Creating Classical Portraits with Simple Lighting

Adam Blasberg

All over the western world, there’s been a resurgence of vintage trends. A comeback of old methods and practices brought back in response to the over-immediacy of our modern world. The current, disposable, wham-bam-thank-you-glam processes have created a subculture of artists interested in revisiting a simpler, more studied life of art, similar to how you may envision it a hundred years ago. There’s a new romance around the dark room and wet plate printing. Old-style vintage cameras are becoming more and more popular; even Nikon has released a digital camera to reminisce back to days when cameras simply exposed film and forwarded it to the next frame. Today, cameras are more like computers, but it is still difficult to get a digital print to come out perfectly. It has become the work of magicians and technicians who wave their magical wands over colour management and achieve accurate colour, density, and contrast.

As a professional, it’s been years since I’ve picked up my Pentax K1000, loaded a roll of black and white film and gone out shooting simply for the enjoyment of taking photos—between the pressures of this industry and the pace of our culture, I haven’t the patience for it any longer. I often am absorbed in researching and progressing my business, or worse, doing my taxes, rather than spending time shooting black and white film of shadows and textures. Luckily, I’ve managed to incorporate style development and artistic development into my business plan, and for me, that means and exploring my distinct style of portraiture and a devotion to developing my craft. I’ve always been a progressive portrait artist. I feel that my personal works have a unique quality to them and push certain boundaries: a quality that is cinematic and dramatic; a quality that stems from my love of old, mid-century movies, but has progressed to incorporate modern style trends via the use of lighting and the application of software adjustments. For me, the chance to shoot portraits as they did 75 years ago is the same as loading a Leica with a roll of Delta 100 and shooting street photography on a rainy day.

One hundred years ago, there was a common value between a carpenter and a classical portrait photographer: care. There was a level of care that appears to have dissipated over the years and become very difficult to find. Using older tools required spending more time. It required an awareness, if for no other reason than for safety’s sake, as industrial equipment like professional photo gear wasn’t made with safety as much of a priority as today’s gear. That awareness and time that was spent doing carpentry, or creating a portrait, yielded a product of an unmatched level of quality. In a portrait, that level of quality was seen in the eyes of the subject; it was conveyed in the accurate and careful placement of the lights, and it was communicated in the posture and the position of the model.

When it comes to portraiture, I often implement this equation: T+A=Q. T represents Time, A represents Awareness, and Q represents Quality. This was an equation that was standard many years ago. It was replaced by a more modern equation: 2P+T/2=$$. Today we’re asked to double our Productivity (P) and half the Time (T) it takes, which is expected to yield more Money ($). Quality takes a back seat in today’s equation.

When George Hurrell was photographing the stars of Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s, there was a level of glamour that had never been seen before; George was the portrait artist who captured it. George exemplified classical portraiture as we know it today. Sharon Stone was photographed by Hurrell towards the end of his life, and she said, “George creates a magic in a still photograph. I have probably done a photo session with a thousand different photographers. They take hundreds and hundreds of pictures. George takes three frames . . . and every one is good.” George Hurrell embodies the T+A=Q equation; I encourage you to check out his work

Classical portraits like the ones George created are most often executed in a studio, where control of the environment is maximized. While backgrounds with texture or colour are commonly used, they do not detract or distract from the character in the portrait, which is the most important part of the final image. The person being photographed shines through with the use of lighting, composition, and the particular process and approach of the photographer. It’s a combination of technique and artistic approach that determines the ultimate success of the classical portrait. It requires an understanding of simple lighting, the use of your camera, and a decisive and unique approach as an artist (i.e., how you relate and communicate with your subject). When you put these skills together, you have a beautifully crafted, classical portrait.

Use Simple Lighting

Lighting a classical portrait does not have to be overly complicated. A very common lighting tool used to create classical portraits is a Fresnel light, but you can create beautiful images with an off-camera speedlight. The Fresnel has the ability to focus its beam with the use of a lens in front of the bulb. It gives direction and at the same time maintains a softness that a small light source can’t achieve. Not only does the Fresnel maintain softness, but the intensity of the light is more consistent across the spread of the beam. The Fresnel helps create rich shadow patterns on the face, which gives texture and mood.

