Portrait Lighting Tutorial: Character Study

Capture the essence of a male subject in a single image.

Though colleagues often kid me about my portraits of “old men with hats and beards,” I’ve found photographing men to be interesting and rewarding. Images of beautiful women dominate magazines and exhibitions. When you do see a male subject, it’s most likely a child, high school senior or groom. Yet every man has a unique personality and a story all his own. A portrait should honor the man and the life that’s made him who he is.

Emerson, an elderly gentleman in our neighborhood, was surprised when I wanted to create a portrait of him. He had a compelling look I wanted to capture, I explained. I promised to delete my images if I didn’t make him look good. At my studio the next day, I asked him about his life as I photographed him. He spoke of the places he’d lived, of his family and the jobs he’d held, and about being in the Navy during World War II. Talking helped him to relax into his natural stance and unstudied gestures. From time to time I would ask him to lift his chin or turn his head to refine the pose. I was especially pleased with a particular image from that session (Figure 1).

Fig. 1
Figure 1: “Old Habit” ©Don Chick

For character study portrait lighting, I use a 3×4 Larson Soff Box as the main light; a stand-up reflector with white fabric for fill light; a 10×36 Larson Soff Strip with louvers for a hair light; a Photogenic 1250 deep conical parabolic with barn doors as a background light; a 42×72-inch Larson stand-up reflector with silver fabric for accent lighting, placed on the side opposite the main light; and a Photogenic 2500DR in a 10-degree fine honeycomb grid to add a bit of spot light to the background (Figure 2). I prefer to handhold the camera for these sessions so I can capture angles and moods spontaneously.

Figure 2: Lighting diagram for character study portraiture

 Fig. 2

Postcapture, I cleaned up stray hairs, slightly over-sharpened select areas, and added a darkening vignette in Photoshop.

Fig. 3
Figure 3: “Farmer Frank” ©Don Chick

In his younger days, Frank (Figure 3) had had his own Vaudeville act with trained steers. He owned and operated a dairy farm for many years, and still shows his dairy cows, as well as competing with his team of oxen in country fairs. Frank’s wife insisted he wear brand new overalls for his session in my studio. Frank also wore a well-worn farm jacket—something that wife was not pleased about. He brought in an old sign from the farm, a milk can and some of the original milk bottles, which he filled with styrofoam.

Fig. 4
Figure 4: “Finishing Touch” ©Don Chick

Ellis Hatch (Figure 4) is known as Master Fly Tyer around New England for his expertise in both fly tying and fly fishing. It was a delight to listen to Ellis’ stories as I photographed him.

For this portrait, I simply set his fly tying equipment on a posing table, arranged my character lighting (Figure 2), and photographed him as he finished making a fly. I over-sharpened areas of the image in Photoshop and converted the file into sepia tone. The flourescent orange on the fly would have been distracting to viewers. Converting to monochrome keeps the viewer’s focus on Ellis’ face, and the fly becomes a secondary center of interest.

Fig. 5
Figure 5: “Quite a Character” ©Don Chick

Our family friend, Walt (Figure 5), was surprised I wanted to photograph him. He came in with a variety of his everday things: several hats, a pipe, and his cane.

In this standout image, Walt’s expression was the result of a happy accident. As my 5-year old son, David, walked into the studio, Walt suddenly began to chuckle. Later, I found out that David had winked at him, and that’s what sparked the unabashed display of Walt’s personality. This genuine grin and twinkle in his eye show his love of humourous storytelling.

I added a vignette in Photoshop to tone down the hands, and the lighting is similar to Figure 2. My two favorite elements of the lighting in this image are the hair light hitting the top of the hat, and having the accent light visible on the left side of Walt’s face. His hands and face form a pleasing diagonal plane, and his face, hands and pipe form a triangle.

Fig. 6
Figure 6: “Quiet Confidence” ©Don Chick

Bennett (Figure 6) came to the studio with a leather jacket and hat. Hats can be used to cover baldness, but they can add interest to an image as well. I photographed Bennet as he told me about himself and his family. I would guide him into different poses, but soon he was posing naturally. I could see the difference immediately, and I coached him a bit to perk up his facial expression.

In portraiture, it’s just as important for the subject to be mentally involved in the image-making as it is to have the right props. I often ask a subject to think of a certain kind of event in his life or to think of an attitude or concept, such as confidence, mystery or peace. If the subject wears the right clothing and the photographer sets the right scene, the final element needed is the proper facial expression. Then you can create an image his family will love.

Why not take the time to create a character study of some of the men in your life? At the very least it will be an interesting learning experience. At best, it will open a whole new market for your studio and help set you apart from the competition.


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