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Shining A Light On Portraiture

How photographer and educator Bobbi Lane determines the best way to shoot a portrait
Shining A Light On Portraiture

“This one is my favorite because of the subtlety of lighting,” says Lane, noting that it was actually a “grab shot,” since the model was sitting and stood up to take a break. “As he looked away, I saw the possibilities. I guided the position of his face to get the light in the eye. But I love the edge lighting and the softness of the glow in the background.” Like all the images in this article, Lane captured this image on Fujifilm cameras (either XT-2 or XT-3).

Bobbi Lane loves people, and she has been sharing this love through her flourishing career as a portrait photographer for more than 30 years. Originally from Massachusetts, Lane studied photography at Boston’s New England School of Photography (NESOP) before setting out for Los Angeles, where she opened her first studio as a large-format product photographer in the late 1970s.

“At that time, I wasn’t interested in shooting people at all, but I had a bunch of clients who increasingly wanted me to photograph people on-location,” she says.

Her photographic path was essentially formed by this early interest from clients such as Mattel toys, which sought to expand on basic product still lifes by asking Lane to capture the interaction of children with their toys. “I still occasionally do a product job,” she says, “but at least 80 percent of what I do now are portraits. And I love it.”

However, Lane, who is also very active as a photo educator, teaching workshops in both portrait and travel photography, including international trips to places like Tanzania and Iceland, is careful to distinguish between her niche as a commercial photographer—creating portraits primarily for use in advertising, corporate websites and magazine articles—and retail-portrait photography, with its focus on weddings, events and portraits to hang on a wall.

Shining A Light On Portraiture
“Julianna Dedonno is a model with the most amazing blue eyes I’ve ever seen,” says Lane, who wanted to capture “the intensity of the expression.” To light the model, Lane says she used “Profoto—a 3 x 4 softbox for the main and a grid directly behind her head.”

Anatomy Of A Face

When asked about the first steps to making a portrait, Lane relates some fundamental advice offered by her portrait teacher, Paul Turnbull, from New England School of Photography. “He talked about being able to instantaneously judge somebody’s face,” Lane recounts. “Although I could not understand that when I was in school, I now have so much experience that I can immediately read the shape of a face. Then, I look at the eyes, the nose, the mouth and analyze those elements.”

Within a few seconds of meeting a client, she is able to hone in on facial characteristics that may benefit from fine-tuning through a variety of corrective techniques, generally achieved through subtle adjustments of camera angle, lighting and posing.

For example: Does the subject have deep-set eyes? A big eyebrow ridge? A really round face? A long chin? Is it a pointy nose, or is it crooked? Is the subject heavy, do they have a waddle?

“I can look at somebody and assess what I need to do within 10 seconds,” she says, “and then I refine my approach from there.”

Shining A Light On Portraiture
Lane shot this particular photo, part of her series of “Real People Portraits,” at an Imaging USA show. “I had a small studio set up at the…show,” says Lane, using two Profoto B2 flashes—a main light with a 2-foot Octa and a grid as background or slash light. “I did five-minute portraits for anyone who wanted them, and I worked to make something unique about each person. I felt this man had such kind eyes, and I just wanted to sit and have a cup of coffee with him.” For this monochrome image, she used Fujifilm’s ACROS film simulation setting for the JPEG, “straight out of camera.”

Balancing Technique With Concept

In planning for a portrait shoot, it may seem natural for a photographer to prioritize technical considerations, given all the complexities offered by the human face. But Lane stresses the importance of integrating technique with an underlying concept or goal for the portrait.

“A lot of times, beginning photographers are more concerned about the technique than the idea,” she points out. “But the technique means nothing unless you have a concept. Sometimes, the concept can be just to make a really pleasing photograph of that person,” she admits. “But the trick is to be aware of that.”

Whatever the goal, Lane stresses the need for a perfect marriage between concept and technique. To assist with the decision making, she identifies two distinct portrait types: the flattering and the effective. “Are you taking a picture to make your subject look good,” she says, “or are you taking a picture that’s more editorial or interpretive?”

It’s the latter option, the effective portrait, that offers the photographer a much wider variety of styles and techniques. Yet with this creative choice comes a certain responsibility.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What is it that I want to say about this person?’” says Lane. “You can’t make a photograph of somebody that’s going to say everything there is to know about them. All you can do is say, ‘Today, this is how I’m going to portray this person, I’m going to bring out these characteristics, I’m going to create this kind of mood. I want my viewer to know this particular thing about this person,’ and then you go from there.”

