Blown-out high-key fashion photography with Emilia Clark in the March 2013 issue of GQ Magazine


High key portrait

A proper high-key portrait

When you’re in a dark environment and want to take a photo of someone, you typically use a flash. Most people don’t think about how the flash on their camera makes their subject look, they just want the photo to be lit and not dark. Most of the time, the result is much like this. Harsh and blown out. The intense light from your camera’s flash is generally unflattering and is considered usable only for snapshots.

Photographing someone with intense light is perfectly acceptable. I took the portrait to the left using two different strobes and a white background. The use of multiple strobes made the shadow behind the model soft and I used a diffuser to make the light on her face more soft.

I must confess though that I’ve seen a trend toward the use of harsh, directional light in many highly respected, professional publications. As an avid reader of GQ, I regularly see photos of beautiful women and men that look like they could have been lit by someone that has very, or no, experience in using strobes.


Looks like it was taken with a point-and-shoot camera

Take this photo spread for example. The photographer, Maciek Kobielski, has been hired to photograph a 2-page spread of the lovely Ms. Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame. The set looks like it is beautiful, with a gorgeous and exotic bed made of some type of wood that is no doubt out of my price range and sheets that are probably softer than any I’ve ever slept on. Emilia is dressed to kill in a stunning black lace-up corset and matching panties. Her dark hair and seductive makeup probably took hours to craft by the best makeup and hair artists in the business. Everything is in place for a stunning, dramatic photo shoot. The photographer looks at the set, then looks at the gorgeous Ms. Clarke and begins to craft his shoot. I’m sure Maciek has an arsenal of lighting products that would make most photographers green with envy. But he decides that rather than spend all day crafting a 4-light photo shoot with a tasteful combination of grid lights, gels, reflectors, and soft boxes, he decided to grab one huge, blinding strobe, position it directly over top of Emilia’s lovely body, and blast away with no thought being given to this single light’s unflattering effects.

Glare off of her cheek and forehead

Look at the glaring reflection off of her cheek and forehead. Most women that I know try very hard not to have shiny skin like this, but this photographer seems to have tried specifically to achieve this look. Even her hands are shiny with how intense this light is. Also, under her arms, hands, etc are very hard and dark shadows. Its like she has a black outline underneath of her body as if she were a line drawing that someone colored in. You can see every wrinkle in her corset and see that the two fabrics don’t match exactly.

Hard shadows under her hands and arms

Now, there are a few positives to this blown-out look. Her eyes are simply amazing. I’m sure that there was some digital help to make them so white and perfect, but the intense light makes a great catch light in the upper part of her eyes. Her skin also looks flawless, but who knows how much of that is thanks to Photoshop.

I don’t know if photographers are trying to recreate the look of a red carpet photo, where most photos are shot using speedlights and look blown out, or if they simply don’t care about beautifully sculpted shadow that highlight the curves and shape of their subjects. Granted, this blown-out lighting looks rock star. I can see Stephen Tyler being photographed for Rolling Stone back in the 80’s with this kind of lighting, but I just can’t see how a professional like Maciek Kobielski can walk away from this photo shoot and think he did his best work here.

Critique of Vice President Joe Biden’s official White House portrait

imageI came across the new Vice President Joe Biden official White House photo yesterday and I started picking it apart and trying to figure out what the photographer was trying to convey with it. The photo was taken by David Lienemann who is VP Biden’s official photographer. You can find David’s work here at his official website:

Now, he’s a far better photographer than me and is regarded as one of the best in the industry, but a couple of things stuck out to me about this portrait.

Firstly, I don’t understand why he composed this photograph like he did. VP Biden is off-center, just slightly, but enough to be noticeable but not enough to satisfy the “Rule of Thirds” that many photographers attempt to live by (me included). You’ll notice that there is space between the American flag and VP Biden’s right arm, but his left arm is in front of the Vice Presidential flag. To me, this unbalances the photo and makes it look more like a snapshot than a portrait.

Something else that grabbed me is that the desk that VP Biden is sitting on isn’tBiden crooked desk straight in respect to the photo’s edge. In the photo to the right, the red line is perfectly straight with the bottom of the photo, but notice how the desk is crooked in relation to it. I’d have used that line to crop the photo square.

Lastly, I don’t understand why VP Biden is photographed in front of that painting. The artwork itself is beautiful and I’d love to have it hanging in my office, but to my eye it adds unnecessary visual clutter to the photograph and I’d have left it out if I were the photographer.

All that being said, I’ll comment on what I do like about the photograph. The lighting is exceptional. I’d guess that the photograph was shot with largely natural light coming from the (presumably) large windows in the Vice Presiden Biden’s beautiful office. I’d also guess that there was a reflector being used camera left to lighten the shadows on the right side of his face. Ideal lighting for a portrait.

The expression on VP Biden’s face is perfect. It reflects confidence, intelligence, and experience, but at the same time he looks approachable. Like he’d have no problem talking with you over a cup of coffee at your kitchen table. The way he’s leaning/slightly sitting on his desk adds to that appearance of confidence and approachability.

I’d like to know who is tailor is because he nailed it with that pen-stripe suit. It’s the perfect suit to wear to reflect Presidential power and class. I wish I could see more of his wristwatch so I could make a guess as to it’s make, but it doesn’t look like a Rolex or something gaudy like that. It looks classy and simple, but elegant and trustworthy. Good choice by the photographer to have his left arm on top to show that he’s wearing a wristwatch in the first place.

Bill_ClintonAVP Biden: Portrait shoot by Andrew "Andy" Cutraro. 459 EEOB Studio President Ronald Regancouple of other things. In the new photo his shoulders are square to the camera and he’s looking directly into the lens. In most other portrait photography the subject is turned slightly like in his old photo and President Bill Clinton’s official White House photo (which is probably one of the classiest White House photos there is).  One of my favorite Presidential photos is Ronald Regan’s. It nails it on all levels in my book. Also, notice how much more simple past White House photos are (although I like VP Biden’s new portrait better than the old one).

Now my guesses on the technical details of the photograph. David probably photographed VP Biden with a full-frame digital DSLR camera (based on the dimensions of the photo). I’d guess he used a 50mm lens at f3.5 to make sure VP Biden’s features are sharp, but the background is slightly out of focus.

All said, it’s a gorgeous photo, and most photographers would give their right arm to have a chance to take the official White House portrait of the sitting Vice President. Please feel free to critique my critique of VP Joe Biden’s Official White House photo.

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