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5 Hottest Portrait Lighting Trends

February 26, 2018

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Kurt Iswarienko

Kurt Iswarienko says he's shifting towards custom LED lights that produce a warm glow which, as seen in this portrait of actress Kirsten Dunst, pairs nicely with cooler ambient colors.

What are the hottest portrait lighting trends of 2018? PDN spoke to five pros who are paving the way with experimental techniques and gear to find out what’s working for them now. You can find these pros this spring and summer at Santa Fe Workshops where they’ll be demonstrating their techniques for achieving these contemporary portrait looks.

Trend 1: A Warm Glow Mixed with Cooler Ambient Colors

Photo © Kurt Iswarienko

Kurt Iswarienko
New York City-based photographers Kurt Iswarienko says he’s been relying more and more on his LED lights for portrait shoots. “They’re deceptively simple and un-fussy,” he says, and they produce a look that “naturally fits in with what’s already happening with the ambient light.”

A case in point: this cover image of Kirsten Dunst for C Magazine. Using a hand-made LED light, he shot through a glass door and placed the light inside the door to the left of the camera, aimed at Dunst from about four feet away and coming from a 3/4 angle towards the right side of her face. “It gave her face a healthy, warm glow, and it mixed nicely with the colder, blue ambient light coming from the large glass windows and doors,” he says. “It’s a secret weapon I use on almost every shoot I do.”

Trend 2: Freezing the Action  

Photo © Michael Clark

Michael Clark
Santa Fe-based photographer Michael Clark says that his go-to lighting setup is derived from the availability of new gear, specifically hi-speed sync technology. With it, he says, “I can overpower the sun at high noon from 60 feet away. As an adventure sports photographer, this is revolutionary.”

Hi-speed sync technology not only lets him overpower the sun from previously unimaginable distances, it also lets him freeze action with the shutter speed instead of the duration of the flash—a useful tool when it comes to portraiture. He says, “Because hi-speed sync technology allows for super shallow depth-of-field for portraits, you can shoot wide open at f/1.4 without having to play any games with neutral density filters on the flash heads. This technique is opening up new options that have never been possible before.”

Trend 3: Broad Lighting with a Pop

Photo © Emily Shur

Emily Shur
“A broad, soft light is pretty much always flattering and usually looks good on people of all ages and all skin tones,” Los Angeles-based photographer Emily Shur says. But to prevent her images from being too flat or boring, as she says, she opts for a bit of extra pop.

To achieve this look, she starts with a classic lighting setup—something akin to a grid of lights behind a muslin backdrop, like she used for this portrait of comedian and actor Billy Eichner—with an extra, less powerful light positioned over her camera. Not only does this added light source produce that extra pop, it also keeps the setup nimble. “The spread of the light from the larger source still allows for movement within the setup,” she says—a welcome bonus when it comes to photographing animated subjects like Eichner.

Trend 4: A Fresh Take on the Classic Setup

Photos © Jesse Rieser

Jesse Rieser
“When it comes to lighting, most of the time I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Los Angeles-based photographer Jesse Rieser. Instead, he adapts classic still and cinematic setups, modifying them to suit the mood and the message of the image and giving it, as he says, “a fresh and contemporary look.”

Made in Rieser’s Arizona studio for his portfolio, these images began with a basic three-light setup—a key light, fill light and edge light. Inspired by the mood of the American Southwest, he added a hair light to bring out textures and also used hard, silver-lined light modifiers to achieve a more metallic, sunny quality of light akin to this region.

Rieser says, “The lighting principal is so common. The challenge is finding the right type of light and modifier” that will result in a particular photographer’s vision. For him, that means tying his portrait work to his environmental landscapes taken under the vast sunlight in the Southwest.

Trend 5: A Single Hard Light

Photo © Jeff Lipsky

Jeff Lipsky
Photographer Jeff Lipsky has been keeping things to a minimum lately, using a single hard light to create portraits. “Particularly effective for magazine covers, it creates a vibrant, contrasty image that pops off the page,” says this Santa Monica-based celebrity portrait artist. “It’s quick to set up and it doesn’t require a ton of room,” he says, making it ideal for shoots on location. “And with today’s budgets, using one light is also cost effective.”

It was the perfect technique to use for this recent cover shot of Jenna Tatum for Health magazine. Lipsky and his team created a pop-up studio in Los Angeles and set up one hard light and a reflector about six feet away from the subject. He placed the light slightly off center from the camera and above the subject, and added only a small silver show card “to give an extra little highlight in the eyes” and “put negative fill on both sides of the subject.”

Learn how to master these on-trend lighting styles at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, where all five photographers will be teaching.

—Sponsored by Santa Fe Photographic Workshops