Brad Trent on the Fake Reality of Portraits

UPDATE: Brad has dropped by to answer several of your questions in the comments.

Long-time editorial photographer Brad Trent (pictured) gets a steady stream of magazine assignments for his unique look and rock-solid dependability. And more to the point for this site, he also has a portfolio full of lighting setup shots on his website.

But they're not there for your reverse engineering jollies. They are more about his desire to add a layer of comment to the "fake reality" he is often called to produce.

Fair enough, Brad. But we really like seeing your lighting setups, too…

I caught up with Trent on one of those 15-minute phone calls that ends up running an hour and a half. He's the kind of person you could swap stories with all day. Among the many things we talked about was his long-time practice of pulling back to include the lights in some of his editorial portraits.

Sez Brad:

Over the years I have turned into a portrait photographer, where everything is set up. I am not a guy that goes in and shoots catch-as-catch-can. I am not a fly on the wall anymore.

Over the years I had to wrestle with the fact that everything I did was set up. It's good -- it's what I do. It's what everybody that does what I do, does. But it's fake in the end. There was no real reality.

You were always setting something up, creating a situation and doing that type of picture. So I got to a point where, to get over it I just started backing up and showing the lights. And I did it as almost therapy for myself. Then I started selling it to clients.

They would go, "Oh, that's kind of cool. I mean, I don't know if we can run it…"

I said, "Why can't you run it?"

For myself, I call it my Artificial Series. I literally will shoot jobs where you shoot the entire job where you see the lights. And, of course, I'll have to back it up and come in and do the regular stuff, too.

More often than not, if I can justify the lunacy of a guy standing out on the street with seven lights all around him and people looking -- sometimes it works.

It's not just a trick. It pulls the veneer away. It's just breaking down that wall. It's not like people don't know you're setting it up. It's obviously a set up, lit, very formal situation. But it just adds a little bit of humor into it.

I eat this kind of stuff up, of course. But you have to figure the puppy would eventually catch his own tail:

PDN saw some of my stuff, and they actually wanted to use it for the equipment guide they do every year. So they took the series I did with the two guys from Outkast and they put it on the cover of the equipment guide.

You can see every light in the shot -- literally, every light in the shot. And they said, "Can you do a lighting diagram for us? Some people won't understand…"

So I did this very detailed lighting diagram showing the lights that were in the shot anyway, and they had to explain them all.

Still, I was getting emails from guys asking what my ratios were; could I remember the power on the pack, stuff like that.

You take a deep breath, and you go, 'okay'…

Well, that's what you get when you share cool information. People just want to know more.

Trent is in the process of moving his portfolio to A Photo Folio. He said he is switching from LiveBooks for the dynamic resizing, HTML5-based iPad compatibility, in-house hosting and the pricing as compared to the custom site design he would have needed.

And he specifically set aside a section of his new site to showcase the "visible lights" portraits, too.

No Secrets

Trent is a fixture on the editorial scene, and will for the first time be teaching at Santa Fe Workshops this summer in New Mexico.

I really wanted to take his class, as he is teaming up with Ronnie Weil, the Director of Photography at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Unfortunately, I was already committed for the week of July 4th.

But if you are an editorial shooter (or really would like to be) the one-two punch of a photographer like Trent mixed with a photo editor like Weil should be a killer week. If you go, report back in the comments. And from what I hear, they are planning to work you pretty hard.

Read More:

Brad Trent: Main Website (Don't miss the "Artificial" series)
Santa Fe Workshop class: Brad Trent / Ronnie Weil
Brad Trent's Blog: Damn Ugly Photography


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Blogger TC said...

I'm wondering how much he lights for the scene and how much is for the subject (of the portrait).

In other words: Is the setup for lighting the up-close portrait, or is it set up like that to be shot with the lights.

The small light in the lower right, in the first portrait, can't really be adding much to the person (compared to the hair-light). It seems to be there mainly to fill that space and add some texture to the roof.

