Fstoppers Lighting Diagrams: The Martin Schoeller Portrait

Fstoppers Lighting Diagrams: The Martin Schoeller Portrait

Last week I tried my hand at emulating Martin Schoeller's portrait lighting with a single bare-bulb speedlite. Though the experiment was technically a failure, it still produced a nice portrait. Since then, I have tried two more lighting scenarios before finally nailing it on the fourth (please excuse my OCD tendancies) and final attempt.

I have been told that I over-thought this lighting scenario- that it could be done with two lights and no studio. And yes, I know that Phlearn got good results with strip boxes. But I don't have strip boxes. Or ND filters. I do, however, have a few speedlites, some foam core and gaffers tape. Turns out that that worked just fine.

Nick Fancher | Columbus, Ohio photographer First Attempt

Above is the first attempt. As you can see, the catch-light in the eyes is there, but not prominently. Plus there is a ton of light spilling on the model's hair.

nick fancher columbus ohio photographer Second Attempt

For the second attempt, I added a second light as well as a flag on each speedlite. The catch-light is better, but the spill is still there (though it makes a decent hair light).

nick fancher columbus ohio photographer Third Attempt


For the third attempt, I added black v-flats to flag the speedlites and eliminate spillage. This killed the light spill but the bounce light on the subject was broad, making it a flat portrait.

nick fancher columbus ohio photographer Fourth Attempt

nick fancher columbus ohio photographer
nick fancher lighting diagram strobist


In the fourth and final scenario, I added black gaffers tape to the white v-flat. I separated the bounce area into two sections and feathered the fall off with the spacing of the tape.

Lessons like this one as well as 25 other lighting diagrams are available in my new e-book, RGLR, The Run & Gun Lighting Resource for $10.


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Jens Marklund's picture

Now you just need a 4x5 camera!

Here's his exact set up - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZTGXhWjAf4

 8 by 10 camera.

Thomas Shue's picture

It's an 8X10

Andrew Griswold's picture

Again Nick, really well done. The hard work paid off and the final piece is just flawless. 

Nicholas's picture

That is brilliant!

oh no, not again :D it is not even close to schoeller's lighting, and that's not a matter of 4x5 camera vs. smaller sensors, it's a matter of light modifiers used! 
schoeller clearly uses two rectangular softboxes with grids on [have you ever given a CLOSE inspection at specular highlights in his portraits?], rather close to the subject's face. 
the setup in the video suggested by jens marklund is way different, and clearly gives a different result. 

I did see the video and know that Schoeller uses two strip lights. I mentioned in the post that I don't have any strip lights, but wanted to see if I could achieve the effect with cheap/simple supplies. Just an experiment.

nope, strip lights or regular softboxes, that doesn't matter, it's the combination of grids, distance and direction, that can make it work the schoeller's way. 
I like the pictures thou :)

Thomas Shue's picture

He uses 2 Kinoflo banks an over head strobe and a background strobe. 

Nice result! I have to say the pictures that led up to the final image were fantastic as well, nice work. 


I hope people don't go and rip off this guys style. I like it a lot but I like it when HE does it because that's what he is known for. Did he invent the look? Probably not but I just don't like when people become TOO inspired by a person's style and try to make it their own. 

Gabriel Bratescu's picture

35mm for a headshot ? They all look deformed to me.

PS: I can't see may Google name in the header: Gabriel Bratescu

Right choice if you want to duplicate Schoeller's work.

Interesting. I would try something like this if I could get a subject to sit long enough enclosed by a ton of foamcore like a claustophobics nightmare visit to Jerry's Art-O-Rama.

I do have a kit of Aura flouro lights coming in, so I might give it a try with two 2' FLs, again, if I can find a subject that will sit still and be tolerant. Most of my portrait clients are business types that don't want aartsy, interesting light, unfortunately :-

Thanks for sharing. Always cool to see the steps involved in experimenting with a creative idea.

Looks cool, nice job.
I tried the same look but I am experamenting with using LED lights.  I have a ways to go but I thought the effect works.  I need to work out the color and LED placement.

Help me understand—what's so great about having the twin rectangular catchlights in the subject's eyes? To my (perhaps uninformed) eye, it makes the subjects look like they have cat-eye pupils. I really like some of the photos leading up to this, but the final look achieved seems alien and hungry. Please tell me what I'm missing here.

Nailed it. Great job.

Your final shot is far better than phlearn! well done!


two softboxes and 1 large softbox above subject and gridded strobe camera left.

hey man - thas a cool shot /shots/ brilliant setup - I fill inspired now - gotta try it !

This is awesome. 

This is awesome

Luca Giannone's picture

Her Name please!: (Fourth Attempt)

My wife Beth

I just don't get Schoeller's work.  I've looked at dozens upon dozens of his pics of famous folks using this technique, and I'm like..."Hmm.  Celebrities with tightly-cropped faces that are lit more in the center and giving me nothing of their personalities or their souls". I'll quote one of the great photogs of our time who told me "you don't take pictures, your subjects give them to you".  Faces, no matter how well-known they are, who aren't letting you in or giving you anything (except cat-like reflections from fancy lighting schemes)...just not doin' it for me. am I the only one who feels this way? (Obviously it's doing something for a lot of people because the guy has a world-class business going!)


You should try your own style, what's the point of emulating other photographers. You are opening up yourself to lawsuits if you try to pass this off as your own even if a client asks you to copy the look. 

My goal was to see if I could recreate his lighting with a more stripped-down setup. And I accomplished it. Plus I learned a lot about how light bounces and reflects in the process. I have no plan on replicating Schoeller's portraits in the future. But I will likely do a variation on it sometimes. I'd rather have more tools in my tool belt than I need. Make sense?