Lighting Recipe: Joey L.’s Dramatic On-Set Portrait

March 28, 2013

By Meghan Ahearn

© Joey L.

For the National Geographic Channel’s new TV movie Killing Lincoln, which is based on the book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly, the television network hired New York City production company Variable to create promotional materials. In addition to the motion work for a promotional video, Variable would need a photographer on set to capture still images that could be used on posters, billboards, packaging and other promos. They looked to a fellow member of their creative collective, Brooklyn, New York-based portrait photographer Joey L. (aka Joey Lawrence), who is represented by Bernstein & Andriulli.

A few weeks before the shoot, the National Geographic team gave Joey L. some sketches and diagrams to use as references for the images. “My duty was to take these flat sketches and turn them into photographs by adding light, shadow, composition, [and] the actor’s posing and expression, to create a visual narrative,” he explains. “If you simply recreate what is there, you’re not doing what you were hired for.”

He also used the sketches to figure out the order in which the images would be shot. Joey L. adds, “The order was determined by what would require the least light changes, since those often take the most time out of productions.” Timing would be crucial for the assignment, as he only had one day to photograph the actors on a set that was built for this purpose in Virginia. Variable would be using the set and actors on the second day to shoot the motion work.

The self-taught photographer has a bit of a do-it-yourself streak, and sometimes builds his own lighting equipment—often at a fraction of the cost—to use on shoots. He meticulously documents his lighting setups on his blog ( and in his recently published book, Photographing Shadow and Light: Inside the Dramatic Lighting Techniques and Creative Vision of Portrait Photographer Joey L. (Amphoto Books, 2012). (Read a full review of Joey L.’s book on the Rangerfinder website.) For his portrait of actor Billy Campbell in character as Abraham Lincoln, he used a homemade modifier with a flash inside of it as the key light. “It’s basically just a plastic globe like you would see covering the light from a ceiling fan, but I wrapped it in CTO gel to give it a very, very warm appearance,” he explains. “This globe is very nice because it wraps light 360 degrees instead of projecting light in one direction like most modifiers.”

His DIY modifier was placed below the actor’s face. The backlights were two daylight-balanced, ungelled, silver Profoto beauty dishes. However, “the real magic in this shot comes from a light that is actually the least noticeable,” Joey L. says, referring to a square Chimera softbox with a daylight-balanced strobe inside, that was placed at camera right. “What this did was fill in for the key light,” he notes. “Instead of just having an orange key light that would overpower the image, the softbox acts as a sort of fill from the top. We have the orange light creeping up from the bottom, and white light creeping down from the top. When these combine, spreading across our subjects, they fill in each other’s shadows and create this unique, multidimensional look.”

Joey L. used a Mamiya 645DF body with a Phase One P65+ digital back and a Mamiya Sekor AF 150mm f/2.8 IF D lens at 1/100s, f/8, ISO 100 for the shot. A light hazer machine was sprayed before he began shooting “so that the plume of light haze influenced the tones in the photo and the background,” Joey L. notes. Thanks, in part, to his pre-production planning, no issues arose on the set and everything went off without a hitch. Additionally, the image required very little post-production: “Just crunching the tones and giving a lot of contrast with an S curve,” he explains. “The reds were also desaturated slightly, to give it a more timeless look.”

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