Lighting Like Leibovitz – The One Light Challenge

Lighting Like Leibovitz – The One Light Challenge

I’m a huge fan of Annie Leibovitz and the imagery she has captured over the past few decades. Being a self-taught photographer, I looked to her work time and time again for inspiration and motivation. Over the course of a year, I scoured the internet for information on her lighting setups, equipment and methodology. But, the more I dove in, the less concerned I became about equipment and the more I felt the need to simplify my style.

I’ve read the books, watched the documentaries and read the interviews, I even went as far as to research her past assistants. I would never claim to be as talented a photographer as Leibovitz, I'm still learning everyday. However, I am claiming I've done enough research to tout a simple Leibovitz light setup and I love talking about it. But, this article isn't necessarily about Annie Leibovitz, but more about her style of photography that has greatly inspired me.

Sometime last year, I began to focus more on subject matter itself and what it means to the viewer rather than the technicalities of it all. I began to see lighting as light, which meant bringing a natural feel to my lighting and imagery. Around that same time I introduced a set of images called the "Oliphant Portrait Series". The series focused on a set of my colleagues that have been inspirational to my career, much of them being photographers, designers and artists. The images were all captured in front of a custom painted 9x12 canvas from Sarah Oliphant of Oliphant Studios, hence the title of the series. The images were a smash hit and I received a lot of great feedback, but the biggest question of all was... "How did you light that?"


One Light Is All You Need

During my research, I learned that when Annie started shooting portrait assignments, she would only bring one light and an umbrella. For many years that was her go-to-setup which created some of the most iconic images we know. Today, she has progressed and moved into several different diffusion methods, but in many behind the scenes videos you will always see one Profoto Acute Head and one large soft modifier; a 60" Photek Softlighter II. That is very similar to the setup I used for my series, one light and one umbrella.

If your ever assigned to a group portrait,  use wrap-around and to your advantage. The larger the group, the larger the light source. Don't feel the need to add more light or a stronger light, simply add a bigger modifier.

Get Close

The closer the light source is to a subject, the softer the light will fall on the face. The distance from the sun to the earth is about 93 million miles, hence why the sun on a bright day creates such hard shadows. Don't be afraid to place that light close to your subjects face. On many occasions, I have had the light less than a foot from the cheek and if you were to look at my RAW images, the modifier can be clearly seen in the frame. But, with a quick cloning session in Photoshop any and all distractions can be removed.


Big and Soft Double Diffusion

If you place a subject near a window, the light would look natural and wrap-around the subjects face. Take that same thoery and apply it to one strobes. The modification that lies in between the strobe and your subjects face is up to you. But, in the case of Annie Leibovitz, a 60" Photek Softlighter II proves to have worthy results. If you want to go even softer to mimic that nice window light, place a scrim in between the 60" Photek Softlighter II and your subject. Leave about 2-3 feet in between the light and the scrim then place the subject about 4 feet away from the scrim. What you'll notice is a nice soft even light that still retains a hint of drama.



It's important to get it right in camera, but there is also a smart way to go about setting your image up for post processing. In the digital age, we can easily increase exposure in post, but we can't take away blown out highlights. Under-expose your image a stop or two and you'll not only save yourself some processing headaches, but you may just see a overall more dramatic image. Never be afraid to go to dark with those shadows.


Up The Ambient

Using a slow shutter speed in dark situations is an important facet of my work and I know Leibovitz has always incorporated ambiance for more natural and realistic portraiture. I dove into this technique more in the article Up The Ambient - Create Beautiful Portraits By Mimcking Daylight. Shutter speed only controls ambient light and aperture controls artificial light(and some ambient), therefore you have the ability to bring up the exposure of the ambient light without altering the flash using shutter speed. Up the ambiance then create drama with the artificial light source. You want the strobe to mimic the look of natural light.



Next time you have an open studio or a bored friend, grab a strobe or speedlight and a couple of soft modifiers. Using some of these tips explore the depth and dimension of your lighting. But, simplify things, connect with your subject and you'll see that less is very much more. That is my one light challenge to you.

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If you'd like to learn more lighting and shooting tips, consider checking out our Fundamentals of Fashion Photography course with Shavonne Wong or our more in depth Fashion and Editorial Portrait Photography tutorial with Clay Cook. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

Clay Cook's picture

Portrait and Editorial Photographer, Clay Cook has learned the importance of going the extra mile, after a long, arduous run in the music business. Clay has shaped creative projects with History, Lifetime, Comcast and Papa John's Pizza. In addition, he has photographed assignments for Time, Forbes, The Guardian, W Magazine, USA Today, ESPN and Inc.

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Previous comments

Indeed! Thanks Nicholas! Really appreciate that!

Awesome article, Clay. Unfortunately Kanye West just tweeted that he has improved on the one light technique and can now get better results simply by using the light that he naturally produces from his awesomeness.

Thanks Paul! Kayne will then spend the rest of his life editing one image.

THANK YOU for this article!!

Thanks for reading Julie! Check out my other articles!

I will!

Nice one Clay.

Thanks brother!

The best part? It's simple. It's great you did the research on this. Thanks, Clay.

Thank you Hendrik!

"Lighting Like Leibovitz"

Is that akin to moving like Jagger?

I was going to point out the Richards shoot, but someone has already done the deed. Originally when I saw that video I thought a simpler setup would be to use a speedlight. Certainly lighter and more nimble, and in close proximity like that you're not going to suffer much in light loss. Gaffer-tape and LED flashlight and you even have a modeling light.

Annie is not self taught she went to San Francisco Art institute, and she uses mirrors as a lighting source

Hey there! Thanks for reading! I never said Annie was self-taught. I did say "I" was self-taught though. :)

Amazing article, your work is very inspiring. What were your shutter speeds? Every setup and shoot is different, but I'm curious the choices you made for these particular photos. Again, incredible work. Thanks!

gracias, eres un ejemplo, me encantan estas fotografias con un tono dramatico, sin duda mi estilo va por aqui...

Clay the photos are brilliant, and I love choosing these talented people to highlight. Oliphant makes amazing backdrops. Question, you may not want to share, but I was wondering what the color tones of the drop are, is it one you rented? Thanks for the article really helpful. -Marcus

Hey great article but could you maybe tell me about the lighting that was used in Annie Leibovitz, John Lennon & Yoko Ono (1990). I am doing a semiotic analysis for collage and wold like to know the type of lighting thanks xx :).

Great article.

This article and the one on Clay's site has transformed my portrait work.

Awesome insights, thanks Clay. Definitely a fan!

Wow. Love it.

I know this article came out 6 years ago, but I still love it. Everything you talk about, I have literally stumbled upon through trial and error over the last couple of years. Annie is a huge influence on me as well (as I am sure she is on nearly every modern photographer whether they even realize it or not).

Hey Clay Question i know this is old but, I was wondering what the setting was on the camera in the diagram because on i was trying to see them but they aren't that clear
But great article i just wanted to try this light set up