Celebrity Portrait Photographer Demystifies His Lighting Setup

Have you ever looked at some of the amazing portraiture on the cover of Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair and wondered how it was done? You may not have heard of Mark Seliger, but you’ve certainly seen some of his work. Actors, musicians—even presidents—have had their portraits taken by him. Iconic images like the nude band shot of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the last portrait taken of Kurt Cobain, and Mick Jagger have turned Seliger into one of the leading portrait photographers of his time. In the video below, he takes us behind the scenes on his shoot of Lenny Kravitz and walks us through his lighting process:

In Seliger’s first setup, he used just one light—a 5’ Octabank with a Pro 8a battery pack—and a negative fill on the subject’s left. The negative fill is created by setting up black flags or cards and helps to set his subject apart from the background, adding definition and contrast. The Pro 8 pack allows for micro-adjustments and lets Seliger fine-tune exactly how his key light exposes his subject.

Using only one light

Octabank Lighting Setup

how to light celebrity portraits

Final Image with Octabank

Seliger’s second setup is quite a bit more complex, with 2 1×4 softboxes as the keylights off to the side and behind the subject, 2 umbrella lights to to balance the foreground and the background, a couple of mid-line reflectors, and a beauty dish with a grid and a diffuser overhead. The diffuser softens the light while the grid allows it to retain some focus.

Using Multiple Lights

Multiple Light Setup

portrait lighting setup

Final Image with Softbox Lighting

In this last setup, Seliger returns to simplicity, using only his Profoto Ring Light to light his subject. Ring lights provide freely positioned, direct, and detailed light without harshness. He uses it here to throw the shadow behind the subject and create an almost cinema-style frontal flash effect.

Using Only a Ring Light

Ring Light Setup

iconic portrait lighting

Final Portrait with Ring Light

Of course, if the only secret to getting great portraits was the lighting, we’d have a million and one “iconic” portraits. In an interview given to nymag.com’s The Cut, Seliger confided that what sets him apart from others is his marriage of compassion and design.

What do you think makes an amazing portrait? What are some of things you’d like to learn to improve your own portraiture?

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever