Learn how to create characterful portraits with Hélène Pambrun and Profoto | Profoto (NL)

Learn how to create characterful portraits with Hélène Pambrun and Profoto

26 August, 2019

Written by: Julia Fuentes

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Hélène Pambrun is a French portrait and press photographer, known for creating iconic images of the people she meets. Besides being Harry Styles' personal tour photographer, she has also shot celebrities such as Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, Ben Harper and Tony Bennett. Take the chance to learn her insights in portrait photography through an up-and-close interview, and go behind the scenes of her shoot with famous French singer Gael Faure.


Hélène's insights in portrait photography


Tell us more about yourself. Who is Hélène Pambrun?
I’ve been working as a professional photographer for 10 years, a hobby that turned into what I now do for a living. It started in my hometown Toulouse, France, when I worked at a store that sold photo equipment. I was amazed by all the gear, so I saved up for the money to buy my first professional camera, and after that I started to shoot whenever and whatever I could. Weddings, concerts, people - you name it. Then one day, the Editor in Chief of a famous French magazine, Paris Match, contacted me and gave me the assignment to shoot a writer, then a singer, and on that path we go. I've been taking portraits ever since.

Which are your 3 most essential tips for creating a portrait?

  1. I always focus on the eyes, camera-wise and energy-wise. This is the part of the face that speaks the most.
  2. Follow your intuition. If you have a crazy idea, just try it out. Trust your spontaneity and the person you’re shooting will too.
  3. Keep it simple. The intensity of a glance, the lines on the skin of an old man ­­­— all these small and simple things can create very powerful portraits.

Do you have any tips on how to direct a person and make her/him feel relaxed during the shoot?

The key is to take it easy. Even if you don’t have a lot of time with the person you’re shooting, it’s important that you are as calm and relaxed as possible. Your energy translates to the people around you. Smiling or saying something nice to the person is a good way to create a connection and relaxed vibe. Music also works in certain surroundings, so try that. But remember, the more pressure we put on ourselves, the more we’ll lose the opportunity to enjoy the moment with the person and produce creative images. So, keep it simple silly, as my dad used to say.

How did you get into flash, and when did you decide to start using it?

As most people, I started to shoot using only natural sunlight. I would occasionally bring a small LED light to shoots, but it wasn’t any good. I remember that the magazine that I work for asked me: “Hélène, when will you learn to use a flash?”. At that point, I understood that I have to be able to shoot in any location and at any time, no matter the lighting condition. Natural sunlight can be very risky if you’re working professionally, because you can’t decide how it’s going to look like when you’re on an assignment. So, I had a friend teach me how to use flash, actually with a Profoto AcuteB 600R. I fell in love with it and bought one second hand. Since then, I’ve bought a bunch of Profoto lights to follow me on my trips. They’re just great to work with.

You recently did a portrait shoot with singer and songwriter Gael Faure, where you used Profoto gear. What did you use and how did it go?

I used the Profoto Connect trigger, an A1X light and an Umbrella Deep White M. I love that combination, because they enable me to work comfortably and without having to carry a lot of gear. The small A1X was easy to bring along in my bag, and the umbrella literally took one second to set up – and together they produced that soft light that I want in my images. Using the Profoto Connect to control the light was also very easy, since I just turned it to ‘auto mode’ and let it set the flash exposure for each shot automatically. 

Do you have any tips for people that want to get started with flash?

I really believe that the Profoto Connect and A1X are great tools to get started with. When using the Connect in auto mode, you don’t need to think about the settings. You just shoot and great light happens. The good thing is that when you eventually start to feel comfortable with it, you can turn it to manual mode and try different light settings. Besides, there are so many light shaping tools that you can use with the A1X to make your portraits even more creative. Grids, gels, umbrellas, you name it. I would have needed this gear when working as a wedding photographer in the past!


How Hélène Pambrun shot Gael Faure
4 tips to try yourself

Setup 1 – Up close and personal

For the first setup, Hélène wanted to create a light that would look as natural as window light. With the ambient light coming in from the left of her, she placed the A1X and Umbrella Deep White M on the same side, only slightly to the front of Gael. That way, she could blend the flash light with the ambient light and even out any hard shadows in Gael’s face caused by the ambient light.

Tip 1: The direction of the flash light should be the same as the ambient light, in order for it to look natural. So, Hélène placed the umbrella to the left of her, the same side as the ambient light comes from.

Tip 2: Bigger light sources create softer light. That is why Hélène used an Umbrella Deep White M along with the A1X. The flash light hits the umbrella and bounces back at the model/person, but with a softer light, since the area of the umbrella is bigger than the area of the A1X head.

Camera settings: F/1.2   1/400 sec  ISO 400
Flash settings: Auto mode (TTL)


Setup 2 – Recreating sunlight

In the second setup, Hélène placed the A1X and umbrella to the right of her and aimed it towards Gael, with the intention to re-create a sunlight that was nowhere to be seen in the actual surrounding. By doing this, she managed to make Gael pop out from the background while creating beautiful sun streaks on the wall behind him. 

Tip 3: Placing branches or other objects in between the flash and the model is a way to create beautiful sun streaks.

Camera settings: F/1.4  1/1250 sec  ISO 400
Flash settings: Auto mode (TTL)


Setup 3 – Lighting a subject in movement

Tip 4: Use the Profoto Connect remote in auto mode when shooting people in movement. This means that the flash exposure will be set for you automatically, giving you a great exposure in every image, no matter how much your subject moves around.

Camera settings: F/1.4   1/1250 sec   ISO 400
Flash settings: Auto mode (TTL)


Written by: Julia Fuentes

Products used in this story

Umbrella Deep White

A versatile and zoomable umbrella for a softer light
From 224,00 €