How Photographers Are Crafting Poppy, Energetic Lighting for Clients

September 13, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

What do you think of when you hear the word “poppy?” It’s how Ramona Rosales’s clients describe her style. Jenifer Gobie of Entertainment Weekly, for example, says she recently hired Ramona Rosales to photograph Bebe Rexha “because of her poppy light and energetic photographs that can pull the reader in.”

In describing why she likes photographer Eric Ray Davidson’s celebrity portraits, Jennifer Laski, director of photography at The Hollywood Reporter, praises the “beautiful, poppy lighting” that enhances the energy he captures on his portrait shoots. She notes, “As soon as that contrast, punchy color and texture comes up on the monitor, it instantly elevates the shoot and gets everyone excited.”

Photographer Amy Lombard says that when New York, Bloomberg Businessweek or The New York Times hire her to capture images of people at parties, film festivals or conventions using her off-camera flash, “They’ll say they want the look that’s glossy, super cool.”


Maya Rudolph, photographed for The Guardian by Ramona Rosales. When a client asks her for one of her energetic, poppy portraits, Rosales often starts with a large silver umbrella or other frontal light, adding bounce to add a flattering light on the face. © RAMONA ROSALES

Poppy, punchy, glossy: No matter how you describe it, it’s a look that is in demand from clients who want graphically composed portraits, strong colors and shadows, and lots of highlights that grab readers’ attention. Photographers achieve the look with a variety of sources, ranging from a single off-camera flash to a strong frontal light along with one or two other lights arranged to maximize color saturation, keep shadows crisp and flatter faces.

Whatever light they choose, they say, their setup is influenced by the challenge of nearly all editorial portraits assignments: The need to shoot a lot of images in minimal time.

Davidson, who shoots for GQ, Cosmopolitan and The Wall Street Journal, says that depending on the publication or the story he’s shooting, he’ll typically start with one hard frontal light source, then add another light source as needed. “A lot of this developed from the need to be able to move fast and get a lot of variation,” he explains. When he photographed actor Jared Leto for Flaunt, for example, he shot six different looks and a short video in an hour and 15 minutes. “That’s aided by lighting design that’s not too fussy. It’s all about speed, because speed begets the right connection with talent which begets variation.”

“Speed is important to me,” says Brooklyn-based photographer Amy Lombard, who shoots both portraits and documentary work. “Very often it’s: ‘Amy, you have two minutes,’” she says. “With a complicated lighting set up, I might get one variation. With a flash, I can get a lot more.”

She regularly photographs gatherings—dog shows, a square dancing competition, a convention of men obsessed with My Little Pony, film festivals. Using an off-camera Canon Speedlite, fired with a wireless transmitter synced to her camera, allows her to react quickly as she looks for offbeat moments. She also likes the “theatricality” the Speedlite adds to scenes: “It’s almost like a spotlight on these people’s lives and these moments,” she says. “The world comes alive with flash.”


Amy Lombard uses flash in order to move quickly, capturing offbeat moments when she’s photographing a dog show or other event. © AMY LOMBARD

Davidson says, “I’ve always liked punchy, contrasty images.” A former photo editor who taught himself photography and lighting by shooting film cameras, Davidson says that when he began shooting digitally on assignments, he missed the depth of film. “Digital is so flat,” he notes. He wanted to add some punch. “One way to do that is with contrast.”

He likes to begin with a hard, frontal source, usually over the camera, to produce crisp edges and deep shadows. “There’s something hard and beautiful about it, but also very simple.” He then adds more lights when “kick” is needed.

He varies his lighting to suit the esthetic of different magazines, but typically his fashion and portrait clients come to him for “an energy to come through” in his photos. He gives his subjects a lot of direction and keeps them moving, “which is why I gravitate towards more of a frontal source,” he says.

For the main light, “I use everything from bare Briese heads to Briese umbrellas to a Broncolor umbrella and other hard sources,” he says. He likes the flexibility of parabolic umbrellas, which can be used as broad sources or focused. However, “I don’t like the sweet spot to be too narrow.” To follow subjects who are moving and striking poses, he explains, “You need a source that’s punchy but…broad enough that you can move around.”


