On Lighting Styles: Cole Wilson on Simple Setups Developed Through Assignment Work

November 14, 2017

By Conor Risch

When Cole Wilson moved to New York from Salt Lake City in 2015, he assumed he would have to work as an assistant for a few years. But freelance photo editor Ayanna Quint hired Wilson for an assignment, and he hasn’t looked back. He’s since worked consistently for The New York Times, and he’s shot assignments for editorial and commercial clients that include WIRED, VICE, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Racked and The Wall Street Journal, among several others.

Frequent assignments have given Wilson an on-the-job opportunity to work out the technique behind his visual esthetic, which tends toward bold color, amplified contrast and an embrace of shadows as a visual tool that can add drama or humor, depending on how they’re used. In his assisting work, he was often trying to eliminate shadows, which he found frustrating, he says. “I think shadows can be really interesting.” His key light is often at a 30- to 45-degree angle from his subject, “but sometimes I go for something more extreme, raked across the subject at 90 degrees or even rim-lit at 120 or so,” he says. Wilson shoots with a digital medium-format camera, and the dynamic range gives him the leeway to “bring shadows back a bit” in post. Yet even if a shadow is “pure black,” he says, “it’s kind of cool, kind of weird and dramatic and goofy, and it can lend itself to something completely different.” He also underexposes his shots, “because with the style of lighting I use, it’s really easy to blow out the highlights.”

For early assignments Wilson was mostly on his own, so he had to figure out how to light shots “easily by myself and still get something I want” out of them. He developed very simple lighting setups that he can scale up according to the budget and needs of a given job. Wilson often uses a single light source and then relies on modifiers to bring about the best result. “The vast majority is a bare bulb with a reflector on it and maybe a shoot-through umbrella, or maybe I’m bouncing some fill into the ceiling or behind me or [into] a V-Flat,” Wilson explains. This is not to say that he forces the same approach on every shoot. On editorial assignments, a photographer often has “20 minutes with somebody in a room that looks nothing like the studio that you practice in,” he says. “I try to really examine each situation. I have a starting point; I have general ideas of what I like to do” depending on factors such as the natural light or lack thereof. “I take those scenarios and start with my base and think of how I can best manipulate it.”

© Cole Wilson

From a shoot for The New York Times. Wilson’s esthetic favors bold color and embraces shadow. “I think shadows can be really interesting,” he says. © Cole Wilson

Even when Wilson has a larger budget at his disposal, there is an underlying minimalism to his setups. “I always try to figure out how I can do it best with as little as possible,” Wilson says. It’s a philosophy he learned from Michael Friberg, who is based in Salt Lake City. In finding his voice, Wilson used what he learned assisting photographers such as Friberg and Emiliano Granado and tried to “figure out how best to do it in my own way.” As a basis for experimentation, he asked other photographers about technique, or would examine a picture and work backward to try to figure out how the photographer lit it. At the end of his time in Salt Lake City, Wilson shared a studio with Friberg, whom he’d assisted for two years, and he now shares studio space in Brooklyn with three other photographers. Having studio access has helped him as a “very hands-on learner” who “has to try [something] for myself to figure it out.”

Other factors that have influenced his technique include the need as an early-career photographer to keep things simple, and the rigor with which he approaches each assignment, regardless of the budget. “I try to bring lights to everything and add that little bit of interest to it and shape it in my own way, especially with portraits,” he says.

On a recent portrait shoot for the fashion website Racked, Wilson worked in his own studio to create portraits of kids and teachers in their back-to-school clothes. He placed one head at the back of the room and directed it through an 8×8 silk. He used the light from a large window in combination with a hard box directed at his subject. The window and box were “both kind of the key lights in a way,” creating a harder, “single-source-ish light” but doing it in a way that suggested “higher production value.”

His subjects also factor into his decisions. On a recent assignment for The New York Times, he photographed U.S.-based Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez, who creates miniature sculptures of destroyed Syrian buildings. Wilson decided to change his approach: “Given the subject matter, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to approach it with one of my more familiar light setups,” he recalls. To strike a less poppy tone that wouldn’t undermine the seriousness of the story, he went for “less pronounced, softer, and overall less harsh lighting,” he says. “I lit it with a Photek Softlighter umbrella, with the black/reflective cover removed. [It was] essentially a shoot-through umbrella with diffusion on the back end, bouncing into a wall, and also emitting light out the other end. Though there were some windows in his small studio, I still wanted to make sure it was amply lit.” Despite the changes, he still came away with images that felt of a piece with the rest of his work.

Says Wilson: “The ability to adapt but still stay true [to my vision] is really important to me.”

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