UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


On Assignment: Lighting Like Leo

Of all of the wonderful things that have happened since I began writing Strobist eight years ago, certainly the best is the steady parade of creative people I have met as a result. And few are more talented (or insan motivated) than London-based photographer Drew Gardner.

We grew up in the same era, both working for newspapers in our respective cities. We left the papers and graduated to second careers. Drew moved onto a mix of editorial, commercial and art photography. And I, well, sometimes I'm not sure how exactly to describe what it is that I do.

So it was with equal parts curiosity and abject fear that I accepted his offer to come to London to be the lighting advisor for what would be the culmination of his Descendants photo series.

Drew has for several years been recreating famous paintings as photographs, featuring the descendants of the original subjects. He photographs them meticulously in the same style and setting as their pigmented predecessors. In the context of this series, finding a descendant of the enigmatic subject of the Mona Lisa would certainly be his biggest get. And he was creating a documentary film around the making of that photograph.

To be involved in this project would be an absolute treat, as much for the lighting as for the front-row seat as a voyeur.

Two things in play here: one is the specific project itself, in which I am very interested. But even more, I am always interested to watch how a motivated photographer assumes the role of water finding downhill to pull off a unique and wonderful photo. And that is exactly what this documentary will allow its viewers to do.

Put differently, even if you have no interest in the Mona Lisa (setting aside the fact that it is likely the most famous portrait ever) just watching the process is a wonderful education.

Meeting the Mona Lisa has debuted in Italy (naturally) and continues to run on Sky Arte Italia. It whas been dubbed into Italian (me included) and I am kinda excited to see that, too, actually. Do they just change the words or do they CGI my waving arms? (Hi, Sara!)

Now that it is out, I thought it'd be cool to write about deconstructing Leo's painterly light into that of a photograph.

Okay, so let's start this off by establishing what lying cheating liars painters are—and always have been.

As photographers (as opposed to Photoshop jockeys) we are pretty much bound by the laws of physics. Painters are not. In fact, one of the law-breaking quirks of the Mona Lisa is the inconsistency of the background.

Look at it. It doesn't add up, left to right. If you asked Mona to move, it couldn't even reconcile. In other words, Leo is just making shit up wholesale. And it is within that illegal context that I first began to study the light.

Which is also when I realized that I really maybe sleep on it more before accepting a project just because it sounded super-interesting.

So, the light. Let's reverse this together, shall we?

It's a smallish-but-soft light source. It's a little beyond right on her nose (a little further back on camera left, a little high.) Thus the shadow.

It's a classic, Rembrandt key light, except that Rembrandt won't be born for another hundred years after Mona's completion. Anyway, normal portrait light, right? Easy-peasy.

Yeah? Now look at her hands.

Pleeenty of detail, even right up under the fingertips of that top hand, even on the under-surfaces curled up against the dark chair.


Now look at the shadow side of her face.

The diffused highlight-to-shadow transition looks right for a medium-ish soft box. But there's detail everywhere. Even up under her camera-right hair, which would out of the reach of even a reflector.


As photographers, we lose many of the advantages afforded to painters. We grab the image in a fraction of a second. Painters work over the course of many days. Weeks. Months.

So even if painters are being faithful to the light, the light is going to change over time. We don't get to use that time-axis to smooth out inconvenient physics.

The Mona Lisa descendant would be photographed onsite in Italy, later. My job was to help to direct the pre-lighting session in London—to solve the lighting problems and get Drew in the ballpark before he traveled to Italy to make the final photo.

We had lots of lights (Elinchroms) and plenty of mods at our disposal. As you can see in the screen grab above, those choices included a big Octa, large additive and subtractive flats, a tri-flector, and a 6x8-foot Sunbounce ⅔-stop scrim. At least I think it was a ⅔ stop, as you could pretty much see through it. (Which got me thinking...)

There was also, thankfully, a medium-sized soft box, which is not visible in this frame. That would be important, as the key light absolutely bore that signature as a base before all of the cheating started.

The problem was all of the extra legibility built into the painting.

