Recreate the Style of Platon's Portrait of Satya Nadella for WIRED

Recreate the Style of Platon's Portrait of Satya Nadella for WIRED

Platon is a widely acclaimed British portrait photographer. His portfolio includes, among others, images of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, former president of the United States, Barack Obama, and the chilling portrait of revolutionary chairman of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi. His book "Power," shows portraits of more than 100 famous and infamous, past and present heads of state.

Platon's portraits are widely admired for their simplicity and striking character. In an interview with milkbooks he describes the origin of his style:

"I am dyslexic. My pictures make something simple out of something complicated perhaps because I can’t really function with a lot of complicated things on a page. My simplification [of] a powerful graphic form works well for the covers of magazines and makes for images that stand out. It is like I produce a logo of somebody’s face."

Here are the steps to creating this Platon-style portrait.

Lighting Setup

Platon mostly utilizes a simple lighting setup consisting of one strobe with a strong diffusion that he places in front and slightly overhead of the subject. I was unsure of the exact equipment that he used for the WIRED cover-shoot. I took a guess and placed two black panels left and right of the subject, to get a deeper shadow-gradient on the face. Make sure to include the light's reflection in the subject's eyes.

The setup is straightforward, now it is on you to capture the right moment. Once you are done, let's move on to Photoshop.

Post Processing

There are three main aspects to the edit that we are about to do: High contrast, low-Key torso, and broad highlights.

First, add a black and white adjustment layer.

Next, create a curves Layer and give it a distinct s-shape for contrast.

In order to guide the focus towards the subject's expression, add a brightness and contrast adjustment layer and mask the torso area.

For subtle details and highlights in the hair, eyes, and brows, add clarity through the Camera-Raw panel and mask it to only affect certain areas.

For some portraits, it is beneficial to drag up the midtones in order for them to bleed into both the shadows and the highlights. In this case, I chose not to, but this is how it would affect the image:

Burn the outer areas of the face with the burn tool to intensify the shadow gradient.

For a finishing touch, merge your layers while holding down the alt key. Select the new layer and go to Filter > Other > High Pass and set the slider, so the outlines of facial details are barely visible. Set the blending mode of the new layer to Overlay to create a slightly shiny and bronze appeal.

There you go. Slap a WIRED logo on it and you are set.

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21 Comments

Scott Weaver's picture

That doesn't look like Platon's lighting... you're lighting is much better!

If you watch the netflix series on him, you can see he uses a 60" shoot through on a boom overhead as his main source for these.

William Howell's picture

Could I ask what you are talking about on Netflix? I’d like to watch it.

Carlton Canary's picture

You are controlling your falloff with photoshop whereas Platon controls it in camera with deliberate lighting. Yes, he uses post-production to increase contrast and control some tones. But your out of camera shot could have been much closer to his.

Luke Oberlan's picture

You're right. Platon also made it pretty clear (see Netflix series) that he doesn't like doing as much post-processing in PS as it seems to be a so-called standard now... As you said, he prefers to photograph than to retouch. And it's a great lesson for us all - photography should be about camera (in terms of composition) and light. With just a slight touch of PS at the end of the process and not recreating the whole image from the ground up with curves and sliders...

Maximilian Benner's picture

Hi Carlton,
the difference here is that I am shooting digitally whereas Platon is mostly using film. Film is meant to give a satisfying result out of the box, raw file formats are meant to retain as much information as possible. This is why the initial fall-off isn't as apparent in my original image, however if you look closely you can actually see it.

Carlton Canary's picture

It's true that he shoots film often. However.... I'm going to have to stick to my original comment. I'm not saying photoshop is bad. Ultimately its the end result that matters. What I am saying is that as someone who deals with the fall off of light on a person's face as a major component of their work and as someone who has worked with all formats of film for years (and knows how film renders versus a raw file), I think you could have pushed it further in camera. But maybe I'm just a little old school. Not trying to shit on what you did, Just offering a critique.

Maximilian Benner's picture

I looked at your work and it seems like you know what you are talking about. The photo of Justin is beautiful. Do you mind sharing how you would go about recreating the style I described above while pushing the fall-off, in camera?

Carlton Canary's picture

In this case, I would say you just need to get the light closer. If you look at behind the scenes pictures of Platon shooting, you'll notice that his umbrella is usually quite close to his subject, feathered down, and just above the eye line. And he is usually pretty much bending the umbrella he is so close to it.

You have two ways to control the quality of the light, size and distance. If you get the light closer to the subject, It will effectively be a larger source but it will fall off faster. (inverse square law) So, you may have to use a slightly smaller light than you were previously using. this is one of the advantages to a shoot through umbrella for images like this. It is infinitely adjustable.

I would experiment with using different size lights at different distances and see what you like.

Maximilian Benner's picture

Thank you for the insight. I am sure that this might be helpful to others as well.

Peter Mabli's picture

This exchange is all wrong: two competent photographers discussing their technique?! One even critiqued the other constructively, the other responded respectfully, and we all learned some valuable tips in the process. Blasphemy!

I come to the comments to read useless arguments about what gear/method is superior to another, and why everyone is wrong and bad except for me.

Obvious sarcasm here. Thank you both for this insight!

This!! This is what this is all about! You had the knowledge, the proof of it and you shared it without fears! Thank you.

Peter Guyton's picture

Great discussion. I just want to offer an observation. The catchlights in the Platon photo are higher on the eye and a bit above the pupil, where as Benner's catchlights are a tad lower, closer to the pupil. So I almost feel that Platon's lightsource was closer and higher (as Carlton said) and maybe the camera was underneath the light source? (that would depend on focal length).

Also, Platon's catchlights appear a bit rectangular, so maybe a softbox and not an umbrella? Just wondering.

Thanks! I enjoyed your article.

Lor Wor's picture

Im always curious what lens and focal length he uses.

Maximilian Benner's picture

As far as I know, he uses a 120mm Zeiss lens. However, he shoots medium format film, so the equivalent focal length on a full frame sensor would be 75mm.

Max, does compression take it's part when shooting 120mm equivalent for FF camera? I mean, 120mm for MF, 70 ~ 85mm to FF, won't this give a more warped look to the portrait, as the lens compression is quite different?
Wouldn't like, shoot a 135mm lens a bit further away give similar to equal results, and then calculate the right apperture to give the same to close depth of field, this because sensor size takes it's tool on apperture values aswell.
Just my head working here.

Maximilian Benner's picture

Hi Paulo,
yes, the compression does change. A 75mm lens together with a full frame sensor will result in stronger distortion than with a 120mm lens on a medium format sensor. This is why you can get a perfectly fine image with a medium format camera while being very close to your subject.

Lorin Duckman's picture

Very helpful. I am off to see the netflix and to shoot in my studio.

The Netflix show - episode 7 of "Abstract" is great. His ability to maintain his composure with his subjects is impressive.