Channeling James Dean

Bruno walked into my studio wearing his leather jacket. It appealed to me from a photographic point of view and I instantly knew I wanted him to wear it in some of his portraits. As well as turning up with a perfect accessory, Bruno was good-looking and relaxed. Sometimes, life is just too easy! Read on to find out how I used a single studio light to capture this James Dean-esque portrait of him.

Setting up the lighting

There’s just a single light used in this image: one softbox, to the left of Bruno (from our point of view). I’ve turned the softbox so it’s almost facing completely away from Bruno and towards the wall behind him. This means the light that falls on him is ‘feathered’, giving it an extremely beautiful and soft quality.

By fine-tuning the position of the softbox, I’ve made it create a triangle of light on the side of Bruno’s face furthest from the light, known as a ‘Rembrandt lighting pattern’. This stops the image from becoming ‘split lighting’, with one half of the face lit and the other half dark. While I do sometimes use split lighting in portraits, I mostly prefer the more subtle and natural look of other lighting patterns, like this one.

Our studio is fairly small with white walls on all sides. The walls bounce the light around the room, which brings a gentle fill light to my portraits. For example, you can see a kiss of light on Bruno’s right cheek, which is otherwise in shadow. That patch is created by light from the softbox, reflected on the white wall opposite.

Attending to the details

Bruno looked great just how he was standing naturally, so I didn’t try to pose him. Instead, I simply moved him into the feathered area of light and asked him to gaze straight into the lens.

The background is actually a dark grey paper roll, but because of its distance from the light, it has been rendered as almost black. There’s just enough light hitting it to throw the shadowed collar of Bruno’s jacket into silhouette. Details like this add depth and interest to your portraits, and elevate your work to the next level. They sometimes look like a lucky coincidence, however this one was no accident!

The jacket is semi-matte (rather than shiny or completely matte) so it reflects the light back as a sheen. This brings out the creases, shape and fit of the jacket in a pleasing way.

There is a slight vignette (darkening of the edges) on the image that I’ve applied in post-production. However, if I’d used an old 50mm lens from James Dean’s era, this vignette would have been created on the exposure automatically!

This image is also discussed in a podcast. Listen to it here.

Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 86mm
  • Aperture: f/11
  • Shutter speed: 1/250 sec
  • ISO: 100