looking for a Louise Brooks style 20’s shoot and I wondered if fresnels would be the way to go in order to get the results they want. Would I be able to get slightly softer shadows with the focus adjustment on the Arri’s rather than that crisp shadow or would this be to do with moving the lights towards or away from the subject, if there an optimum distance to place the light from the subject and is there a problem with heat at all? (I dont want my hair model burning herself haha)
    Are all the Arri’s fresnel or do I need to look at specific ones.
    Sorry there are a few questions there.
    Many thanks,


    • damien

      Hi Jason,

      The Arris are the way forward or the Lupos. The Lupos have a larger diameter Fresnel lens and are a better lamp for your hair shoot in my opinion. They are daylight balanced and can be used to supplement the natural light in the room. The light can be softened by spotting in with the lens. It can be further softened with a piece of half spun or a frost gel. These come in various grades and can be bought from Stage Electrics. I can also supply some frost gel with the Lupo 800 or 1200 if you ask nicely :) The perfect combo is a Lupo 800 and a Lupo 1200. Then add a pair of Arri stands or one Arri stand and one Lowel Grand Stand.

      I hope this helps, Damien.

  7. Alan

    I’ve recently adapted 8″ Fresnel lenses to monolights, but have no way to focus. The current configuration is just short of flood (the center spot just starting to be defined.

    Before spending more time and money pursuing a focusing option I would like to know how often photographers use these lights at or near full “spot” position.

    Any thoughts?


    • damien

      Hi Alan,

      A constantly variable focus is an integral part of a Fresnel luminaire. Full flood gives an even 60 degree angle of illumination of hard, crisp light. At full spot an angle of 5 to 15 degree of softer illumination is achieved. The lamp is moved nearer and further from the subject to give the desired effect at each lens setting.

      Regards, Damien.

  8. Graham

    I love these photos.. its what I want to do… love the 1930 – 40 studio pics.. these are as good.. I have a small studio in a studio flat… I am sure these lights will fit in nicely.
    The lad from London

    • damien

      Thanks Graham,

      A couple of Arri 300’s and an Arri 150 are a perfect combination. Not too hot running either ;) There is a video and some more info here.

      Thanks for your compliments,


  9. Edward Olive

    Nicely lit.

    The question is would people buy this without harcourt signature

    • damien

      Thanks Edward,

      I’m not sure that I understand your question. Regards, Damien.

  10. CaptainChants

    Lovely photos! So lovely, in fact, that I used on of them as a reference for an image I’ve drawn!

    I hope you don’t mind!

    : ]

  11. Roy Bridgewood

    Hi Dagain
    For me it’s that final 5% that counts.
    Thanks a

  12. Roy Bridgewood

    Hi Damie
    I’ve read some of your articles in Pro Photo and love the cubelight. I’m a great fan of Gearge Hurrell and tried to replicate his style with some reasonable results using spills and grids. I have also tried focus spot but seeing your acheivements has offered some much needed resolve.

    I think you have not only recreated the look but shown just how well it translates into colour.

    This article has left me feeling like I have just come out of a lesson I didn’t want to miss.

    Thank You

    • damien

      Thanks Roy,

      You can get 95% of the way with grids – see this post for more details.

      Cheers, Damien.

  13. Lindsey

    Thank you so much for posting these! They are fantastic and your writing is very thorough. I’m about to shoot a few Hollywood style portraits with the fresnels and your posting was so helpful.

  14. damien

    Hi Heidi, I still have your card, It’s the best I’ve ever seen in this industry. :) D.

  15. damien

    Hi James, Thanks for your kind words. Where in the world are you? Damien.

  16. James Moore

    Stunning work! The model, the poses – and the lighting is just incredible! (I wish I could go to England and study with YOU!)

  17. PK Vegas

    I have been thinking about getting some fresnels and working on some old school film noir video shoots and seeing your still portraits has inspired me to shoot seperate stills rather than working frame grabs in post. Thanks for the insight on how you made your shots work. It takes a confident shooter to share the “secrets” Much Appreciated!

    PK Vegas

  18. Rachel Spivey

    Hi Damien

    This article is a real inspiration, I’ve just acquired a couple of Mole Richardson fresnels and can’t wait to get cracking with them!

    Thanks for being so generous with your ideas and experiences – it’s much appreciated.


  19. Annie

    Gee what a gorgeous model…I’m not biased….I’m her Mum!!
    But it’s lovely to see the potential froma good photographer.

  20. Heidi Wernicke

    Hi Damien

    great shots, I have been wanting a couple of tungsten lights for my studio for a while, now they are even higher on the shopping list.

    Your friend from Down Under Melbourn

  21. damien

    Hi John,

    You can’t do this with a softbox because the light from a softbox goes everywhere and you don’t get the sharp shadows. This is everything that a softbox doesn’t do in a picture. A Fresnel light is a soft edged spotlight with a point source. Look at the clean crisp shadows. A softbox is a broad light and produces a gradient transition between lit and unlit areas. Hence the Holywood look in these pictures.


  22. John Shaw

    Hi, You can replicate this style using softbox and off camera flash fired by remote on camera maybe a reflector on right to bounce a little light back?


  23. Chris

    have re found this lighting also and ,it is so refreshing from flash , i dug out two old blonde lights from the studio kit grave yard and shot a whole fashion session for glasses and loved it .
    What made me try it again after 18 year was a shooting conferences & live shows with tungsten .

    I shot on D3 as you have said 400 F4

    I just loved the results and came back in to the studio and went for it .
    Great stuff and you can get good kit deals on ebay .

  24. damien

    Thanks Raoul, Broncolor make a Fresnel attachment that uses the same lens as the Arri. I use it with my Mobil kit.


  25. raoul somers

    Wauw now i have to buy some ari’s also….
    I work every day with flash but this looks so….real.




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