Essential Lighting

Whether you’re creating a beauty shot, crafting an environmental portrait or setting up a still life, one single photography truth will always remain: Light matters. What separates professional photographers from the crowd is the ability to shape light into a previsualized design appropriate for the subject and client. But when faced with every light source and modifier under the sun (including the sun!), where do you start? We’re shining our spotlight on pro photographers Conan Thai, Martin Wonnacott, Ethan Pines, Joanna Kustra and Seth Olenick. In the following pages, they describe, diagram and showcase their favorite lighting designs that provide consistent success.

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Must-Know Lighting Techniques Used By The Pros

Martin Wonnacott

Born in England. Remembers playing with water tanks at age 4. Received first plastic camera in small box, age 9. Started assisting other photographers at age 17. Moved to London, age 19. Discovered pubs, age 19 (legal in UK). Started own studio, age 23. Fascinated with all things shiny. Has traveled around the world, on and off. Paints watercolor landscapes. Never shows watercolors to anyone. Adores Rioja. Discovered NY in 1999. Loves airplanes. Has shot virtually every sort of liquid form of refreshment for sale in the world. Loves Paul Smith socks. Has a favorite local bar in NYC and local pub in London. Lives between both cities when not somewhere else. Still loves playing with water tanks. Collects robots.

What’s your essential go-to lighting design?
Generally speaking, I would set up a head with a 20º grid overhead and have a 6×2 softbox set up in case. After that, it truly depends on the brief.

Why is it your go-to?
Keep it simple.

Profoto D4 and Pro 8 packs because of the control (I used to have amazing software, but now it’s truly shameful, sadly, and, yes, I’d like you to print that!).

Conan Thai

I left the eternally sunny Orange County for the electricity of NYC a few years back in search of adventure, New England autumns and girls stomping around in dark, long coats. I mostly shoot fashion nowadays, but will, one day, put my Studio Art degree from UCI to good use and resume my pursuit of fine art.

What’s your essential go-to lighting design?
The lighting setup that I often default to is the one I began with when I barely knew how to light—a single beauty dish camera-left slightly raking the subject, with a black V-flat for heightened contrast, plus a white V-flat farther back for a soft rim. It’s great for portraits and serves as de rigueur for model tests.

Why is it your go-to?
I fall back to this option, as it’s relatively easy and simple to set up. I always recommend to young photographers to start their studio lighting experiments with one strobe. Through the use of reflectors, modifiers and varying lighting positions, a vast range of options can be made available.

Profoto Pro 7a
White BD (no diffusion sock)

Ethan Pines

Award-winning photographer Ethan Pines grew up on a small ranch in Los Angeles. He has photographed ad campaigns for Universal Studios, Casio, Sony Music, United Pharmaceuticals and others. Editorial clients include Forbes, Wired, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno and The Wall Street Journal. His images have been honored by the Communication Arts Photo Annual, the American Photography Annual, the International Photography Awards and American Photo‘s Images of the Year. He’s also an Eagle Scout and a Nitrox-certified scuba diver. He lives once again in rural Los Angeles, now with wife and cat.

What’s your essential go-to lighting design?
My lighting varies with location, subject, concept, mood and what I feel like doing that day. But a go-to setup I’ve worked with for a long time is a 60″ octabank with fabric grid as key, 34″x45″ softbox for fill and a medium strip behind the subject on each side for edge lights. Placement and intensity of the key vary with subject, mood, etc. What I never do is place it on the camera axis—always somewhere to one side for more shadowing and dimension. I’ll also play with the intensity of the fill to achieve different moods. For the edge lights, over time I’ve made them more subtle.
I used to blow them out like crazy.
Now I use a gentler touch.

Why is it your go-to? 
I know it works, which is critical when there’s little to no time for experimentation. And when there’s more leeway, I like to divide my time between something experimental and something I’ve worked with before. Using softboxes and fabric grids makes the lighting very controllable. I use edge lights because they make people pop and glow; subjects look somewhat superhuman, like they’ve been drawn by a comic-book artist. Finally, having hired me for my look, clients sometimes expect that kind of pop and glow.

One Photoflex 60″ OctoDome
One Photoflex Large LiteDome (34″x45″)
Two Photoflex Medium HalfDomes (15.5″x 55″)
Two Profoto Pro-6 2400 Ws Power Packs
Four Profoto Pro heads
Flags to each side of lens

Joanna Kustra

Joanna Kustra is a Polish fashion and beauty photographer who currently resides in London and Costa del Sol. Her interest in photography arrived as a continuation of her artistic childhood passion of piano and oboe. She’s self-taught and happy to share her experiences. She loves audio books, coffee and flying.

What’s your essential go-to lighting design?
It’s not the easiest setup, but it’s one of my favorites for beauty shots. It consists of four flash lights:
1) A main light with simple reflector straight above the model’s face;
2) A fill light with a small softbox below the model’s face, which reduces shadows under the nose/chin; I usually put it on the ground;
3) A side light with a color gel, which is directed toward a white poly board and the light reflects toward the model’s side; and
4) A backlight directed toward the backdrop.

Why is it your go-to?
I really like this setup because the main light is quite strong and perfectly brings out any details—makeup is always crisp and vivid. Thanks to two fill lights, I’m avoiding any deep shadows, but at the same time, the effect isn’t flat, as my fill light nicely sculpts features of the face. Additionally, a touch of color reflected from the poly board on the shadowed skin gives the image a playful and fr
esh look. It’s a challenging setup, but it always makes a “wow” effect on the client.

Nikon D800
AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8G
Bowens Gemini 500

Seth Olenick


I was born and raised in Southern California until the age of 18, when I headed out to New York City. Just days after arriving, I begantaking photos of ska, punk and ska/punk bands at now-defunct venues like Coney Island High, Tramps and The Roxy. A chance meeting with F-Minus singer Brad Logan led directly to my first assisting gig with one of my photography heroes, B.J. Papas, solidifying my love of photography and deeper entrenchment in the punk rock photo world.

In 2003, I became Photo Editor at Heeb Magazine, where I had the chance to meet and photograph some of my comedy idols. Upon leaving the magazine in 2007, I embarked on the project that led to my book Funny Business. My photos have appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, Spin, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, GQ, FHM UK, Entertainment Weekly, Maxim, Blender, Paste, Playboy, Penthouse, Time Out NY and CMJ New Music Journal, and on the covers of various music and comedy books, CDs, and Comedy Central DVDs for Reno 911!, Wyatt Cenac and Godfrey.

What’s your essential go-to lighting design?
In the studio, I like to use my Dynalites with a softbox, but really what I love most is shooting outdoors on a sunny day when the sun isn’t quite at its peak and it shines down more at a sideways angle than straight down. To get this effect, you have to choose the right time of day, but also the right time of year. The point is to use the sun as one lighting source, and in my case, I use a Lumedyne with an umbrella as the second lighting source.

Why is it your go-to?
I love this setup because it adds some dimension to the subject. If you just hit them from the front with a strobe, it can still look nice, but it will be a bit flatter. By using the sun as a second light source behind the subject, and using a strobe to hit them in the front from an angle, you also get some nice shadows in between the light areas.

I’ve used a Lumedyne that I purchased off of Ebay several years ago. It’s just one head, one pack, one battery, one stand and one umbrella—simplicity at its best.

Want to sharpen your lighting skills? Our guide to Portrait Lighting Essentials provides instructions on the must-know basic lighting techniques, and provides tips for making a memorable image.

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