Lighting Chameleons: Anders Overgaard on Creating Natural-Looking Light

September 13, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Anders Overgaard’s career belies the theory that the jack of all trades is master of none. The Danish-born photographer regularly shoots fashion, travel and portraits, as well as ad campaigns for car makers, and cosmetics and technology companies. “If I just did fashion or celebrities, I’d go crazy in that world,” he says. His versatility comes in part from assisting Bruce Weber for many years. “He would be so excited about whatever he was shooting, whether it was Elizabeth Taylor or the makeup artist’s cat. You have to be passionate and involved.”

Working on a range of assignments, Overgaard employs a variety of lighting techniques and sources, but a single principle guides his choices. “My goal is to make it look like it’s natural,” he says. “You can ruin a well lit room if you do too much.”

Anders Overgaard.

Anders Overgaard.

Overgaard is no minimalist. It sometimes takes a lot of lights to look like there are no lights at all, he notes. He and his crew lugged multiple lights up a glacier for a Harrod’s shoot in Iceland to compensate for the lack of sunshine. When the location doesn’t look right or the weather turns, he has to make the best of the situation, he says.

On an assignment to shoot resort wear for GQ Brazil, Overgaard had to photograph a male and female model on a sailboat. “We set out to do a beautiful, romantic story on the blue lagoon outside Miami with a cool sailboat. What we got was a crazy storm,” he recalls. Dark clouds covered the sun, and wind stirred up choppy waters. But Overgaard, a sailing enthusiast, and the boat’s captain were happy to give it a try, and the editor agreed.

Though they had planned for bright Florida sun, Overgaard and his crew had packed a minimal light kit just in case. To photograph the couple inside the boat’s cabin, he enhanced the available light by placing a Kino Flo at camera left. The small light “mimics a window on the boat,” he explains. For a more dramatic shot of the male model on deck, with billowing gray clouds behind him, Overgaard placed an LED panel light behind the camera, so its light shone from the direction the sunlight would have been coming from. “It is a soft light, so it’s like the sun behind a cloud,” rather than bright sunlight, Overgaard notes. “It’s good for bringing out detail and bringing a little lift to the eyes.” Under less than idyllic conditions, he managed to deliver a romantic fashion story. “The boat was rolling all over the place, the water was everywhere. People got seasick,” Overgaard says. “It was one of the most fun shoots because it was inspired.”

As he plans his choice of light sources and their placement, Overgaard considers the light in the scene, as well as what the eye will perceive as believable. For a nighttime shot in a city, for example, “I think that strobe becomes the norm,” he says, reminding us of vintage nightlife photos shot with flash. For a portrait of Dina Lohan (mother of actress Lindsay Lohan) for Harpers Bazaar, he photographed the subject in the back of a limousine with a bottle of champagne, and lit her using a small beauty dish—about a foot in diameter—over his camera. Less harsh and more flattering than a flash, the beauty dish helped him create an image reminiscent of a paparazzo’s shot of a star out on the town.

Overgaard says he prefers to use continuous lights “as much as I can.” He notes, “They’re great because you can see what you get, and it looks great to the eye.” He talks to his subjects throughout his shoots, and by using HMI, Kino Flos or another continuous light source, “I don’t have to walk over to the computer screen to see it.”

Overgaard also believes that a large light source, such as a large HMI, more closely mimics the light we are used to seeing in everyday life. “Having many tiny lights doesn’t always create a natural look.”

When Overgaard was able to photograph inside a Monte Carlo casino, for an ad campaign for Sean Combs’s I Am King cologne, he wanted to work with the lights that were in the room but add “a little bit of a filmic atmosphere,” he says. He chose to light the large room like a movie set. Overgaard had two large, 4K HMIs positioned behind 12×12 silks to the side of the camera. He also placed smaller HMIs at the far ends of the large room, “to create a little bit of an edge and a back light.” The goal was to make sure that details and faces in the crowd that filled the room didn’t fall into shadow.


For a cologne ad featuring Sean Combs, Overgaard lit a Monte Carlo casino like a movie set, using two large HMIs on either side of the camera and smaller ones at the end of the room. He also brought in a smoke machine. © ANDERS OVERGAARD

Overgaard also brought in a smoke machine that was placed near the lights in the back of the room. “I think that you can see the light better if there’s haze or smoke. It creates a bit of an atmosphere because you can read the light.”

Photographing a variety of subjects satisfies his curiosity, Overgaard says, and gives him the satisfaction of solving a variety of problems. “I want to come back with a great shot, not to say, ‘We couldn’t photograph the beach because it rained,’” he says.   

See the story in the digital edition (for PDN subscribers; login required). 

Related Links:

Lighting Chameleons: Austin Hargrave on Creating Versatile Portraits with Minimal Adjustments

Lighting Chameleons: Thomas Brown on Creating Simple-Looking Lighting