Dynamic Lighting on Location

Posted by Jerry Avenaim on November 15, 2008 – 4:25 pm

As a celebrity photographer you face many challenges. Photographing celebrities on location both indoors and out can prove to be quite an experience.

When using flash indoors or out, expose your subject with the aperture and your background with your shutter speed. This will equally balance the mixture of light. Nobody seems to be able to get that unless they have a picture to put together with it. It has nothing to do with depth of field. It’s finding the balance and equality between existing light and strobe light. You can control your strobe light but you can’t control your existing light. So if I’m outside at high noon, I need a fast shutter speed. Or if I’m inside, I’m going to do what’s called dragging the shutter to allow the ambient light in the room to match the output of the strobe.

Luke Wilson Photographed by Jerry Avenaim

Luke Wilson Photographed at the Sunset motel by Jerry Avenaim

For example, I photographed actor Luke Wilson in a seedy Sunset Blvd. motel room. I wanted to give him this morning after look, as though he spent the night with someone and was getting himself together the next morning.  As you can see, in the background was ambient light coming in through the doorway, a television set and a table lamp.

I lit my subject with a Profoto 7b power pack with bare-head zoom reflector and bounced the light into a corner of the ceiling behind me, I then metered the exposure accordingly with a Sekonic L-358. The strobe read f8 and I dragged the shutter to a 15th of a second to get that one stop ratio for the ambient light in the background. This gave me the perfect lighting ratio for the naturally lit look I was trying to achieve.

Kevin Connolly of Entourage photographed by Jerry Avenaim

Kevin Connolly of Entourage photographed by Jerry Avenaim

When I photographed actor Kevin Connolly for L.A. Confidential magazine, it was both a cover shoot and editorial feature. I was looking for a more gritty look in this image so I chose to shoot it at The Brewery in downtown Los Angeles for it’s great atmosphere.

By looking at the photograph it would be hard for anyone to know it was made at high noon with the sun overhead and to the right of the subject. Now this was was an age old rule of when not to shoot your subject outside. Yeah right, I say learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

In this image you can see where the sun is casting a shadow on the pavement (this gives you perspective on it’s position above Kevin).

For the key light; I lit my Kevin with a Profoto 7b2 power pack fitted with a silver Profoto Softlight Reflector mounted on a boom arm just over camera and directed at the subject. I then metered the exposure accordingly with a Sekonic L-558. First I metered the sun directly – f4.0 at 500th of a second, then I powered the strobe on Kevin to read f11 this gave me a three stop ratio by overpowering the sun by using the strobe. This again gave me the perfect lighting ratio for the now gritty look and dark blue sky I was trying to achieve.

My tip for great lighting on location: Expose the subject with the aperture and balance or ratio the background with shutter. In other words, set the aperture for the flash-lit component of the overall exposure, and the shutter speed based on the available-light component to achieve balanced, natural-looking lighting or overpower the ambient light for a dramatic gritty feel!

Footnote: I most always use the Silver Softlight Reflector for men. When utilizing the same look for women, I’ll use the White Softlight Reflector (with diffuser) and a two stop ratio as it is softer and more forgiving on women.

Jerry Avenaim

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14 Responds so far- Add one»

  1. 1. Michael Fletcher Said:

    First of all, your blog looks great! I’m looking forward to learning from your photographic expertise.

    In your description of the photo of Luke Wilson in the seedy motel room, you mention dragging the shutter to get that one stop ratio you’re looking for. By that, do you mean you’re aiming for the subject to be exposed one stop brighter than the background giving a 2 to 1 lighting ratio?

    Also, when you mention a two stop ratio for women, are you similarly aiming for the subject to be exposed two stops above the background?


  2. 2. Jerry Avenaim Said:

    It’s something you can play with Michael, but yes the background was 1 stop darker. As far as the question on women, I was referring more to the outdoor location images (as in the Kevin Connolly shot). To get that Maxim look, you want to overpower the sun to create a dramatic separation between subject and environment giving the subject dominance over their environment.

    Thank you for both your question and comment!



  3. 3. Victoria Said:

    Brilliant! Can’t wait to read more!


  4. 4. ronald n. tan Said:

    Greetings Sensei, about time you decide to blog! =) I remember you gave me that advice and when I was shooting for Australia’s AXN on the El Mirage Dried Lake, I utilized the knowledge you’ve imparted me.

    Now, it is like second nature with me. I do not that much fumble with my light readings when on location.

    I grid my lights. =)


  5. 5. Michelle henrick Said:

    Hmmm, I am a natural light photographer but do love the use studio lights when it is done right and yours do it for me. Thanks for the tips 🙂


  6. 6. Deb Fujiwara Said:

    I love the look of your new blog and that you’re taking the time to share the benefits of your experience with others.

    As someone with literally zero understanding of the technical aspects of your craft, I can offer nothing more intelligent than this — can you please pass my phone number along to Kevin Connolly?

    Seriously though, I love the beautiful images you capture and the passion you have for sharing them.


  7. 7. Angelo Said:

    Mr. Avena?im, your blog couldn’t have been any better. I can’t wait to try some techniques. I haven’t shot with many models, but can take each piece of your advice to both model’s and photog’s and use what you’ve shared. 1st day and I’ve already learned so much. Have a wonderful life in career and with your family.



  8. 8. Jason Christopher Said:

    Hi Jerry, the blog looks great! Some very useful information. This post is very helpful even for me at this stage in my career.

    Do you ever use white boards or reflectors outdoors to light your subjects ? For example, I know when I first started shooting, I couldn’t afford to buy or even rent really nice lighting so I experimented with reflectors. Would love to know your thoughts.

    — Jason


  9. 9. Gabrielle Geiselman Said:

    Super useful information here….
    I have been waiting for someone to do this for such a long time.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom…..



  10. 10. Doug Jacobs Said:

    Thank you for this blog and for providing accessibility to your wealth of knowledge. You have answered many of my questions and I will be visiting frequently!


  11. 11. s.bateman Said:

    Best blog seen so far, excellent


  12. 12. Hamish October Said:

    I just wanted to say that your work is amazing and inspiring. I like the part on your blog about finding your own style, i’m struggling with finding myself as an artist, its hard, but your words help, so thanks. You’re a true artist and a gentleman.


  13. 13. Ryan Muirhead Said:

    How did you synch the light for the outdoor shot at 1/500th of a second? Some kind of leaf shutter?


    Jerry Avenaim Reply:

    Yes Ryan, the camera I was using was a Hasselblad H2 with a leaf shutter lens. All the H2 lenses are leaf shutter and sync up to 800th of a second.

    You can do the exact same thing with your DSLR however there is a caveat, you are limited to your lower sync speed. You just need more flash power, which is really no problem as I do it all the time.


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