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.
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.
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.
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?
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