May 17, 2010 8:42 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Thanks David for once again ruining my day. I've been looking at this site for some time now and probably will be stuck on Trent for the coming hours :)

No seriously, thanks for the tip. Love the artificials.

I can't help but noticing how incredibly simple most of his set ups are. One or two lights most of the times. Amazing.

Plus the fact that he shoot with hard light so much. It almost seems to go against all that I've learned in portrait photography from you and Joe.
But hey, I wouldn't be a photographer if I couldn't be baffled every now and again.
Makes me think of my setup in totally different ways (and am pondering whether or not to change the scheme I had set up for this evenings shoot :S, Hard Light/Soft Light. We'll see :)

More photographers should do these kind of shots to help the mere mortals down here to get a glimpse at their divine work ;)

Anywho, thanks for all the good work as usual!


May 17, 2010 9:04 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

@ TC

Think of the low light as a simple fill.
A fill card or reflector doesn't do too much as well often enough and it works.
Let's call it the finishing touch

May 17, 2010 9:05 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Without being anoying, another post from me today....

David, what about the photo he shot of the professor/teacher/whatever in the classroom (blue)
I reckon I'm missing a face light there. The main light is coming from overhead but from the back. I would reckon that would leave his face somewhat silhouetted instead of nicely lit like in this photo.

What do you think?

May 17, 2010 9:09 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

TC - I was thinking the same thing

May 17, 2010 10:43 AM  
Blogger brad said... guys don't miss much! But to answer a couple of questions...

TC...that first shot is simply a test shot of myself that we did before we got going. The final shot showing the actual angle we chose to shoot from is on the next page in the series (can't direct link on David's blog, but go to to see the shot I'm talking about) and you can see the light that hits the ground is kinda necessary to separate the subject from an otherwise dark background. But I do light for both the subject and the background in those situations where I know I have to cover myself two ways. I shoot these 'Artificial' portraits primarily for myself and often am able to convince my photo editor that they can work in the story...

Alex...I rarely use soft lights. I'm not saying 'never', but I really spend a lot of time with fresnel spots (converted to strobe), bare heads, Profoto beauty dishes (both silver & white), ringlights and grids....especially the ringlights! I probably have a ringlight on in about 80% of what I shoot...even if you don't see it, it's almost certainly there....maybe 4 or 5 stops under the main light, but the added contrast and way a ringlight can pick up detail is amazing. I generally pull out a couple of 4' or 6' strip lights for a BIG rimlight on a subject, or the Octabank of I need an overall soft light on a subject, but I tend to think and shoot very contrasty. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but it keeps thing interesting!

As for the professor in the blue classroom....the hairlight is simply an accent...the only other light is a bare (no reflector) Profoto ringlight hookd up to an Acute 2400 w/s the end of the shoot the guy was pretty much blind! Having the ringlight as the main light in a situation like this only worked because all of the stuff in the foreground...the desks, the carpet...was dark, so even though the light was much closer to the foreground than the subject, technically 'overexposing' the foreground by a couple of stops didn't matter, it just brightened up what was black into a blueish grey.

Brad Trent

May 17, 2010 11:23 AM  
Blogger lavery said...

It seems that the only light we don't see in Trent's photos is a ringflash, which I'm assuming he's using for fill. That would allow him to use mostly hard key light without the nasty shadows it can produce.

May 17, 2010 11:38 AM  
Blogger mark rutledge said...

any info on that strobe powered desisti fresnel? i NEED that thing!

May 17, 2010 12:23 PM  
Blogger Surly said...

After looking at those "artificials" I'm thinking I'd like to see a Strobist post dedicated to beauty dishes. He seems to use them a lot. I've never tried one. What say you?

May 17, 2010 1:29 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Wow, that is a stunning portfolio. I could spend a few hours trying to dissect everything. I loved "The Light Tests" too. Which big black beauty dish is that in many of his shots?

