Shooting Gritty Editorial Fashion Portraits

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In this lesson, acclaimed photographer Michael Corsentino demonstrates how to create gritty and fashionable editorial location portraits. As with all environmental portraiture, the location is key for setting the right mood. To give these portraits a gritty, moody feel, he and his team shot at an old mill in Petaluma, CA.

Here, Michael touches on the advantages of juxtaposing a rough, industrial background with clean, fashionable elements in the foreground. Even at a location like an old mill, there are usually spots that are hidden gems, and it’s up to the photographer to find them.

This lesson demonstrates many of today’s most popular lighting techniques, including edge lighting, creating separation and drama with background lighting, and controlling the spread of light through feathering and light modification.

Topics Covered:

  • Setting the Stage
  • Starting Small
  • The Feathering Technique
  • Bringing in a Car
  • Making Our Final Shot


  • Canon 5D
  • Canon L-Series 70-200mm f2.8 Lens
  • Canon L-Series 17-40mm f4 Lens
  • Adobe Lightroom 3
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5
  • Kubota Image Tools

Setting the Stage

As I’ve mentioned in previous lessons, visualization and planning are key to ensuring that when the shoot is over, the results are exactly what you or your client were looking for.

For this shoot, I had three possible locations planned so that, depending on the weather and logistics of the day, I would be prepared for whatever came my way.

After visiting each location two hours prior to the shoot, I chose the Petaluma Mill partly because of its atmosphere and partly because it had been pouring rain for most of the day. But with the rain came a silver lining: the saturated ground and gloomy surroundings at the Mill were perfect components to my concept.

I wanted to do two portraits: one that was very stylized and traditional, and another that would really jump off the page, taking advantage of the wet weather and props. Once that was decided, we grabbed our gear started setting up at the first location.

For this portrait, I didn’t want to use any more than three lights, in addition to the ambient light. First, we set up a Medium HalfDome® and a Medium (5-foot) OctoDome® and attached two TritonFlash™ heads to them. We also grabbed a third TritonFlash™ head that we placed on a floor stand (extra small LiteStand base) with just a hard reflector attached.

I then attached a set of Grids to each HalfDome® to eliminate the possibility of lens flare and project the light precisely where I wanted it.

After assembling all the gear, David and I set the scene.

Starting Small

I began the session by using ambient light from the glow of the recently setting sun as my overall fill light. Additional accent was provided by a medium HalfDome® with Grid placed to camera right and just behind the model. A TritonFlash™ with its metal reflector was far behind the model and aimed at the wall in the background.

I positioned the HalfDome® to the right and slightly back behind our model, Eric. And I had the hard reflector placed back in a corner of the background up against a wall to add some accent light.

The TritonFlash™ with the hard reflector was tucked out of frame and provided a nice separation between the subject and the background. It also created a glow behind Eric, which helped to give the image a contemporary feel.

Camera Settings

Here, I was shooting with a Canon 5D with a 70-200mm 2.8L IS USM lens attached. These were the camera settings:

  • Exposure Mode: Manual
  • Aperture: f/3.5
  • Shutter Speed: 1/60th of a second
  • ISO: 100
  • Focal Length: 85mm

Here’s one of the results from this setup.

Next, I pulled back to 70mm and tilted the camera to change the angle of the horizon. This technique is called a Dutch Tilt, and it adds a sense of urgency to a composition.

Nothing else changed with the camera settings. In both shots, the TritonFlash™ in the background as well as the TritonFlash™ in the HalfDome® were set to 1/4 power.

The resulting photo is a high key effect, even though the day was gloomy. This demonstrates how well-placed strobes with the right modifiers can be used to control the mood of the environment.

The Feathering Technique

I liked these results, but I noticed that Eric’s chest was not exposed particularly well (more evident in figure 8). To keep the nice, contrasty look I was getting on the left side of his face yet also expose his chest, I would need to bring in our third light. I asked Eric to grab his coat while David and I adjusted the setup.

