How I Got That Shot: Refined Portrait Lighting Done Fast

May 14, 2018


© Spyder-Ryder Sloman

Celeste Sloman. © Spyder-Ryder Sloman

Client: TruTV
Creative Director: Jim Read

Client: City & State
Art Director: Guillaume Federighi

When asked to define her photographic style, portrait photographer Celeste Sloman talks about how she directs her subjects. For clients such as Variety, The New York Times, the United Nations and TIME, Sloman has photographed writers, politicians, activists, actors and many subjects not used to being in front of the camera, often getting little time to spend with her subjects. “The most important things for me are stylistic simplicity and cultivating honest connections with my subjects,” she says. Her lighting is an important component in forming those connections, she says, and “making them feel that I’m looking at them as individuals and that I have their best interests at heart.”

Whether she’s using natural light, strobes or continuous light, she says, “I don’t like to overlight. I like to keep things as minimal as possible, or just use what’s necessary for the given circumstance.” Her clients also know that she can shoot “under challenging circumstances.”

She talked to PDN about how she lit two very different portrait assignments that provided her little time with her subjects. One, an advertising assignment for TruTV, was a conceptual image art directed by the network’s creative director. The other was an editorial assignment to photograph activist, minister and occasional talk show host Al Sharpton in a conference room. She used very different lighting sources to put her own stamp on each portrait.


Sloman, who is based in New York City, was traveling in Myanmar when her assistant, April Blum, contacted her to say TruTV wanted her on a conference call about a campaign for its unscripted show, Upscale, which features producer and writer Prentice Penny exploring the trappings of an “upscale” life. Sloman notes, “I was really lucky because I was recommended to the creative director at TruTV who booked me without even having met me,” she says. While Blum worked out production details, Sloman hurried back to New York City and got ready to fly to Los Angeles for the shoot.

TruTV had rented a large space in Los Angeles where Penny would also be shooting a video promotion for Upscale. Creative director Jim Read’s idea for the ad was to show Penny seated in front of a wall mounted with props representing items from different episodes of the show. While the video shoot was going on, Sloman and her assistants set up the lights, then waited for Penny.

She chose an 80mm lens to make sure there was no distortion, and had to set up her camera far from the subject. The studio was large and echoing. Rather than shouting at her subject, she says, “At the beginning, I went up to him and said: This is what I need from you.” After that, she gave him minimal direction on ways to adapt his pose, and paused once to walk over and speak quietly to him.

© Celeste Sloman

Al Sharpton, lit with gelled LEDs. “I like the way the light from LEDs translates into black and white,” says Sloman. © Celeste Sloman


“The art direction was light and bright, so I wanted to achieve that, but also make the lighting refined,” says Sloman. “I wanted there to be a bit of contour on his face.”

Sloman used Profoto 8a strobes. At camera right, the crew hung an 8 x 8 silk vertically at a slight angle to the set. She then blasted a strobe with a 7-inch reflector through the silk. This light provided an even light on the wall behind Penny. A black flag placed to the left of the light shielded Sloman’s camera from spill.

For her key light, Sloman used an Elinchrom 135 octabox with a sock and a grid. This was at camera left, directed at Penny. With a grid, she says, “you don’t have light spilling all over the place.” In addition, a V-flat placed to the left of the light bounced some light onto the left edge of the back wall.

Finally, “just for extra punch,” she says, she also boomed another strobe over the wall, so it hit Penny’s hair from above. This light had a grid with some black foil on the edge of the modifier. The effect was to illuminate Penny and all the elements of the set, while also adding the contour Sloman wanted.

Her recent assignment for City & State, a magazine and website covering politics in New York State, exemplifies the quieter tone in many of Sloman’s editorial portraits.

The magazine was showcasing 50 leaders in the state, and wanted all the portraits to be in black and white. For a portrait of Al Sharpton, the magazine’s art director arranged for Sloman to shoot in Sharpton’s office. “We weren’t allowed to bring much equipment, and no seamless. It was very bare bones,” she recalls. When she arrived, she found that she would be shooting in a conference room with no daylight. With such a recognizable subject, she says, “I didn’t want to show him in a boring conference room.”

She turned out the lights in the room, and noticed a small amount of light coming through a frosted glass wall from the room next door. “When I saw that, I wanted to incorporate it, rather than using a strobe to wash everything out.”

She chose to use small LED panels—one was a circular panel about a foot in diameter, the other an even smaller rectangle.  “I like the way the light from LEDs translates into black and white,” she says. Despite having little time to shoot, she planned to get a black-and-white option for the client and a color portrait for herself, she also brought colored gels. She used a brown gel on one light and a blue on another. The mix, she said,
“made a pretty rust color.”

She had her assistant hold a panel with the brown gel to camera right, and she placed the panel with the blue gel on it on a stand just to the left of Sharpton. Both panels were close to the subject’s face.

“With these iconic figures, you want to be efficient with their time and your time,” she says. “I let him know I wasn’t going to take up much of his time.” After getting some simple portraits, she asked him to try moving his hands. She had been given 20 minutes with her subject, but had captured close-up portraits in both black-and-white and color within ten minutes.


Sloman photographed Penny with a Hasselblad H5D, a PhaseOne IQ250 back and an 80mm lens. She shot at f/16, 1/250th second at ISO 200.

She shot the portrait of Sharpton with her Canon 5D Mark IV and a 50mm f/1.2 lens at f/2. Her shutter speed was 1/80 sec. at ISO 1000.

Post Processing

Before wrapping the shoot for Upscale, she shot a few extra plates of the wall to give the client’s retoucher extra options, but Sloman says, “I was happy with how it was in camera.” Since TruTV was handling all the retouching, she handed over all her images. The final image was slightly cropped to adapt it for use on TruTV’s website, in posters and on billboards. TruTV hired her again to photograph the key art for The Chris Gethard Show.

For the Sharpton portrait, Sloman handled her own retouching in Lightroom and Photoshop. While she created a black-and-white version for City & State, she also retouched a color version she plans to add to her portfolio. She used a technique she often uses, she says. “When I use gels, I’ll desaturate and modify the colors a bit,” she explains, “because I want it to feel moody and have a hint of color but not have the color be overbearing.” The resulting color image is subtly hued, in keeping with the minimalism that characterizes many of the portraits in Sloman’s portfolio.

Want more PDN? Click here to sign up for our email newsletter and get the week’s top stories delivered straight to your inbox.

Nick Fancher on Photographing Kevin Hart in Vibrant Shadows

11 Minutes with Bruce Springsteen

Lighting Group Portraits: Chris Patey Shares His Techniques

Wrangling the Cast of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” for a Portrait