Shooting some of Hollywood’s most recognisable faces with a career that spans over four decades, there are few more experienced with tight deadlines and high expectations than Master of Light, Greg Gorman. Greg started out shooting movie posters like, Tootsie, The Big Chill and Scarface, and more recently Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Michael Bay’s latest film 6 Underground. His portfolio of famous faces includes Sir Elton John, Leonardo Di Caprio, Heath Ledger, David Bowie, Robert de Niro, Michael Jackson and Penelope Cruz to name just a few.
For his timeless style and contributions to photography, Greg has been recognised with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America (2013), as well as the Luci Award for Achievement in Portraiture.
Greg now focuses on education and shooting personal projects which enables him to exercise his creative voice. “Becoming a photographer is all about finding your own personal voice and style so that it is inherently recognisable in one’s work,” he says.
Greg’s prolific career truly makes him a master of lighting, with few better equipped to show you how to play with light in your own work.
Start with a blank canvas
Greg’s philosophy is that good photography doesn’t need to be complex and the last thing you want to be doing is overcomplicating the shot. “Sometimes I’ll walk into a studio and they’ll have three or four lights set up and it just makes everything too complicated,” Greg says. “Unless you set one light at a time, you can’t understand how each light is impacting your subject.” Because of this, Greg always starts with a single point light source directly facing his model to determine what he will play up in the highlights and play down in the shadows once he has finished analysing the face.
As Greg says, it’s important to figure out which side of your model’s face is best, as that will influence how he poses his subject. Greg prefers to shoot the sharper, more angular side of the face, which helps his style when creating a high dynamic range between the highlights and shadows.
“Once I figure out which is the better side, I get them to lean into it because it gives a stronger and more powerful appearance,” Greg says. “The second the eyes are no longer parallel, the pose becomes weaker.”
All directing and shooting is then done whilst looking through the viewfinder so that he knows that he’s looking exactly at what he’s going to get. “What I want to look at then is the face,” Greg continues. “Everyone has a sharper masculine and a softer feminine side, so I need to figure out which is which and which will photograph the best.”
Less is more
Due to Greg’s minimalistic style, his belief is that if you notice specific aspects of the lighting than it’s likely it doesn’t look natural. Good lighting adds to an image, not detracts from it. Over lighting can make an image appear flat; removing dimension and intrigue from the model’s features.
Whilst setting up a headshot for his model, Greg wanted to add a simple hair light using a NEO 2 to separate against the black backdrop. Even at 1% brightness with the light at three feet, the light was too obvious for Greg’s tastes.
“The idea of using a hair light – or any extra light really – is that you never want to draw attention to it,” says Greg. “If you look at a picture and think ‘hey, nice hair light’, or ‘that background is lit nicely’, you’re taking attention away from your subject.”
Hard vs Soft
We talked about the different uses of hard and soft light in our portrait photography lighting guide. Whilst this can be down to personal preference or the style you’re trying to achieve, Greg particularly likes to use hard light for full-body shots as it helps to further define the subject’s physique.
“When you’re lighting torsos, you want to light harder and more abrasively because you want to get all of these cuts.” Greg says. “I take the diffusion off of the front of the light because I need the contrast and exposure which will translate onto the body and make it much stronger.”
Shoot what you see
One thing that Greg particularly favours when using Rotolight’s continuous LEDs is the ability to preview exactly what you’re going to shoot beforehand. “I worked with strobes for so many years and about mid-way through my career I started to use a $30,000 HMI including the ballast. It was really heavy and stationary, but it produced this lovely soft light that made me realise I wanted to work more with continuous lighting.”
“With strobes, the light is a much harder, more defined light,” Greg adds. “Continuous lighting is softer and more like daylight, which I like.”
“Pixels are free”
When I teach, I always tell people that if you have a 20-minute window to shoot, you need to spend 15 of those minutes perfecting your setup and only the last five minutes shooting,” Greg says. “People are always eager to take pictures, but if you don’t spend that time perfecting your lighting first, then the pictures you do take aren’t going to look as good as they could.”
“But pixels are free,” Greg says. “In those final five minutes, you can be taking as many pictures as you possibly can, because it’s not costing you anything. The focus should always be in the setup of your shot, if you do that properly then taking the final shot is easy.”