Lighting Group Portraits: Chris Patey Shares His Techniques

November 10, 2017

By David Walker

© Chris Patey

For an assignment for The Hollywood Reporter photographing the stars of the Marvel Universe at San Diego Comic-Con, Chris Patey used a single strobe and reflector with a grid to achieve even light across the group. Patey then filled it in with strips to create a harder, more dramatic light.

Group portraits are a challenge, but photographer Chris Patey frequently shoots groups of up to 20 or more people for editorial and corporate clients. He learned by assisting two other masters of the form—Art Streiber and Joe Pugliese—and by studying the work of the grand master, Irving Penn.

Sometimes Patey has as little as five minutes with his subjects. He spends three to six hours setting up. “The way you situate people is what will make the frame special. For the lighting, I have a deep bag of tricks and I can always figure it out.”

Patey says inexperienced photographers often shoot group portraits with the lights set too close to the ground. “It helps to have a sense of what direction the light would come from if it was naturally beautiful light, and try to mimic that.” He adds: “Make the light source high.”

Another common mistake, Patey says, is too much light spill. He recommends the use of flags or nets to avoid bright spots. “Guiding the light exactly where you want it, and keeping it away from areas you don’t want it, is the most important thing.”

Patey’s lighting for group portraits depends on whether he’s shooting on location or in a studio, and other factors. “I do a location scout to see the size of the room, what power I have, and how I’m going to make the light look good with the least amount of tweaking,” he says.

For large, open spaces, he prefers 72-inch Elinchrom octabanks. “They have that nice soft quality, and they’re compact enough [that] I can stack them. They don’t have a deep throw, but a little bit of throw so light is not shooting everywhere. I can play with the direction.”

In smaller spaces where he wants to control light bounce, he uses large Chimera softboxes with grids, or large strips with grids. “Those are going to go only where you point them,” he says.

He often shoots through scrims to diffuse light, and prefers half soft frost. “It has a specular quality so you can get pretty even spread with it. It has a nice look. If you shoot through polysilk, it tends to look a little muddy.”

© Chris Patey

Patey used his assistants as stand-ins, digitally repeating them to have enough bodies to stand in for all of the actors of the Marvel Universe shoot. © Chris Patey

His lighting set-ups vary. “There’s not one formula you plug in for every situation and it’s going to look great,” he says. But he frequently mimics a natural source, such as “a giant beautiful window to the side.” To achieve that, he uses a technique he learned from Streiber that “pushes” light from several sources so the overall effect is even, consistent light across the entire group of subjects.

Patey places the light sources to one side of the camera (and above it), directing them across the set, perpendicular to the axis of the camera lens. That sends light across the front of the subjects, spilling onto their faces as it spreads, rather than hitting them directly. “I’m feathering the light off the subjects,” Patey says.

To get consistent lighting on all the subjects across the set, the set-up usually requires two or more light sources, arranged in steps. “It’s like a staircase on its side,” extending from one end of the group toward the camera, Patey explains. The primary light is furthest from the camera, positioned to one side of the group and several feet in front of the plane of subjects. Because that light falls off, Patey positions additional lights progressively closer to the camera and the center of the frame. Each throws feathered light further down the row of subjects.

To determine the positions and power levels for the lights, Patey has his crew stand in for the subjects, and uses a light meter to measure. While he’s adding lights to bring up exposure on subjects furthest from the light sources, he’s also checking to make sure he’s not creating bright spots on subjects closest to the light sources.

“Sometimes, depending on the space, we have to put flags between the lights to separate them and make sure the progression of lights aren’t spilling onto the right of frame” (when the lights are positioned right of camera).

Patey doesn’t always use the feathered light-pushing technique. He recently photographed a group of Marvel movie actors at Comic-Con for The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, and wanted to create a set that suggested a city with hard, dramatic lighting. “I was thinking sharp corners on walls with deep shadows,” he says.

He set up a single strobe with a Profoto 7-inch reflector and a 40-degree grid. “One small gridded head did all that light on everybody and then I filled it from front of camera with large strips that were about a stop and a half below the exposure of the gridded head,” Patey says. He also positioned a 12×12-foot bleached muslin cloth on the right side of the set to reflect some light to fill shadows on the side.

Patey explains that the one small, focused key light exposes all the subjects evenly because he placed it “extremely far away from subjects” and oriented it toward the subjects furthest from the source. The subjects on the left are closer to the light source, but get indirect light. Those on the right get direct light, from further away. The result is consistent exposure on all the faces.

Whatever set-up he’s using, though, Patey says he’s trying to make it look beautiful without attracting attention to the lights. It’s a success, he says, “when you can tell it’s lit, but it doesn’t really look lit. It doesn’t look unnatural.”