Learning Studio Lighting from Master Photographers

Three Studies of Lighting Set-Ups

Tom Zimberoff’s Portrait of Von Karajan

Christopher Makos’ Portrait of Andy Warhol

Herb Ritts’ Portrait of Elton John

One of the best ways we photographers can learn is to immerse ourselves in great works, and beyond simply enjoying them, endeavor to figure out how they were made. Many years ago, we could only see great works in print or at exhibitions. Every photography book I bought then was a treasure. Although we can admire many great works online today, I ‘m still collecting treasures that I’m now delighted to make available to browse to the visitors of my ‘open’ Studio…that is when it will be open again!

In my small collection, is a copy of ‘Portrait Photography / Selected from the Graphis Annuals’ published in 1984, presenting a selection of works gathered from the Graphis Annuals from the original title ‘Graphis Photo’ editions 1989 through 1993 included. It is a wonderful selection of powerful and iconic portraits of celebrities of the day created by master photographers all shot on film! 

I set out to learn from these masters by attempting to recreate some of their portraits.  Let’s be clear, my focus was to deepen my understanding and practice of lighting.  It is the master photographers who imagined the lighting, created the rapport with their sitters, and ultimately delivered these intelligent, subtle, elegant, highly enjoyable, and thought-provoking portraits. 

As I’d hoped, this challenge proved to be a great technical learning opportunity. But it also strongly reaffirmed in my mind how much a powerful portrait is the result of two equally important skills: the skill to create/use good light and the skill to capture something essential of someone’s personality.  And as I have neither the looks or the personalities of the original sitters I was standing in for, no matter how close I came to emulating the lighting, my ‘hommage- selfies’ pale in comparison to the original works. The ‘je ne sais quoi’ of each sitter is simply not there!

Three great black and white portraits

To start this challenge, I chose three black and white portraits. As I no longer work with film, my aim was to achieve lighting good enough to produce digital negatives that would need no more postproduction than what I could have achieved in a dark room from a black and white negative. 


Von Karjan by Tom Zimberoff

Tom Zimberoff describes himself as ‘a classically trained clarinetist who like (Ansel) Adams, planned a career in music, then pivoted to photography.’ Regarding famous conductors, he explained ‘Nobody had ever really turned a camera on these people as human beings. So, I spent almost 6 years doing that.’ He managed to capture no less than 53 world-famous conductors.

You can see a good on-line version of this portrait on Tom Zimberoff’s Medium.com pages. It’s easily recognisable amongst the numerous and equally powerful portraits of other conductors visible on the page and I strongly invite you to visit his work.  Don’t be content with the deliberately poor copy I’ve put here. Having made many a print myself, I admire not only its composition and lighting but also its subtle yet vigorous tonal range. In the book ‘Portrait Photography’, the range is harsher than the online version as is often the case with printed books. Something I learned to keep in mind when considering other portraits in the book.

Tom Zimberoff used a 4 by 5 view camera so I used a high-resolution digital SLR.  Not knowing what light set-up he used (natural, continuous, or flashes with or without modeling lamp), I focused on emulating the result. I shot tethered which made the job easier!  Blissfully, Von Karafan’s pose is straightforward. Not always the case as I learned in my final experiment.

The lighting set up turned out to be simple. I used a small Elinchrom Octa, facing me with only the edge catching my face and a reflector behind my head for a bit of fill.

I didn’t have as interesting a backdrop as the one used byTom Zimberoff’s. I started by using a black background lit by a flashgun but it was too dark so I switched to a grey paper background for the final shots. I cloaked the flashgun already set to a minimum to reduce its power even more. The tape on the floor was to help me position myself with respect to the camera.  The window curtain was drawn at the time of the shots. I used a zoom set at 85mm f8 on a full-frame camera. I triggered the camera remotely.

Although unlike Von Karajan I am slightly looking up, the set-up produced a feel fairly close to that of Tom Zimberoff’s original photo. I focused on the eye but at an aperture to produce sufficient depth of field to keep my features all in focus.  And the digital negative was easy to develop to reproduce the tonal range in the original.

selfie in the style of Tom zimberoff's Portrait of Von Karajan‘A la manière de’. In the style of’ Tom Zimberoff’s portrait of Von Karajan.

