Cris J. Duncan Knows Light

Written by Ron Egatz on . Posted in Portrait photography

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Cris Duncan belongs to an increasingly rare American breed: born and raised and living his dream in his own hometown. Now residing six blocks from where was born in Lubbock, Texas, Duncan and his wife Deanna run C.J. Duncan Photography, a studio specializing in private portraiture and interiors and products for commercial clients.

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©Cris J. Duncan

At thirteen, Duncan worked for his father all summer, saving up enough money to buy a darkroom set. He shot film with his Canon AE-1 Program, processed it, and made prints. Entering college, he majored in Finance while minoring in Photography. After graduation, he worked as a master electrician in his father’s business until, over a period of years, he was able to transition to becoming a full-time photographer in 2008.

By Duncan’s estimation, with a market of approximately 250,000, he feels his business needs to be diverse. With that in mind, he offers everything from senior portraits to real estate photography to formal family portraiture. In being technically adept, he feels this has enabled him to try many different types of photography. “I’m a very technical person,” he says. “I feel like I’m still creative, but I love the technical part of photography, and I think that probably came from learning and growing up. My first introduction to photography was the darkroom. It’s very technical, mixing your chemicals right. I loved the technical side.”

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©Cris J. Duncan

He also credits his work as an electrician with helping his architectural photography. Duncan found himself designing the lighting in homes and the skills he built doing that were parlayed into his passion. “I think that was a big part of how I got into some of the architectural work. I learned some of the lighting was seeing. I knew what color temperatures were, the different lamps, and if you had a bulb with so much spread and you placed it on a twelve-foot ceiling, how many lamps you needed in that ceiling to completely cover the floor with lighting. I learned the technical stuff, and I asked some of our builders or architects or the customer if I could photograph their houses for them when they were done, just to see it that way.”

A firm believer in mastering a genre before advertising it, Duncan practiced food photography on bowls of fruit and portraiture on his children. “I’m of the mindset you don’t sell it until you can do it,” he says. “When I was trying to learn lighting and learn different things, I would grab stuff we had in the house for practice.”

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©Cris J. Duncan

The other things Duncan grabs are his gear. Since he started with the old AE-1, he has remained loyal to Canon and shoots two Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies and a Canon 5D, and a 40D. “We have plenty of backup, and Canon lenses that go almost any focal length you can really think of, up to about 300 millimeter,” he says.

Duncan’s tripod is a Benro carbon fiber. A longtime Sekonic Flashmate user, he now checks his lighting and sets his exposures by a Sekonic L-758. His lighting gear utilizes the Profoto D1 Air. “I like the Air sync technology,” Duncan says. He also uses two kits, totaling four D1 heads. Along with the D1 units, a Profoto BatPac is also brought along to all his location work.

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©Cris J. Duncan

Profoto is Duncan’s third brand of lighting. The thing that sold him on switching one more time was consistency. “The first time I used Profoto, I was at a Texas school, and I was able to run probably six frames off, just in succession. I didn’t have one color shift or one exposure shift in all six of them. I’ve never seen a light that did that. If I’m doing a commercial shoot, I can’t have one out of every three have a color temperature shift or an exposure shift. That’s not acceptable. That’s the whole reason I went with Profoto. They’re consistent from shot after shot after shot after shot. If I’m going to have a tool, I need to know that tool’s going to work for me.”

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©Cris J. Duncan

Finding the Profoto gear working with his environment, Duncan has his location rig set. “If you know anything about Texas, we have wind here,” he says. “The beauty dish is nice and rigid. When I’m not using it, I can lay it down on itself and don’t have to worry about it collapsing or breaking. It’s not nearly as susceptible to catching the wind, like an umbrella. I take my beauty dish on location with the BatPac, and sometimes just one head. I can achieve the look I want if I’m doing a senior. If I’m doing a group, or if I’m doing architectural stuff, I’m taking my whole studio with me. A lot of my architectural shoots have all four heads with 48-inch umbrellas or snoots at the site.”