Rembrandt lighting

One of the most common lighting patterns used in classical portraiture is called Rembrandt lighting. Rembrandt lighting is when the light is placed at approximately 45 degrees to the subject, and approximately 45 degrees above the subject. The image above is an example of Rembrandt lighting and the pattern that it creates on the face. In this instance, I photographed the subject with a Fresnel light, placing it in a position that achieved Rembrandt lighting (characterized by the triangular highlight created on the shadow side of the face). Next to the image is a diagram that shows where the light is placed relative to the subject and the camera.

Although Rembrandt lighting is one of the more popular classical lighting patterns, a classical portrait is not defined by it. Butterfly and loupe lighting were also prevalent in earlier examples of classical portraiture. Butterfly lighting is where the light is placed in line with the subject, above the subject’s face at approximately a 45-degree angle. With loupe lighting, the light is placed approximately midway between the Rembrandt position and the butterfly position. This loupe position creates a shadow below and off to the side of the nose. The images below compare each of the four basic lighting patterns. Notice as the light is moved around to the front of the camera from the split lighting position, more and more of the face becomes visible.

A lighting pattern is created as a function of the position of the light relative to the model’s face. This means that when a subject moves his or her face in a different direction, the lighting pattern will change. If you wish to keep the lighting pattern consistent—regardless of the direction of their face—you must move the light according to the model’s movement. If a model starts out looking at the camera and the light is positioned for a Rembrandt effect, once the model looks camera left, you must also begin to move the light camera left if you want to stick with Rembrandt lighting. Additionally, every person will require a unique adjustment to the light to achieve the lighting pattern you’re attempting. The model in this shot has a very strong brow, which makes it easier to create the Rembrandt lighting pattern. It would be more difficult to achieve Rembrandt lighting if photographing a subject with less structural definition.

There are different reasons to use different lighting patterns. I’ve been forced to use one or the other based on physical limitations within a location. For example, if a light reflects in a mirror using butterfly lighting, I might change the angle and choose loupe-style lighting. Or, in a very narrow room, where placing a light in the split lighting position might not be an option, I’ve found more success with butterfly lighting. In studio, however, I get to choose the style of lighting that best fits my intentions. The most dramatic of the four basic lighting patterns is often split lighting, where the light is highlighting one side of the face, and shadowing the other. If you’re going for a softer, more beauty-style portrait, the decision is easy: butterfly lighting.

Whichever lighting pattern you choose, the lighting should be simple. A classical portrait is more about the subject and how the photographer evokes character from that subject than it is about overly complicated lighting. The classical portrait is meant to convey mood and personality and doesn’t have to be an advanced display of lighting techniques. Some of the most effective classical portraits were created using one light. However, by adding a couple of accent lights (lights coming from behind the subject), the mood of the portrait can be changed, as shown below.

The classical portrait can be modernized; your own photographic style can be infused into the classical portrait. On a trip to Florida to do a photo session with a group of seniors, the goal was to get some very classical portraits using a style of lighting I often use. The lighting isn’t overly simple or overly complicated. The goal with the lighting was to be consistent and familiar so I didn’t have to think about it while photographing the subjects. This allowed me to focus on the subjects themselves and let their character be on display. The images below are from that shoot.

It’s important to know where photographic portraiture originates. From the early photographic portraitists like Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz to mid-century portraitists like George Hurrell to modern portrait artists like Annie Leibowitz, they have all contributed to the photographic portrait. They have all made a progression in photographic portraits using the modern technology of their day via style trends that were current during their era and their own artistic approach. They’ve all made portraits using very simple lighting techniques, but have also incorporated more complex processes to achieve beautiful and timeless portraits of both famous and common people. As a suggestion, start with one light. Master it. And then add another. Repeat.

Adam Blasberg is a regular columnist in PHOTOGRAPH magazine 

Adam Blasberg is a commercial and editorial photographer based out of Vancouver, Canada. Adam battles against an age of hyper mass production, where images are manufactured like a commodity, by approaching his photography with care and thoughtfulness. His cinematic, dramatic and thoughtful style requires commitment to a process and a standard not upheld by most. His desire to tell a memorable story—a story that engages the viewer and pulls them into the story—is the driving force behind his pursuit of excellent craftsmanship. See more of his work on his website


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