May 17, 2010 2:32 PM  
Blogger Jussi said...

"He's the kind of person you could swap stories with all day. "

DH! Why don't you quick(ish) q&a podcasts with different shooters from time to time?

Interviews about light. Frankly there enough podcasts about gear but no one is asking pro shooters how they aproach light/lighting.

May 17, 2010 2:43 PM  
Blogger charles said...

The one Light you can't see in some photos is the Ring Light.

"Less = More" in many situations.

May 17, 2010 2:59 PM  
Blogger Andy M said...

Holy lights! I'm in lighting heaven, one of the best/informative posts I've read on Strobist for a awhile.

and very interesting comments from Brad re: hard vs. soft light modifiers, this might totally change my work flow, it's really hard to create great contrast with soft light setups, hence the vibrancy of colors is kind of lost.

way to go Strobist, awesome post.

May 17, 2010 4:39 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Brad - Thanks so much for personally answering my/our questions. I think it's great that a pro like you takes the time to explain to and thus help us understanding your photos and thus get a better grasp on lighting itself.
Thanks again, and I hope to see more from you in the coming months :)


May 17, 2010 5:27 PM  
Blogger brad said...

My e-mail box runneth over! Here are the answers to a couple of questions....

1. The Desisti Fresnel. Everybody wants to know about that one! I had used various fresnel spots and been less than impressed with all of them. They were all kinda huge and the old Elinchrom/Balcar/Broncolor/Speedo models that you just slapped a regular head into the back...and none of them were built very well. The mounting yokes were always a joke...the things would be incredibly top-heavy and yet they were all built around these extruded metal mounting brackets that could barely support the head! And even worse, they didn't focus the light worth a damn and were all too big and ungainly to take on location. I've had Peter Loo over at Flash Clinic ( make gizmos, timers and triggers and also modify lights for me for more than 20 years, so when I went to him with my desire to have a relatively compact fresnel spot that put out a lot of power, he came up with the idea to rip the guts out of a Desisti 8" hot light and fit it with a focusing flashtube & modeling light. The trick was getting the thing to approximate the light you see with the modeling light, so Peter mounted a 250 watt quartz light almost exactly in the middle of a circular flashtube and the whole thing is is focused into a curved, polished mirror at the back of the head. He originally made it up for my 2000 w/s Elinchrom Chic packs, but when I switched over to Profoto Acutes he just had to change the plug and modify the trigger voltage. The tube is rated for 4800 w/s, but since I never need that much jam, the most I ever put out of it is 2400w/s. It would be possible to run a two-cord setup that would allow you to plug two packs into the thing, but like I said, that would be a sick amount of light! After I had the 8" for a while, I decided to have him do up a 12" as well. Even flooded out, the 8" is still a bit spotty (it's really a single-person spot light), but the 12" is much better for covering larger areas

2. Beauty Dishes. As I said earlier, I don't use a lot of 'soft' light, as in light banks, but I do a lot of lighting with Profoto and Mola dishes. I own both the 20" silver and white Profoto and a 22" Mola 'Demi', and we regularly rent the larger Mola Setti (28") and Euro (34") dishes. To me, they give you a much more interesting quality of light than simply tossing up a bank and they don't generally have the problem of turning into sails when you find yourself out on a windy day! And with the Mola's, the way they're designed makes it much easier to get a soft light that still has a directional contrast to it. There is nothing I hate more than that 'wall of light' look....but then, when you look at my pictures you probably already guessed that!

Brad Trent

May 17, 2010 6:29 PM  
Blogger erwin said...

lovely work, and its great to see the lighting.

but i never understood the "fake vs real" concept in photography. isnt it all fake?

if you shoot a portrait with a 24mm lens is it fake because their nose isnt really that big? if you bounce sunlight with a reflector is that fake? and if so would it be real if there happened to be a building there bouncing light instead? maybe its fake to move someone into nicer ambient light? or select a flattering angle? or to fail to show their ass pimples in the shot?

no matter how unregulated your photography is, its fake. cameras are boxes that capture light, not reality. and as in writing, the author must lie, if only by what he chooses to include, or leave out.

