How I Got That Shot: Jeff Brown on Mixing Tungsten and Strobe Lights
July 24, 2017
The color palette in a story for Fast Company about food at Ikea was inspired by images in old Betty Crocker cookbooks, which photo editor Annie Chia sent to Brown as a reference. Brown used a mix of strobe and tungsten lights for the tabletop setup.
When editors contact Jeff Brown, they know they’ll get something witty and colorful. Typically editors use images from his website to explain the look they’re after—whether the assignment is for a food shot or a portrait. He achieves his look in part through lighting. “Technically, it’s a hard light and a hair light,” he says. He also likes the effect he gets from mixing warm tungsten light and cool strobes, and experimenting with the color temperature of each. “The warmth appears closer while the cold recedes,” he notes, calling this a “classic way to create depth.”
He has been mixing light sources since he began building his professional portfolio. “When I first started shooting outside of college, I could use only what I could borrow,” he explains. One friend had an Arri kit, another had strobes. At first, Brown says, “It wasn’t a style decision as much as it was: I have these lights to use, and I always want as many lights on hand as possible.” As he began shooting portraits, Brown, who never uses diffusion, found that he likes the crispness of tungsten lighting: “Tungsten is more pleasant on the skin.” Using gels to balance the color temperature of his mixed light sources led to further experiments with adding color. “Using gels is an attempt at painting,” he says.
For The New Yorker, Brown went to Chicago to photograph philosopher and author Martha Nussbaum. Photo editor Thea Traff and Brown talked before the assignment about how to avoid the expected shots of an academic and writer. Rather than photograph her in a book-lined office or at her desk, Brown photographed Nussbaum at home, in her apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. After getting some photos of the philosopher seated, he removed a table and asked her to stand in the middle of the room.
“I also asked her to take off her shoes at one point,” he recalls. The dressy shoes made the portrait “more about what she was wearing.” The New Yorker ran his photo of Nussbaum in her bare feet as the opener to a profile. “I think it made her more approachable and made it a more intimate picture.”
For an article in Fast Company about why Ikea is expanding its popular food service, Brown photographed the furniture retailer’s trademark Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberry juice (seen at top). Brown went to an Ikea store to gather ingredients, and food stylist Kate Schmidt arranged the food to resemble an elegant restaurant meal. To suggest the color palette, photo editor Annie Chia had sent Brown some reference images taken from old Betty Crocker cookbooks, “which I’ve always been a fan of,” the photographer says. Chia also pulled a few of Brown’s past food shots. He notes, “One thing that they liked about the pictures she sent was having objects coming in from off-frame. In our final image the knife, dessert and bottle pouring are all coming from out of frame, picture right.”
To light the portrait of Nussbaum, he started by lighting Nussbaum’s face with a strobe that was boomed over his camera. He used Rosco Cinefoil on the strobe to focus the light and prevent spill. He also added a CTO gel to the strobe.
The gel added a warm glow to the subject’s face, and also balanced the color temperature of the Lowel DP 1K tungsten light Brown used to light Nussbaum’s legs and the carpet. He used a second strobe to light the pink chair, the objects on the side table and the wall behind Nussbaum. Both strobes ran on the same Speedotron 1200 w/s pack. Finally, Brown added a Lowel Tota 750-watt light on a stand about 2-feet high and set back from the camera to provide some fill.
While the gelled strobe and the tungsten lights cast a warm hue, the strobe illuminating the background cast a blueish tone on the white wall between the two north-facing windows, adding dimension to the composition.
Brown used the same light sources on his food shot for Fast Company. A Lowell DP placed above and behind the food cast the darkest shadows in the image. To the left of the arrangement, he placed a Lowel Tota. He notes, “The blue accents in the shadow [are]from a strobe to the right of the camera.” Again, he put Cinefoil on the strobe to focus the light, “so it didn’t overtake the other lights on the set.”
Brown shot both assignments on a Canon 5D Mark II, which was tethered to a monitor he would check occasionally as he refined the lighting.
For Nussbaum’s portrait, he used a Canon 35mm f1.4 L series USM lens at f/16. He shot handheld at 1/160th second, ISO 400.
To photograph the Ikea meal, he placed his camera on a tripod. He used a Canon EF 75-300mm F4-5.6 zoom, shooting at f/16, 1/80th second at ISO 200.
Brown does his own processing in Photoshop. “Most often, post is dealing with color, tone and contrast,” he says. He calls his post-processing “waxing the apple.” After he sends a selection of images from a shoot to his editors, “I like to work up a favorite if I have time, or if I think it is necessary for the selects to be better understood. The before-and-after aren’t normally drastically different but, there certainly is a before-and-after difference.”
After The New Yorker published its profile, Nussbaum bought an outtake from the shoot—showing her with shoes on—for her own use. “She said, ‘This isn’t the typical author picture and for that reason I like it,’” Brown recalls. “That was a nice compliment.”