How I Got That Shot: Recreating Afternoon Light

March 12, 2014

© Joyce Lee

For a Real Simple story on summer entertaining, Joyce Lee modified sunlight to avoid washing out her trademark bright colors. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Client: Real Simple

Photo Editor: Lauren Epstein
Art Director: Abbey Kuster-Prokell

Joyce Lee likes to create still lifes that tell stories. The photographer, whose clients include Martha Stewart Living, Hermès and Kate Spade for Bloomingdale’s, often finds a way to suggest a person has just stepped away from the scene. When it comes to planning her lighting, she says, “All of my images are based around an actual time of day. I want people to be reminded of a time and place when they see my work.”

An assignment to shoot a story for Real Simple on “easy summer entertaining” called for her to create a fun image of a backyard party taking place in dappled sunlight. “I wanted to give the feeling of life and celebration through the colors, textures and light,” says Lee. “With the photo editor’s request for a ‘summer light’ look, I knew we needed bright colors and natural light if possible. I love working with natural light, which isn’t always possible, but I wanted to try for this shoot.”

As back up, she brought strobes to the location, but was fortunate to have lots of sunlight—so much, in fact, that she had to modify the light to make sure the bright colors of the food and the model’s clothes didn’t wash out. She had a different problem when she was shooting a still life on electronics for Esquire magazine’s The Big Black Book. She wanted to suggest mid-afternoon sunlight—but she also needed to shoot in a windowless studio. She created the illusion of window light using monolights and modifiers.

For the Real Simple shoot, Lee found a house in Bellport, New York, that had a backyard pool surrounded by white poured concrete. She worked with Judy Sillen at Allencrest Locations who negotiated the usage and got the owners to agree to fill the pool, though the shoot took place on a brisk April day.

“The goal was to make the images feel like there was a full party happening but with only one model in each shot,” Lee notes. Because it couldn’t look like a fashion shot, she wanted the model’s face to be obscured.

“I had purchased a colorful raffia hat for the shoot, which ended up working nicely for this shot. The red fringe played off the red accents on the table and it covered her face in a fun way.” She also used a ladder, and stood on the second and third steps to get images looking down on the model, so her full face wasn’t visible.

Prop stylist Martha Bernabe and food stylist Cyd McDowell laid the patio table as if for multiple guests. Lee had to direct the model to chat with imaginary companions: “I explained to the model that she was the host of a party and to imagine talking to someone across from her at the table,” she says. “I’d say: Pretend like you’re engaged in conversation. OK, now laugh.”

Lee says that while she wanted the image to capture the casual fun of a backyard party, she had in mind a classic Irving Penn image of a “café society” woman and a “Fifties notion” of effortless entertaining, “just this fabulous spread and the lady of the house is looking gorgeous and not at all overworked.”

“I wanted to try and use as much natural light as possible and have longer shadows on the table for a sunny afternoon feel,” the photographer notes. The shoot was set up by 1 PM, Lee recalls. “The sun was almost directly overhead at that point.” After doing some test shots, Lee determined the sun was too bright, making the food look unappetizing.

To soften the light on the scene, she placed a 6 x 6-foot scrim with a full-stop silk on C-stands about three to four feet behind the model and the table. The scrim was a little short, but the model conveniently blocked one of the C-stands. She also had an assistant hold two 42-inch disk reflectors (one gold, one silver) directly behind the ladder on which Lee was standing to bounce light back towards the model. “We were able to take full advantage of the natural light with just a few simple pieces of equipment,” Lee says. “It was kind of like when you first start taking photos with just your camera and a reflector. It was a return to that, but slightly more sophisticated.”

For Esquire magazine’s The Big Black Book, Lee photographed electronic equipment arranged on busts in a studio. “I wanted to have a controlled setting since electronics require involved lighting.” Still, she wanted the image to have bright colors and the look of mid-afternoon shadows. She used Elinchrom BXRi 500 monolights. At camera left, about four feet from the props, she set up one light with a large softbox to provide fill. A gridded light at camera right, about three feet from the props, created the dark shadow cast by the bust onto the wall, and then she added a third light with a reflector. “A 4 x 4-foot wood cucoloris was placed on a C-stand about two feet in front of the light with a reflector,” Lee recalls. She says a cucoloris “is great for creating a window-light feel by adding shadows and depth.” She also used a silver card to highlight some areas of the electronics.


Lee shot the outdoor image for Real Simple with a Phase One 645DF body, IQ140 back and 55mm lens at f/16, ISO 100, 1/200 of a second. The medium-format digital camera “was a great choice due to its sharpness.” She shot tethered, using Capture One software, with the monitor sitting on the grass near the model.


“I tend to do a lot of my own retouching,” Lee says. She removed the leg of a C-stand visible through a water pitcher on the patio table. To remove the goose bumps that appeared on the model’s bare arm in the 55-degree weather, Lee turned to photographer Emily Malan, “who is great at retouching skin.”

Lauren Epstein, photo editor at Real Simple, had told Lee she wanted the images to look “100 percent like my work,” Lee says. “I believe clients hire me because they want a polished look but without it being too perfect.” With the help of a sunny day and a few tricks, she was able to deliver.