BTS: Mark Seliger Photographs the Hollywood Stars for Vanity Fair and the 2017 Oscars

Once again, Vanity Fair teamed up with Mark Seliger to produce iconic photographs of Hollywood stars in a custom-built portrait studio at the 2017 Oscars. The portraits are definitely great, but we as photographers always seek to find the secrets of the masters, such as lighting, camera settings, posing, post-processing, etc. Seliger did the job in four steps. If you follow these steps, it will guarantee you a similar career.

Step 1: Photograph a Bunch of Celebrities Through the Years

Seliger is a well-established celebrity portrait photographer. He's been doing that for several decades and knows the ins and outs of the craft, creating iconic portraits of lots of famous people.

Step 2: Develop Close Relationships With Vanity Fair

It shouldn't be that hard, especially when you know lots of celebrities and they trust you. That's Mark Seliger's life.

Step 3: Hire Lots of People to Create a Studio for You at the 2017 Oscars

You just need a covered shelter at the Oscars location. Then you get set designers to, obviously, create the design of the set. This design is given to a construction company that builds three walls and their decorations. The walls are delivered and installed in place. Then, painters paint them. The floor is installed last as painters may leave spots here and there. Then, luxury furniture and decorations are brought in. Business as usual.

Step 4: Place Lights, Set Them Up, and Wait for Celebrities to Come

If you search the internet for "best lighting setup for the Oscars," you won't find much information, because it's quite less likely a photographer who searches for that kind of thing to be hired to shoot the 2017 Hollywood event. At least we can take a glimpse at the lighting Mark Seliger used this year. From the time-lapse above, we see just one octabox as a source of light. He shot the portraits last year and used similar lighting.

Not as simple as you thought. Along with the 75-inch Elinchrom Indirect Octa, there is something that looks like a 48x48-inch diffusion scrim, maybe this one. There is a black flag right below the scrim, and it is wider, so it blocks light at the bottom part of the softbox. Let's see another one from the preparation timelapse:

On the left, there is a monitor where Seliger checks the result by photographing an assistant. Look at the light on the walls behind the subject. It looks almost the same as the exposure on the subject. This means the light is far enough so the falloff (that hits the walls) is not that different. Looking at Seliger's instagram, we can see that the subjects are indeed far from the light, but as it's a big light source, the shadows are relatively soft. Also, he shoots with a Profoto Air Remote, i.e. there are Profoto heads in the softbox. In some of the BTS pictures, the light from the Octa that hits the subject passes only through the scrim, while the light that goes around the scrim hits the walls on the back. This may be a little secret of Seliger's not so dark exposure on the walls.

Here is a result from this setup:

Obviously, it's all Photoshopped. In the behind the scenes shot, Jimmy Kimmel is standing with Molly McNearney, while in the published shot, he's sitting. I'm joking of course. It's just one of the variety of photographs Seliger did.

We can see the background is in focus and he's shooting with a medium format camera. He usually shoots Phase One, which has a big sensor. In order for the background to be almost in focus, he has to shoot with small apertures. There also appears to little subject-background separation compared to his shooting distance, which helps. It's less likely he shoots at high ISO, so probably the power level of the flash is quite high. This calls for a powerful battery pack. In the time-lapse there's something that looks like a Profoto D4 2400W/s power pack.

Although in some BTS pictures, there seems to be another light, it looks as though it's a video light or a non-incandescent light source that is not coming from a Profoto modeling light. In some portraits, the light has been moved to the other side and no other light source seems to be present in the shots.

Usually, Mark directs the pose of his subjects. They are all posed differently in relation to their clothing and known character. Here are some of my favorites:


Usually, photos from the same series are processed the same way from a color-grading standpoint. However, while writing this article, I found the portraits are graded differently. Some are with warmer tones, some cooler, some greenish. Hm. I've always limited myself to delivering photographs of the same color tones throughout a given set. Did you notice the differences in these portraits? Does it bother you? It certainly doesn't bother me. I think they are quite nicely post-processed and still look like they are from the same series.

You can see all the official portraits on Vanity Fair's website. Be sure to follow Mark Seliger's great Instagram feed as well.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Tihomir Lazarov is a commercial portrait photographer and filmmaker based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is the best photographer and filmmaker in his house, and thinks the best tool of a visual artist is not in their gear bag but between their ears.

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This is an interesting story and I like Mark's pictures, but I would have preferred softer focus on the art deco background.

I don't know the answer to that. Maybe deep DoF has been requested by the client.

Typically for events like this the exposure and aperture have been set for a large group and it stays that way so that the photographer isn't mucking with lighting when an individual steps in, then a group of 5 comes in, then an individual comes in etc... I know they can write them down and set it, but in high volume events, that's just one more thing to "do" instead of just focusing on the posing and expressions.

In general that can be true and not as the photos are very different. The lighting on some is far away, on some is close or on the other side. We also see that they played with the dress movement of some of the female subjects. They aslo placed different types of furniture which makes me think it was pre-visualized before the shoot.

There are readers who don't know what "this" and "that" is. That's why I mention it. We don't see the shadows from a second light on none of the photos. There are shadows from the subjects on the walls behind them. Soft shadows. I don't see another light being used. Making the foreground and background almost the same intensity can be done with the scrim on the front.

Thank you for your analysis of the setup, even if some find your insights "obvious." Reverse engineering lighting can be challenging, and it's interesting to see how others interpret the evidence.

I'm glad you appreciate it. Sometimes the most simple looking visuals have a quite elaborate setup.