To get the well-lit, yet still contrasty and contemporary look that I was going for, I decided to bring in the 5 foot OctoDome® and place it about seven feet away from Eric.

However, I didn’t point it directly at him. Instead, I wanted to angle the light away from Eric to create a soft, feathered light. Feathering is one of the most important and often used lighting techniques in my bag of tricks. If your goal is soft light, the best light coming out of your modifiers is at the edges. What that means is that if you’re looking for a soft wrap-around light, feathering is the way to go.

I shot the next series of images at 90mm. All the other camera settings stayed the same. The power on the background light and the HalfDome® remained the same and the power on the OctoDome® was set to 1/8 power.

With everyone happy with these results, we decided to move on to the second location.

Bringing in a Car

The second setup we had planned was the car shot. We drove to a location we’d picked out for that concept near entrance of the Mill. The ground was muddy, but the environment provided an interesting contrast to the new car. Fortunately, the each LiteStand™ we were using had a wide footprint, so they remained stable on the uneven ground. Rough environments like this are hard on equipment. To avoid costly accidents, use metal stands without any plastic parts like the Photoflex® models we brought with us.

Dennis had brought along his Mercedes and the plan was to pose Eric and the car together. The juxtaposition of Eric’s wardrobe and the Mercedes against the gritty, industrial road and background would give us a really sweet commercial look. We were losing sunlight fast, so we needed to get everything into position quickly before it got too dark.

The 5 foot OctoDome® with its soft light and rapid falloff served as our key light for this set up. The two HalfDome® SoftBoxes provided the rim lighting we needed to separate the subject’s dark suit and dark hair from the background. We oriented the HalfDome® (at camera-right) horizontally in order to control the light falloff and direct the path of the light onto the body of the car, as well as the model. The easy rotating feature of Photoflex® SoftBoxes enables photographers to make instant adjustments in fast moving situations like this one.

These SoftBoxes are fairly light, but you still need to have strong hardware to support them, especially in the wind. The metal swivel that comes with these TritonFlash strobe heads does the job.

When shooting a setup like this, it’s important to remember to factor in every element of the frame. It’s easy to focus on one aspect of the image (such as either the model or the car) and forget that everything needs to be well lit in order to complete your vision.

The horizontal orientation of the HalfDome® on the right is a perfect example. It would have been easy to leave it in a vertical orientation, as with the camera-left HalfDome®, but it would not have lit the car as evenly and would have only focused on Eric. It’s these sorts of lighting details which ultimately serve to elevate the quality of your results.

Making the Final Shot

The rain had let up as we prepared to take our last series of shots for the day. At this point in the session, we were losing ambient light very quickly. The last glow of dusk is a magical time for photography, but it happens quickly and you have to be prepared for it. This is where our planning paid off because we had talked about the shot and we each did our part to get the elements in place.

The power in the OctoDome® was set to 1/2, while each HalfDome® was set to 1/4 power. For this shot, I wanted to get relatively wide and low, so I switched my lens to the 17-40mm 4.0 USM.

Camera Settings

  • Exposure Mode: Manual
  • Aperture: f/4.5
  • Shutter Speed: 1/40th of a second
  • ISO: 400
  • Focal Length: 36mm

Instead of being inhibited by the wet weather, we embraced it with this shot. The deep cold blue of the sky, the dark clouds and old buildings made a great background. The warm skin tone of the model and the orange car lights create a bold color break against the cold environment. It’s not a look you see every day.

As a photographer, you need to make the most out of what conditions you’re dealt. You need to have dependable gear, so when you get everything in place your equipment performs flawlessly. That’s why I depend on Photoflex®. Think freely and leverage the situation. You’ll surprise yourself with what you’re able to capture.

Keep in mind that these images were shot simply to express my artistic vision. Take from it what you will, but be sure you go out there and try things for yourself. You only get better through practice, so have fun with it!

Written and photographed by Michael Corsentino.

Outdoor Portraits,

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