The last thing I wanted to do was to use multiple light sources. For one thing, Leo didn't use them. (He only had a single AlienBees 400, if I remember correctly.) So multiple sources would only complicate things. (Hey, is that a ring-fill in Mona's eye, hmm?)

So it was decided that we should do it with one light. Da Vinci typically painted with window light, which approximated a medium soft box. So that reinforced that we should choose the box as our light source.

Drew (seen at left, above) and I looked at different ways to create fill. In back are Jarek Wieczorkiewicz (himself a fantastic photographer), center left, serving as a digital tech, and model Jay Jessop, who would stand in as Mona for the day. (Nice thing to have on one's resumé as a model, to be sure.)

We knew we would need a reflector on the camera right. One large flat should cover that. But how to fill all of the "illegal" (with regards to physics) areas: hands, under Jay's hair, etc.?


We thought about the tri-flector, seen above. It would technically work, but would totally show up in Jay's eyes. She'd look more like Model Mayhem Mona. Not cool.

That's when we got the idea to use the huge scrim to stretch and blend that one medium soft box from one light source into two, very different light sources. And if we did it right, we'd get both the shape of light and the full detail that we were looking for.

Here's our solution, such as it was. Looking through the scrim tells you everything you'll need to know about what it will do to the light.

Look at Jay. You can easily see her, but she is also diffused. Which is exactly what we want to happen to our light source, too.

Picture yourself as Jay, looking up at the soft box. You can see it as a small-medium light source. So it is gonna do its small soft box thing. And there's your key light.

But by adding the scrim, you diffuse some of that light and can pull it to wherever you want. Which in our case, is right next to the camera. And because Sunbounce makes several different scrim thicknesses, in theory we could have chosen exactly what percentage of that soft box light to stretch.

But as it happens, we were lucky and our scrim density was pretty close to ideal. The point is, there are valid reasons people shell out for Sunbounce gear instead of using a random bed sheet.

So to pull that light all of the way over to her hands and up under her hair. Drew would shoot from exactly at the right edge of the scrim. In many ways, the right end of the scrim would approximate what a soft, on-axis fill would do. Without leaving a signature, because it is so big.

Remember your rules for specular light. That works for speculars in eyes, too: big source = low-intensity specular highlight.

And the beauty of this is that it was inspired by one of Leo's go-to techniques, which was to use smoke in the sitting room to diffuse light and form. Drew would end up using smoke (cinematic fog, actually) in combination with this lighting setup for the final photo in Italy.

So let's snap a frame and see what our first test shot looks like:

Win. There's our medium soft light source, leaving its signature. But we also have legibility everywhere we need it. Shadow-side face, of course. But more important, look at the detail in the hands. This was our main problem to solve—to get a painterly light all around her hands while keeping the right feel on her face.

There would still much more to do to pull off the final photo. In addition to the actual subject, Drew would need the background, the chair, the dress, etc. But—BUT—with the first test frame we all happily exhaled. The scrimmed soft box was absolutely the path Drew would need to solve Leo's light.

Jay sat in with a perfunctory background so Drew could scale the photo and get us a little closer to what the final image would look like:

Yep, it'll work. But the rest of it would be up to Drew and the other people who would ultimately contribute to the final photograph.

In the following months Drew would face curve ball after curve ball to make the photo happen. (It's always the stuff you don't expect.) But in the end, he pulled it off and did so brilliantly.

Here's the extended trailer for the documentary itself (in English!) and for those of you in Italy, keep an eye on Sky Arte Italia for local run times.

Drew teases the final image in the trailer, but you can see it (and much more about the process) here.

Also, while you are at his site, take a moment to look at his latest project: a series of remarkable 360-degree images. Mr. Gardner never ceases to amaze.

On Assignment: Lighting Like Leo is #169 in the long-running On Assignment series, which can be found here.

NEXT: On Assignment: The Light You Don't See

Discussion? Questions? Via Twitter, use hashtag #StrOA169—and add "@Strobist" at the end of the tweet if is important that I see it.


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