May 17, 2010 9:14 PM  
Blogger Connor Walberg said...

This is awesome! I really like how seeing the photos he captures that includes his lighting, gives you a really good feel for how smaller details are worked out.

May 17, 2010 11:39 PM  
Blogger Andreas said...

Isn't what Brad Trent does for the use and visability of lighting gear about the same Annie Leibovitz has done for the use of backdrops for the last couple of months? Her grey backdrops hardly ever cover the complete background, as if she wants us to see who makeshift and fake her "on assignment" studio is.

May 18, 2010 6:28 AM  
Blogger Varun said...

Hi may be a stupid question, But in the second shot of the person sitting next to (what seems to be) a mainframe with a light in his hand, why can I see a halo all around the light and its cable. Its kind of halo you see in some overly processed HDRs. Its not about the lights I know, but what is it?

May 18, 2010 6:52 AM  
Blogger David said...


Sorry you created an account just to post that comment, but it remains unmoderrated. Please note the comment guidelines, which specifically forbid using this site as a forum for personal attacks on others.



Actually, many people confuse the effects of high pass filtration (which Brad uses) with those of HDR (which he does not). As with any effect, it is a choice, and that is what he chooses to do.

He gets a crapload of high-profile assignments, so I would weigh any judgement of the results against that.

FWIW, if you like the high-pass look, but do not like the halo, it is easy to remove. Just use the eraser tool and selectively erase the halos (which happen in high-contrast borders w/high pass) to reveal the unprocessed layer underneath. Presto - no halos.

Just remember that you have to do this before you flatten the layers.

As for me, sometimes I like'em, sometimes I don't. So knowing how to remove them is helpful.


May 18, 2010 9:27 AM  
Blogger Hipporage said...

Such a good post. I love his new site too. It opens up with full screen pictures on his main page. SO awesome!
Certainly a shooter to learn from. Thank DH and Brad.

May 18, 2010 10:58 AM  
Blogger Ian Coble said...

Really like this post!
Thanks Brad! You're artifact portfolio is really cool and the story that goes behind it is really creative.
I'm looking forward to going through each shot thoroughly over my morning cup of coffee.
And thanks David! I think it's awesome that you take the time to plug other photographers who you respect. You don't often see that in this competitive field... a breath of fresh air.
Ian Coble

May 18, 2010 2:04 PM  
Blogger Varun said...


Thanks David for the explanation.

May 19, 2010 1:21 AM  
Blogger bertold said...

"He gets a crapload of high-profile assignments, so I would weigh any judgement of the results against that."

I wouldn't. You can like someone's style, or you can hate it, but it's your judgement. Having a "crapload" of assignments means nothing in a world where shit like "Jersey Shore" is one of the most popular TV shows on the air. I'm not comparing Brad's photography to "Jersey Shore", mind you, I'm just pointing out that a quantity argument when talking about art is completely meaningless.

May 19, 2010 9:47 AM  
Blogger David said...


I think we'll have to agree to disagree.

IMO, the fact that he is getting consistent, high-end jobs *does* in fact validate his style, whereas anyone can sit on the couch and lob criticism.

Similarly, if Greg Heisler told me my work was crap (and he may well think so) I would ask why and take his response to heart.

But when I get those "I would not have put that light there" comments from Mr Blocky Face flickr members without a decent photo in their stream (and frequently, without a photo at all) it does not exactly carry the same impact.

Come to think of it, I doubt very seriously that Brad is trying to please *everyone* with his photos. That would be just about the fastest path to mediocrity that he could take.

The fact remains, he is pleasing the people he wants to please -- himself and his assigning editors.

