UK portrait photographer Bella Kotak uses photography to channel her floral and fairy-tale passions into creating images that take the viewer to another world. Recently, she used the Profoto A1, the world’s smallest studio light, to transform a botanical garden into her studio for a series of portraits of a fairy-tale princess.
As a child growing up in Kenya, Bella recognized early on the power of capturing lost moments forever in a real and tangible way. “Life can change directions in an instant. Nothing stays the same,” she says. “Photography is a way for people to express themselves, whether it’s capturing moments or creating them.”
After working on her craft for about six years, she made photography a full-time career two years ago. Today, she is in love with photography’s limitless possibilities. “There are so many ways you can express your voice through this medium,” she says. “I also love the way it can both capture a moment in time and be an outlet for creative expression.”
She describes her current style as floral. “I’ve always had flowers in my work somehow, even in the beginning I was drawn to them without even realizing it,” she says. “Now, I very much make my love for florals, fairy tales, and spring almost a focal point!”
A preference for soft, diffused light
Bella frequently used on-camera flash in the past, when she worked with wedding and event photography; not for her current work, however. “The light is too harsh for the soft diffused light that I have a preference for,” she explains. “It’s too overwhelming.”
So, when we approached her to ask if she wanted to try out the Profoto A1, she was intrigued by the possibilities.
“I’m a huge fan of Profoto lights, so when they got in touch regarding a new product they were working on, I was really keen to be on board, push myself out of my comfort zone, and reconnect with the playfulness that I experienced when I first picked up the camera,” she says.
“The A1 was pitched as the world’s smallest studio light, so I was curious to see if it would perform against all the hype—and what surprises this little light would have in store for me.”
She already had a location in mind: Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire. “I had discovered it early in the summer and knew I wanted to create something quite special in it,” she says. “After that, it was really a case of pulling together all the pieces that I knew would make for a striking scene.”
Bella says she wanted to create images that had a sense of drama and were evocative in their unspoken storyline. “At the moment, I’m drawn to capturing queens, women who are strong and confident in their power. This really inspires me to create, and for this shoot I reached out to Jodi Lakin, a model whom I really enjoy working with—she’s also a friend.”
Taking natural light to another level
Shooting with natural light is something Bella is very comfortable with, but she feels there are drawbacks. “It’s not always possible to get the exact quality of lighting that could really take that picture to another level,” she says. “With natural light, you have to be quick, intuitive and creative to make the most of what you have.
“However, with the A1s, I really appreciated being able to have a little more control, as well as the ability to craft the light. This extra aspect helps elevate the work, taking it to another level.”
For this shoot, Bella used two A1s. One was usually mounted on the camera and sometimes used to trigger the second A1, which she used with the A1’s Dome Diffuser or Soft Bounce. “I wanted the light to be soft and to enhance the natural light that I was working with,” she explains. “My partner had the second A1 mounted on a stand and he often held it high, moving it slightly until I got the soft wraparound quality of light that I was looking for.”
Perfect blending with natural light
Bella says that the first scene amid the flowers encapsulated why using the A1 made so much sense. “I saw a beam of light passing through the trees in the backgound. We lit a smoke grenade to emphasize that light. But by itself, the scene didn’t have the magic I wanted, as Jodi was in shadow. In real life, I could see her clearly, but the dynamic range of reality often isn’t equalled by the camera.”
Bella’s solution was to use the A1 at medium power, along with the soft bounce and diffuser modifiers, to illuminate Jodi. The light was positioned on a light stand and held right above the frame. She kept one flash on camera and used it as an air remote for the main light.
“The soft spread of the light illuminated the flowers and smoke in the foreground as well,” she reports. “This transitioned perfectly with the natural lighting of the environment. We were impressed with how smoothly it all blended together.”
Recapturing the magic
At the next location, Bella had to deal with too much shade again. “The quality of light did not match what we needed to highlight the scene and the clothes,” she says. “It lost the magic we were looking for.”
Fortunately, with both A1s on light stands, Bella could put the magic back into the image. “We used the second light as a backlight, hidden at the top left of the frame. It gave a lot of separation in the frame and made the foliage really stand out.”
Using an air remote to trigger both of the lights gave Bella the ability to control the power settings right from the camera. “We kept the main light on TTL so that no matter how close or far we moved it to ensure it was creating perfect falloff, it wouldn’t change the intensity of the light relative to her face. The combination of the two produced a dramatic fairy-tale result!”
Creating a dark mood
The third setup was the most dynamic, building on what Bella did in the previous two. “We took the versatility of TTL and used it as fill,” she explains. “First, we shot the scene and kept our camera settings just enough to let the light creep in from the scene. It kept a dark mood, the main light combined with the addition of smoke made the model stand out.
“The best part was that with this setup, the model ran through the scene and our assistant followed her stride. Even with the changing distances between them, the TTL allowed the frames to match up perfectly, even with variable power. We didn’t miss a shot, and we kept the same modifiers for each setup we did.”
Overall, Bella says that the A1 lifted her creativity to new levels and made her more conscious of crafting light for a photograph. “It was great to have the opportunity to capture an image from an angle that wouldn’t necessarily have worked if I was limited to just natural light. So, while I could have worked with the natural light that I had available, the shots that the A1 allowed me to create from different angles and perspectives became some of my favourite images. It was almost as if I had set up the scene in a studio.”
Bella adds that lighting can elevate a good picture to a great picture. “Having these tools is certainly helping me take my work to new levels. I felt like I could access a whole new world of possibilities without the limits that natural light can impose.”
“I wouldn’t describe the A1 as a speed light”
Bella says the beautiful, natural quality of the light exceeded her expectations and that she has been bringing her A1s along to every photoshoot.
“Any time I need an extra boost of light, it’s my go-to. It very quickly became a staple in my camera bag kit. The layout is really intuitive, especially if you’re brand new to lights. I could pick them up and jump right in.”
“I wouldn’t even describe the A1 as a speed light at all, and I’ve even begun to bring it into some of my studio-styled setups.”