Andy Warhol by Christopher Makos

Wikipedia for  Christopher Makos states that he ‘is an American photographer and artist. He apprenticed with photographer Man Ray in Paris and collaborated with Andy Warhol, whom he showed how to use his first camera. He introduced Warhol to the work of both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.’

Just to add that ‘apprenticing’ with Man Ray must have been extraordinary!  Please look up the portrait on the web and his other work. The version in the book is much cropped.

The lighting was fairly straightforward in this case too. A beauty dish with a grid and diffuser as the key light. The reflector to give some fill. And a grey background lit by a small flashgun. What was less obvious was the choice of lens. It took me a while to figure out that what worked best was a fairly wide-angle lens angled down from slightly above to make my head proportionately much bigger than my upper body.

Camera view of the set-up

Complete set-up from the side


Sitter’s view of the set-up. If you look carefully, you can see on the bench my computer’s right screen with the original photo and the left screen with my version in Photoshop.


A la manière de’. In the style of Christopher Makos’ portrait of Andy Warhol.

No tape at the top of the background, no amazing hair, glasses, pale skin, and personality, but the lighting worked once again to produce an easy to develop digital negative with a similar tonal range and vigor to those of the original work. And yes, as with the Timberoff portrait above, I’m mirroring the posture.


Elton John by Herb Ritts

About Herb Ritss, Wikipedia states:’Herbert “Herb” Ritts Jr. was an American fashion photographer and director known for his photographs of celebrities, models, and other cultural figures throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Please look him up. Along with a better version of this portrait of Elton John, you’ll discover more of his work.

This was to prove my most difficult challenge and in more ways than one!  The shape of his top hat, its rigidity, the shape of his hand as he tips it, the inclination of his head, the round large glasses that reveal his closed eye that is partly in the shadow, partly in the light, the cool tailored jacket and the ring on his hand all make this image a real challenge to emulate for someone with no props! Figgering out his posture and getting the light to fall just right with a hat with a much smaller brim and smaller glasses, was hard and often frustrating work! I didn’t quite get there. I could have done with an assistant or a better model and the right props! And figuring out a lighting set-up took time too. I came close to giving up.

In the end, I used two flashguns in the studio with a few modifiers.

From the sitter’s point of view. A flashgun with a tiny beauty dish to create the fairly directional key light. I flagged it with cardboard to kill some of the spill onto the background and hat.


The set-up from the side with me tipping my modest and uncooperatively soft-rimmed hat to the camera itself slightly angled down. I even had to stuff the hat with some paper to get it to stay up on the back of my head. The other flashgun behind me to make sure the background rendered correctly (or close enough). The stand sticking out on the edge of the background was to help me position myself.


The kit that I used to capture the image



A la manière de’. In the style of Herb Ritts’ portrait of Elton John.

The result is not bang on!  Fundamentally, the light doesn’t cut across my eye and left ear as it does in Herb Ritts’ portrait.  But all things considered, it’s close enough. The tonal range is based on the version of Herb Ritts’ photo visible online, the book version has more contrast to it.  I had to do more work in post-production to balance the tones: lighting accessories alone are not everything, the amount and reflective properties of the space that the lights are set-up in has a massive impact on their behaviour in terms of coverage, directionality, and fall-off. 

What we can learn from the hands-on study of great works

Taking a deeper look at a wonderful portrait by a master is highly enjoyable and informative. Trying to emulate them is more challenging than it may seem at first but is very rewarding in terms of growing our skills. I highly recommend taking on your own challenge.

Recreating great photographs :

  • Refines our attention to the subtle details of each photo.
  • Develops our understanding of the impact of:
    • The choices of lighting tools and poses inspired by the sitter’s appearance.
    • The choice of lens and camera position with respect to the sitter.
    • What kit can and cannot do in any given space!
    • What we need to ‘get right in the camera’ to produce the final photo in postproduction.

Possible Workshop

So one day, when CameraWork45 is open again to the public, if you’d like to have a go at recreating a great portrait don’t hesitate to book a workshop with me. You’ll get to use some great kit whilst enjoying a fantastic and fun challenge to furthering your skills with my full support.