Portrait Lighting: Lessons from a Master

One of the downfalls of many books and training DVDs on portrait lighting is that they tend to make lighting seem like a hopelessly complicated subject. You sometimes walk away feeling like you know less than you knew going in.

That is exactly why Tony Corbell’s Portrait Lighting on Location (Software Cinema) is such a welcome learning tool: rather than complicating location lighting, Corbell’s DVD teaches great methods for simplifying lighting. And the results of his lighting techniques (you get to see a gallery of the shots from each segment) are brilliantly and creatively lit portraits. I am as impressed by the beautiful quality of his images as I am by his simple, straightforward method of teaching.

Five Distinct Lighting Lessons

The DVD is divided into five distinct lighting lessons, including in-depth tutorials on: Controlling the Sun, The Daylight Studio, Portrait of a Physician, Amber & Abbey (photographing a mother and daughter at home) and Ambience and Flash Together Outdoors. There is also an excellent tutorial on image-enhancing where Corbell shows you how he puts the finishing touches on his portraits (much of which involves Nik Software, for whom Corbell consults).

Each of these tutorial situations is a real shoot, and you get to accompany Corbell on location and watch as he works with his models and creates his lighting setups. His method of teaching is very one-on-one and feels very much like a personal workshop. Some of the tutorials are shot indoors using either flash and daylight or just flash (both portable and studio systems are demonstrated), and several of the outdoor shoots are created using just the sun and diffusion screens. In addition, Corbell demonstrates the incredible usefulness of acrylic mirrors in creating highlights and hair lights — something I’ve been trying to encourage students to use for years.

In the Controlling the Sun segment, for example, Corbell takes a model to a beach in San Diego where the ambient light is harsh, direct overhead sunlight — not the kind of lighting you’d use for any portrait. But by adding a single diffusion screen (I wish he’d mentioned what brand it was) and an inexpensive scrap of acrylic mirror, he manages to create a soft, dreamy quality of light that is absolutely beautiful. Using just two assistants (and you could use friends for this work, it’s not complicated since there is no lighting gear) to hold the diffusion screen and mirrors, Corbell is able to exploit the brightness of the sun and yet control its intensity. The images you’ll see him create are fantastic.

In the segment called The Daylight Studio, he uses a similar setup to take portraits of a musician, but also includes a painted backdrop. I love the idea of taking a painted background to a beach location. By using a huge diffusion panel (Matthews), Corbell is able to gently light both model and background and then uses the mirrors to add interesting highlights.

In the segment called Portrait of a Physician, he takes a corporate-style portrait of a well-known physician in a hospital environment using a location flash outfit that consists of one softbox (as the main light) and a pair of accent lights for separation. It’s a simple, elegant lighting solution that takes only a few minutes to arrange and minimizes the time the subject has to be in front of the camera. Again, the quality of the portraits he makes shows just how well a simple setup can light a very sophisticated portrait.

A Born Teacher

Corbell is a born teacher and throughout the lessons he comes across as a patient, very knowledgeable teacher who really wants to share his creative and technical skills. If you’re looking for a very approachable series of lessons in portrait lighting, you can do no better than this great DVD. And if you’re a photo teacher and want a great guest instructor, just pop this DVD into the player and your students will love you. The DVD costs just $99 (most of us would spend that on a filter without thinking twice) and it’s worth many times that price and can be ordered directly from Software Cinema.

After watching this DVD several times, I’ve been inspired to get the diffusion materials and mirrors out and head to the beach with a willing model, and I think you will be inspired to do the same. Corbell has created some simple, elegant lighting solutions that can be adapted to almost any portrait subject (or creating an outdoor still-life studio for that matter) and you’ll watch the lessons over and over again.

[tags]portrait photography, photography tips [/tags]

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