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Author Portrait – Step by Step


This is Anders Jacobsson, well known Swedish author of children’s books, movies and tv-series. He is a nice and happy guy, and is almost always portrayed that way. When I got the assignment from his publisher to shoot a few author portraits, they told me that his next book would be titled “The horror in the attic” (direct translation of the original title). If you write horror stories, even if they are for kids, you can’t really look too happy, so I aimed for something more dark and serious.


Behind The Scenes

The lighting setup for this portrait used three lights, the main light is the Profoto D1 250 Air high up camera left with a white Profoto Softlight Reflector (beauty dish) with a grid to keep the main light from spilling onto the background.

To make the lighting a little more serious and with more shadows than usual, I had the light higher up and with an angle that didn’t create any catchlights in his eyes. Dark eyes are always less happy than bright eyes with big white sparkles in them.

There is one thing missing in this picture, and that is a black flag camera left. I will get into that soon, and you can see where it was in the diagram below.


Studio Lighting Setup Diagram

controlling-falloff-with-flags-photo-studioHere is the setup from above showing more correctly than the “behind the scenes”-photo how it was laid out.

The black flag camera left did I put there to block the main light from hitting his right side (left in the photo) so I could have the falloff I wanted.

Without that, the relatively large light source of a beauty dish, at least when it is this close, would have lit up the his cheekbones, hair and ear on that side, but with this black panel, it was easy to keep the light on the front of his face.

Ring flash for detail and fill

To compensate a bit for having the main light so high and not lighting the whole of his face, I let a Profoto AcuteB 600R with a ring flash act as fill (with the WideSoft Reflector to make the light a little bit softer) on the axis of the camera. Experimenting a bit with the light ratios I found a mix that still had the contrast and shadows I wanted, but with detail almost everywhere.


The only catchlight you can see comes from the ringflash, I shot the portraits with a Nikon D800 and a70-200/2.8 VRII almost zoomed in to the max (@190mm), so the white dots in his eyes are quite small.

As hair light I used a gridded Magnum Reflector aimed at the top of his head, with just enough effect to brighten it a bit. Nothing on his shoulders.

Removing the grid, and voilà!


I like to find ways to use the same setup and just adjusting it a little bit to create something different. In this case I removed the grid from the main light, the beauty dish, and instantly you get something that has the same style but looks not the same. I my small studio, removing a grid means that the main light will affect the background, so that went from dark grey to light grey even though I adjusted the aperture a bit.

To get the gradient on the background, I removed the grid on the hair light and changed the angle of the Magnum Reflector.

And that was that, I did a little corrections and adjustments in Lightroom 5 as well as in Photoshop CC, but nothing much. Mostly local contrast here and there.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Randle P. McMurphy September 13, 2013, 11:35

    Sorry Stefan – but the Eyes are dead and the Eyes matter most at a Portrait
    in my Opinion.
    I know you use a lot of Contrast in your Work but I wonder how this Picture
    will work if it is printed in a Newspaper instead of a Magazin or in Web ?

  • Stefan Tell September 13, 2013, 13:19

    I wouldn’t say dead, more cold or detached which was part of the idea. The portrait will work just fine in print, I think. It has details in the parts that are important. If it gets a tiny bit darker, it will still have the same feeling.

  • Alan Organ LRPS December 20, 2013, 08:59

    I’m sorry to say I think this is a poor guide to how the lighting was set-up. There are no light meter measurements mentioned whatsoever.

    • Stefan Tell December 20, 2013, 10:41

      Sorry to hear, but I never use a light meter anymore. It feels a lot more flexible to just use the display and keep an eye on the histogram, that gives me better control over the final result.

  • Maddie February 2, 2014, 06:59

    Love it!! Thank you for sharing! And the pictures look spectacular!

  • Magnus Eriksson November 22, 2017, 14:29

    Love it!! Great work.

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