May 19, 2010 11:12 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I'm sad that this is the first I've heard of Trent's workshop in Santa Fe. I'd be there in a heartbeat if I had an extra month's notice and paycheck. The feel his style produces just strikes a chord with me.

Will he be running this workshop next year? Checked sign-ups on his site, came up with nil on future dates.

Any 2011 date and I'll have it on my calendar and turn in my notice for vacation time lickity split.

May 19, 2010 12:26 PM  
Blogger Pat said...

I find that photographers are always being pushed to find some new look, etc.... Here Brad has fallen on top of one, however, when I read why he decided to shoot showing the setups, it is almost depressing. Sounds almost like he is burned out. In the end reality is that a shot was setup for a client's needs and it doesn't have to result in some existential foray into reality vs. perception. It is only photography...not some idillic run on the meaning of life.

May 19, 2010 12:55 PM  
Blogger thewiss said...

I'm with erwin. All photos are a staged or manipulated representation of what was really there. To put things in terms of Brad's phrase, real reality, there is no real reality to be had in photography.

Nonetheless, it's cool to see the set up shots and it's nice that Brad considers the lights as part of the shot, or even as the whole shot. Most set up shots I've seen (or taken) are afterthoughts and snapshots. Brad's stuff calls to mind a wristwatch whose gears are purposefully exposed, thereby adding to the interest of the piece.

May 19, 2010 12:59 PM  
Blogger jim77742 said...

I must say Brad's work is very eye catching. Great stuff.

There is something remarkable about photo 1 under Extraordinary People. The guy with the purple jacket in the house with pictures and wooden animals.

I keep looking at it and I don't understand why it is so eye catching and stunning.

I can probably have a good stab at reverse engineering it and maybe get it right. But even if I knew where every light was placed I still don't understand *why* it works so well to the eye.

What is it???

May 20, 2010 1:29 AM  
Blogger Luke Townsend said...

Annie Leibovitz is known for this stuff. As cool as it is, and it is way cool, some of the shots would have looked better without the equipment in them.

May 21, 2010 8:40 AM  
Blogger esotericsean said...

Does anyone else think his work is ugly? I really dislike HDR when it's too strong. Ugh.

May 22, 2010 2:02 AM  
Blogger David said...

Um, Brad does not use HDR.

May 22, 2010 4:56 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

No, I don't do HDR, per se, but I figure after an entire week and the only negative comment is from 'esotericsean ', I'm coming out way ahead of the game!

Look...I get this kinda response from time to time...the 'HDR' backlash ain't nothing new and while what I do isn't technically HDR, I get why certain people get their knickers in a twist when they see my kinda picture. That's OK. I can't please everyone, but the simple truth is, I shoot the way I do 'cuz I like it, not because I'm looking to score points with the masses...if I manage to sell it to a client at the same time, then good for me! If you want 'real', then move along.....


May 22, 2010 9:27 PM  
OpenID anselmcadams said...

Talk about serendipity! I have a shoot with a band in a couple of days and I wanted to use hard light with a key beauty dish in front and 2 rims from behind. I've been struggling to describe the effect to them. So I went to Strobist, and there is Brad Trent laying it all out! Thank you!!! (but there's a dilemma--if I show them Brad's site, will they expect world-class shots like his?)

To the anti hi-pass crowd: Brad's is one of the most effective and technically perfect uses of a hard light/hard sharpened technique. Even if you don't like the effect, you should be honest and credit the expertise. Also, I suspect that some of what you think is hi-pass is actually the ring light.

May 23, 2010 9:40 AM  
Blogger Levy Carneiro Jr. said...


there's this excellent podcast with photographers keen to light:

David Hobby, Michael Grecco, Zack Arias and many others were already interviewed.

No one can't miss it :)


May 25, 2010 8:50 AM  
OpenID madelienwaegemans said...

Personally, I'm not getting the fuss here? This guy seriously needs to lay off the highpass or Dave Hill or whatever he is using to nuke his images to death.

May 25, 2010 3:24 PM  

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