Shining A Light On Portraiture
In this striking portrait of Cyrus Bandali, who is not only a model, but also an actor, musician and poet, Lane used what she calls “porch lighting.” Lane says the lighting is “all natural light, no reflector, and we are inside the Bethesda Terrace room in Central Park, which is a large hall with giant arches at either end.”

Natural Vs. Artificial Light

Lane is widely known as a lighting expert, having earned the nickname “Mistress of Light” from her extensive workshops in both natural and artificial lighting techniques. After speaking with students over the years, she’s found that many students have big misconceptions in their understanding of lighting.

“People come into my classes to learn studio lighting and say, ‘I already shoot with natural light.’ Well, doesn’t everybody?” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that you understand natural light or know how to see it and work with it.”

She deconstructs the elements of lighting into three aspects, which she refers to as “The Big 3”: Direction, quality and depth of light. “By depth, I mean how dark are the shadows,” she notes.

While Lane prefers to shoot with natural light if it will support her concept for the picture, she acknowledges that working with artificial light allows her to be the ultimate creator, using the four classic basic lighting patterns—Split lighting, Rembrandt lighting, Butterfly lighting and Loop lighting—for studio portraits. But what Lane enjoys most about the studio portrait is that it allows her total control. “When you’re lighting a portrait, you’re deciding everything,” she says. “The direction, the quality, the depth, the mood, the feeling and the description. You have complete control over all of that, and you’re able to match the lighting to your concept.” 

Shining A Light On Portraiture
“Molly DiRado, my neighbor, loves princess outfits!” says Lane, who also said that she’d had this idea for quite some time—of photographing her neighbor in the woods “with her magic wand and faithful dog, calling on her powers to give her strength and wisdom on her journey through life,” says Lane. For this image, Lane used Profoto B1 and B2: The main light is a white beauty dish. The hair and background lights are grids. There’s also a bit of fog spray in the background. “We shot for a couple of hours with a variety of costumes and lighting, but this was my favorite.” Lane says the dog was Photoshopped in from another shot because getting the dog and Molly to look just right in one image would not have been an easy task.

Foolproof Lighting For A Quick, Flattering Portrait

When faced with limited resources, Lane’s go-to set up for a quick, flattering portrait is to employ a large light source, such as an umbrella or a softbox. A larger light source, such as a 2’ x 3’ or a 3’ x 4’ softbox, will result in softer light on the face. “It will be more forgiving,” she explains.

Using a loop light pattern, she positions the light at an oblique angle to the camera, slightly higher than eye level. “Most of the face will be lit, and you have a little bit of shadow around the nose and on one side of the face,” says Lane, “but you always have really good light in the eyes. It’s kind of the foolproof lighting pattern,” she says. “Everybody looks good in loop light, but not everyone will look good under Rembrandt, Butterfly or Split lighting.”

Shining A Light On Portraiture

“Everything Depends Upon Everything”

Lane’s favorite saying in photography is that “everything depends upon everything,” and this is often the case with the portrait situations she encounters. Despite her years of experience and ability to rapidly assess facial features, there are times when the best look is not obvious, and she must try several different lighting options.

“I might light from one side, and then switch because sometimes people look really different when they’re lit from the other side,” she says. “Some people are very easy, and other people are more challenging,” she admits. “Sometimes you can’t really tell until you actually shoot it and look at the image. In those cases, I’ll switch the lights around and tell the subject, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a different kind of look here.’”

When Lane is shooting a studio portrait, her lighting set up is always ready to go before the subject arrives. “The worst thing in the world is to be paying attention to your mechanical or technical details when you’re trying to engage a subject,” she asserts. “That’s when people get uncomfortable because they don’t know what’s going on.”

Shining A Light On Portraiture
Lane says that the idea she had for this portrait of Brigette Madera was to “portray the confidence and strength and serenity of the model with a subtle smile, a slight head tilt and just a bit [of gesture in] the hand. Details are so important in a portrait, and little touches, like the hand position, are extremely important.” Lane used a classic three-light, low-key set up in the studio using Profoto strobes: Medium softbox, grid hair light and grid on background.
With the subject on set, she starts by engaging them in conversation. “I ask them questions, and I listen to their answer…Talking and listening to people is so important,” she says. “When people talk about themselves, and they’re being listened to, they relax. They feel good about themselves, they feel good about you, and they like you more.”

As a member of the Fujifilm X team, Lane’s current cameras of choice are the Fujifilm XT-2 and XT-3. Once she starts shooting, she is effusive in her direction and in offering positive feedback. “If you’re just clicking and the lights are going off, but you’re not saying anything, your subject won’t move into another pose or give you another expression,” she says, “because they have no idea what you want them to do.”

For more on Lane, including information on her annual Venice Carnival Photo Tour, visit her websites: and

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