On a GQ cover shoot with Justin Bieber, Eric Ray Davidson photographed the singer in several set ups. The photographer’s use of frontal light is inspired by his need to move as he directs subjects, and his love of “punchy, contrasty images.” © ERIC RAY DAVIDSON

In Davidson’s GQ cover photo of Justin Bieber, the shadows under the singer’s chin and behind his upraised hand remain deep black, but the texture of his clothes, hair and beard stubble appear crisp and detailed. Davidson used an umbrella over the camera, a second light to create some bounce, and also cards and flags to block off some of the bounced light, “kicking in negative fill to accentuate the shadow.” With roughly the same setup, he photographed Bieber as he skateboarded on a cyc wall, posed on a piano, and provided other poses.

Davidson also used front lighting in his close-up portrait of mixed-martial-arts fighter Conor McGregor, taken for The Wall Street Journal. “That was a fun job for me because I was able do a studio segment, and then took him outside to shoot in natural light,” Davidson recalls. “I enjoy both.” When shooting in daylight, “We’re shaping it and manipulating it to give it a certain look,” he notes. “If you want to heighten the feel of it, then you can mix in strobe.”

Davidson says people think “poppy” lighting is “harsh, without detail,” but says he gets “a rich skin tone with a luminosity to it” by checking the highlights in his digital files to make sure he isn’t blowing out all detail. “You’re basically exposing for highlights and developing for shadow. It’s that concept, but in the computer.”

To get flattering skin tones in her bright, poppy portraits, Rosales always uses at least two light sources. “It’s the secondary light that fills in all those hard edges and enhances the creaminess of the skin,” she says. Her goal, she says, is to avoid the gradation she finds with a single hard source, maintain the rich colors she’s known for, and “to make a happy medium between poppy and hard light.”

To get the pop, she likes to use “a larger silver source,” she says, adding that she has two silver umbrellas. Depending on the budget and the size of the space she’s given, she says, she’ll use a Broncolor Para or an Elinchrom Octa Light Bank.

To add fill and eliminate the “crunchy” look of a single source, she says, “there’s generally at least another head bouncing into a ceiling or a wall behind me that adds light overall.” When she’s shooting outdoors or using window light on a sunny afternoon, she’ll sometimes hang a vertical silk for diffusion. The light coming from behind the camera “is filling in any shadows that the subject may be casting onto the backdrop” as well as flattering the contours of the subject’s face. If the subject is moved away from the wall, Rosales will add a third light on an arm above, to flatten out the shadow.

For clients such as Entertainment Weekly or The Hollywood Reporter, Rosales is often hired to shoot a parade of celebrities doing press tours, which means she has limited time with each subject, and also limited space.

“For flexibility, I usually just have an assistant handholding a Profoto head with a regular 7-inch reflector, because we have to work on the fly,” she says. “I’m always the photographer curled in a ball in the corner, with an arm holding a [strobe] head over my head.”

Before Rosales began shooting editorial and commercial work in Los Angeles, she had been first assistant and studio manager for Carlos Serrao. “His lighting is insanely beautiful and cinematic, and that’s the kind of lighting I gravitated towards. But early on, I was assigned stuff that was graphic and colorful and poppy which I also gravitate towards,” she says. These days, “My goal is to marry the two.”

Even when working in a tight space, she strives to get a few variations—starting with what the client is requesting, and then exploring other ideas. “We might have another light installed, say, outside of the window or on another wall.” When Billboard assigned her to photograph Kendrick Lamar before the release of his latest album, she had two hours to experiment, and photographed him near a wall of sequins she had lit using colored gels. Coping with the unexpected on shoots requires her “to flex her trickery,” she says. When she had a short time to photograph Ice Cube on location in a bar near the editing studio where he was working, she planned to backlight him using sun coming in through a dirty window. When he arrived after the sun had sunk too low in the sky to get the shot she planned, she quickly moved her light—a Profoto head with a magnum reflector—outside, so it shone in the window. “I put a piece of fabric or gel in front of my lens that refracts the light even more,” she explains. “The shot was done with one light but it looks like there’s more to it.”

Rosales says that shooting portraits on assignment under the time, budget and logistical constraints of most editorial assignments requires “a bit of McGyver” and ingenuity. “I say: I’ll make it work. And usually some resourcefulness and the ability to work on the fly has helped me.”

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

Related Links: 

How Celebrity Portrait Photographers Beat the Clock

How David Martinez Uses Lighting to Recreate the Look of a Night Out

How I Got That Shot: Creating Theatrical Lighting for a Dramatic Portrait