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©Cris J. Duncan

“When it comes to lighting, I’m a technical mind; and the science behind it, why it’s going to do the same thing, whether it be the sun or a light fixture in a room or a Profoto D1 or an AcuteB or whatever it is, light’s going to do the same thing. As far as Inverse Square Law, its intensity based on relationship to the camera and the size of the source, and the relationship to the distance of the subject; all that’s the same, regardless of the source. I think having that knowledge and understanding, all that has helped us in knowing how to light a room with furniture in it, or a reflective golf club or a chrome watch or somebody’s face.”

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©Cris J. Duncan

Although Duncan alters his approach to suit different subject matter, one thing remains the same in his philosophy. “Our job as a photographer is to make the subject in front of our camera look better in an image than it looks in real life, whether it be a person, a plate of food, a hotel, or whatever it is,” he says. “That’s our job, and with lighting, that’s what photography is. The only way to do that is with lighting and perspective. Those are the main ingredients making that look better, or posing, if it’s a person. Light’s going to do the same thing. If you know what light’s going to do, as far as those laws of physics, then it makes lighting your product or your subject that much easier.”

A strong supporter of Apple’s Aperture, Duncan’s studio has been using it since it was first released. It’s employed for sorting and enhancements such as white balance, contrast and color corrections. He also employs Nik Software for other adjustments. For wedding work, he recommends Color Efex 4.

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©Cris J. Duncan

His love of photography has turned him into an advocate, and the best way he finds to spread the word is via education. Duncan calls teaching his “second love.” He sees one major quality which puts him apart from the photographic pedagogy. “There are so many photographers I feel do not have a grasp on the technical side of photography. I think the more we can educate photographers and our clients, give them knowledge and understanding of the tools we have—not telling them how to do it, but know what they’re doing and why it does that, the technical side of it—I think that gives value to our industry as a whole. We’ve been asked to do a lot of teaching. We love teaching, doing some lighting workshops, we’ve produced some lighting DVDs. I’ve founded a group called Find Your Focus, which is really designed for photographers to stay in love with photography.” The group runs an annual retreat to Yosemite National Park. Last year they produced two lighting DVDs, one focused on senior portraits and the second on family portraiture. Other educational DVDs are on the way.

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©Cris J. Duncan

If you’re in Lubbock and have need of almost any kind of photography, there’s one place to go. C.J. Duncan and his team know light; how it reacts to different surfaces, how it colors itself at different times of day, and what it needs to make any photographic subject look the best it can. It’s his hometown and he knows what he’s doing there.

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©Cris J. Duncan

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Written by Ron Egatz

All images and video in this post are ©Cris J. Duncan, all rights reserved; story is ©Profoto. Please respect photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or re-post elsewhere without written permission.

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Comments (2)

  • Gooch


    Although I think the images Chris has here are beautiful captures, I don’t think the title of this article is accurate “…Knows Light”. A more appropriate title would be “Chris knows HDR software and tweaking his images.” The senior photo of the girl on the floor is gorgeous, and I do appreciate the lighting used on that image. I think that for wedding and outdoor portraits, HDR (if not over processed) adds a special something to the image. The image in the church is a beautiful example. However, for commercial projects, architecture and product, we must nail the shoot with the right light. Product Marketing managers are not looking for their products to be misrepresented, as it can easily be done with HDR as with the Kitchen image above. The tool shot is a great example of good specular light and using good lighting techniques to show off the product (Black on black and silver is tough to shoot…good job Chris).

    I do see a lot of HDR images from photogs these days, and yes, I sometimes use HDR tools myself to help in areas where additional detail and contrast is needed in underexposed areas. But we must always remember our light core first.



  • Cris Duncan


    I appreciate your reply and thank you for the nice remarks, however you may be surprised to know that none of the images shown here are HDR images. I agree the wedding party is processed heavy but on HDR software or technique was used. The kitchen is lit with 4 different strobes plus the ambient, the exterior is painted with light ( I use a million candlepower light) for the outside, then have my assistant turn on the interior lights(expose for a few seconds) and then repeat with the exterior lights.
    I understand how you might think some are HDR because of the definition in them, the lemonade stand for example is shot at f/22 with 5 different strobes and reflectors. I would be lying if I didn’t say the images weren’t enhanced but to assume the exposure and the lighting isn’t real or done at time of capture is far-fetched.


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