How I Got That Shot: Creating Theatrical Lighting for a Dramatic Portrait

February 22, 2016

By Interview Holly Stuart Hughes

CLIENT: Style Loves Adventure

ART DIRECTOR: Stacy Quackenbush

Los Angeles photographer Dana Hursey is known for his quirky, sometimes humorous conceptual images, and for working quickly and efficiently, even when planning the lighting and capture of multiple elements that he will composite in post-production. When it comes to lighting, he says, “I work free form.” When he arrives on the set, he takes a few minutes alone to close his eyes and think through the shoot. “I’m visualizing the finished shot in my head, then I figure out the lighting that will make it work.” Once he knows what he wants, he and his assistants can set it up in little time. “My producer and my clients say, ‘You work really fast.’ I don’t know any other way but the way I do it.”

On a recent assignment for Style Loves Adventure, a website about travel, style and culture created by fashion stylist Stacy Quackenbush, Hursey’s efficiency helped him shoot three separate portraits on three different sets inside a rental studio in a single day. Quackenbush, a longtime collaborator of Hursey’s, contacted him about photographing three well-known DJs, all dressed in 1970s clothing in colors that would match the backdrops. One of the subjects, Dede Flemming, is the cofounder of Lightning in a Bottle, a music and culture festival. Hursey wanted the lights to mimic the look of a nightclub stage—and he also suggested a way to incorporate lightning in a bottle in the shot.


Quackenbush acted as art director on the shoot, and she paid particular attention to styling. “In our early conversations, we discussed the type of clothes they would wear, and the environment,” Hursey recalls. “The tone was a ‘70s funk theme.” Quackenbush brought in several vintage outfits for each of the DJs to try on, and Stephanie Daniel handled hair and makeup. The three backdrops were set up in a rental studio in Pasadena.

The shooting day lasted from 8AM until about 6PM, and Hursey estimates he shot about 100 frames of each subject, as they tried different outfits and poses. Flemming arrived in the afternoon, after Hursey had finished his portraits of the other two DJs. “We showed him the first two shots, which were as outrageous as his, and we showed him the wardrobe.” Once he was in makeup and his first outfit, he walked on to the set, and needed little direction to begin acting. “He nailed it on the third frame,” Hursey recalls. After he reviewed the best images of the take, Hursey says, Flemming told the photographer that he was glad he had been the last shoot; if he hadn’t seen the previous portraits, he would have been skeptical about donning a blue jumpsuit. Hursey says that after seeing the previous portraits, “He told me, ‘It made me realize you knew what you were doing.’”


To light Flemming, Hursey placed a Westcott Zeppelin on a Profoto strobe, about eight feet above the camera. “It’s a cross between a softbox and a parabolic umbrella,” the photographer says. It comes with front diffusion and a baffle; Hursey removed the diffusion. “It’s a great mix between soft and directional light. It focuses the light so it’s more of a beam.”

Once Hursey had set up his light for Flemming, he says, “We spent most of our time lighting the bottle,” so the clear glass didn’t disappear against the background. He placed a 4×8-foot black card at camera left, almost next to Flemming. “We wanted to deepen the shadows just a bit,” the photographer explains. He also put a second, smaller white card in front of the black card. “With this little piece in front, it puts a little bit of a shoulder on the bottle.”

Next, he placed a 4×8-foot piece of white foamcore to camera right. “Then we had a bare head hitting that. That’s what lights the bottle.” The bounced light also hit Flemming’s pant leg. Hursey explains, “We wanted it to look like the lightning in the bottle was casting a little bit of a glow.”

The Zeppelin created an illusion of stage lighting. It’s an effect Hursey created using different techniques in one of his most widely seen images: An image he conceived for United Healthcare, published in Communication Arts. The idea was to illustrate the insurance company’s attention to the voices of customers by showing a mouse speaking into a megaphone. As in the Style Loves Adventure shoot, Hursey photographed on a shallow set. Curtains formed the backdrop, and there was a stool in the middle of a set. Since mice don’t sit on their hind legs, the animal wrangler brought some rats, and placed one on top of the stool.

To light the set, he recalls, “We started with grid spots to make it look like it’s a little stage, with pools of light.” He first placed a grid spot at camera left, lighting the stool and the books.  A second grid spot was placed above and behind the backdrop, providing a rim light on the megaphone. Another grid spot above the camera created a pool of light on the curtains. For fill, he added a softbox at camera left.


Hursey typically shoots tethered using a tripod. He photographed Flemming with a 39-megapixel Hasselblad H3DII and chose a Hasselblad 120 mm lens because it provided “a fixed focal length and compressed depth of field.” His first assistant, Jacob Rushing, acted as the digital tech, previewing the images of Flemming with Hursey on a Mac workstation.


Hursey estimates he does between 60 and 70 percent of his retouching himself, and turns to his longtime retoucher, Lisa Carney, for the rest. “When I’m busy or the job is outside my wheelhouse, I turn to Lisa.”

To add the lightning bolt to the bottle, Hursey looked through a collection of images he had made on vacation near Valencia, Spain. While staying in a castle set on a hill that had a view to the horizon, he watched a summer thunderstorm sweep along the landscape. “I sat out there taking shots of lightning for an hour and a half.” In Photoshop, he first combined branches from several lightning bolts and then composited them into the bottle. The portrait of Flemming required some additional retouching, including extending the studio floor and coloring the subject’s shoes to match his outfit. “I worked on it over the course of two days,” Hursey says.

The image of the megaphone and the rat was a composite of three captures: a shot of the set, one of the rat on its hind legs and then a shot of a rat’s tail, which had to be captured separately because, Hursey explains, “When rats are on their hind legs, the tails are laid flat for balance.” After Hursey roughed out the composite, he turned it over to Carney. “I said go to work,” says Hursey, who says Carney made the rat look more appealing. “She added some whiskers and hair. He has a smile, and Lisa added that.”

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