Photo Recipes: Shadow Play

In this post, we’re still continuing with the idea that less is more. Once again, I’m using just one softbox—this time it’s the Elinchrom Rotalux 39″ Deep Throat Octa Softbox. (To see other articles under the same theme of “Less is More” try these two:

Figure One

Here’s our final image, and the goal was to create a really dark, dramatic look. You see this type of look used quite often in everything from celebrity shots to CEO-style images to shots of rappers and R&B artists. Because the shadows play such an important role, it really adds a lot of character to your subject. 


The Softbox 

The advantage of a deep softbox like this is that the falloff of the light (how quickly the light fades to black or “falls off”) is much shorter than it is with regular softboxes. The light from the Deep Octa is more direct and focused than a normal softbox, thanks to its shape. You can also use this softbox very effectively with the front diffusion cover off (great for shooting guys, and if you’re shooting a female subject with good skin, it can work really well there, too). 

Figure Two

Here’s the behind-the-scenes shot, and you can see that the softbox is positioned slightly behind our subject, NFL Linebacker Adam Hayward. The softbox is aimed to the right of camera at a 45° angle. The photographer stands directly in front of the subject, who’s positioned with his shoulders facing to the left of the photographer at a 45° angle (as shown). 


Posing Tips

This particular setup is designed to be used on portraits of men, but today the rules about which lighting setups are appropriate for men or women have been really blurred, so you can use it for either (but I see it used mostly on men). The thing to keep in mind with this look is to position your subject so he gets just a little bit of light on the cheek facing the camera (remember, from where you’re standing, you’re shooting into the shadow side of his face). With this lighting setup, if you’re not getting that light on his cheek, that means the softbox is too far behind him. Rotate it around a littlemore to the front. Think of rotating it around like the hands of a clock, so make sure it’s around the 10 o’clock position to start, but if that’s not enough, rotate it closer to 9 o’clock until you see that bit of light on his cheek. This is where the modeling light comes in handy, as it gives you a general idea of what the light is going to look like. 

How Close tPut Your Subject

Because this is a shot of a guy, you don’t want supersoft glamorous light. Position the light 5′ or 6′ back from him. If our subject were female, we’d try to position the light as close to her as possible without it actually appearing in the frame. 

The Background

Our background is a plain white wall, but why does it appear nearly solid black? Because there’s virtually no light hitting the background. Take a look at where the light is aiming—it’s at a 45° angle away from the background, meaning there’s no light spilling onto the white background, so it falls to either a very dark gray or black. Also, our subject is about 10′ from the background, so unless that light is aimed back toward it, the background is going to black (which it pretty much did).

Camera Gear and Settings

This image was taken with a Nikon D3s using a 70–200mm f/2.8 lens, at a focal length of 78mm. The ISO was set at 200, which is the native (cleanest) ISO on the D3s. Because we’re using strobes in the studio, we can shoot at the cleanest ISO we have (on most Canon DSLRs, I’d be shooting at their native 100 ISO). 

This was captured in manual mode, at f/8 (chosen so most everything is in focus), at a shutter speed of 1/125. (Note: You have to stay below 1/200 with most studio strobes, which is the top end of their sync speeds; however, with hot-shoe flashes like the Nikon SB-900 or the Canon 580EX II, you can usually go up to 1/250 without having a sync problem. By the way, how do you know if you have a sync problem? You’ll see a black gradient appear across the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of your image.) 


Post Production

To get to this final image, lighting alone won’t be enough; there’s some postproduction work in Adobe Photoshop and a third-party plug-in that makes a big difference. With the photo open in Photoshop, I used the Spot Healing Brush tool to remove some of the wrinkles on his shirt, to the right of his helmet. Then I duplicated the Background layer and used a very inexpensive Photoshop plug-in called Topaz Detail to add the high-contrast effect (you can download a free, fully functioning demo version from the Topaz website at 

When the Topaz Detail window appeared, I simply clicked on the built-in preset called Interior Strong Detail, then clicked OK. Then, once it’s applied in Photoshop, I lowered the Opacity of this filter to around 50%, as shown here. Finally, I applied the Unsharp Mask filter using these settings: Amount 100%, Radius 1.5, and Threshold 3 for some really punchy sharpening. That’s all there is to it.