The light Albert Watson shapes | Profoto (NL)

The light Albert Watson shapes

04 September, 2017

Written by: Clare Gillsäter

Albert Watson is legendary for his portraits. His use of light is bold and intuitive, and his shaping of it is the essence of many of his familiar, iconic images. For this shoot he captured Sergei Polunin, the celebrated dancer. Profoto equipment was on hand to set the scene and capture the light that would mould the final images.

A visionary and a dancer

Albert Watson and Sergei Polunin are both top of the game in their chosen field. This made for a shoot that was as intense as it was inspiring, buzzing with creative energy. What transpired that day at the shoot in Manhattan was magic.

Behind Albert’s vision and his subtle play with light is great skill that takes his images to a higher level of art. He transforms a great image into an artistic experience.

Sergei Polunin’s bad boy image brings an edginess and thrill to classical dance and his powerful style turns ballet into modern art. The clash of romance and risk that he embodies is perfect material for one of Albert’s portraits.

Setting the scene

“Sometimes it is not a distinct road to the final shot. You don’t know until you get there. It’s a mystery.”

Before the shoot, Albert studied the art of Michelangelo and Caravaggio. The resulting images revealed these influences with a contemporary twist. Sergei thought they resembled modern sculptures.  Simply put, “You want to be in that picture.”

To create his iconic pictures, Albert carefully sets the scene and makes sure he has the right people and equipment.

He works with the best in the industry and carefully selected the stylist, the hair and make-up team, and his own assistants with whom he has worked for several years. Knowing and connecting with this team is key to the shoot.

And then there is the light.

Light is essential to the creation of Albert’s images. He always makes sure he has suitable light sources and equipment to hand. The right equipment shapes the light in the iconic images for which he is known.

For this shoot he is unpacking some new Profoto Pro10s that will be part of crafting his final image. Profoto products have been part of Albert’s toolbox for forty years. He has never strayed because he loves the reliability and quality of the brand.


Getting a great portrait is not just a technical exercise but a mindful journey for the photographer and his subject.  Albert: “You have to build a relationship so the person enjoys the experience.”

Albert’s talent of connecting with people is part of his genius as a portrait photographer. He believes that “a photographer’s best talent is getting a persona.” Getting the singularity of that persona gets you the shot that you want.

Getting the shot

Sergei brought movement to this shoot. Albert needed to catch him at the right moment using the right props and the right light. It helped that “Sergei is a remarkable dancer,” confirmed Albert, “who is able to make very small adjustments for each shot.”

Dance shots are about timing and the body is at its best when it stops for the briefest of moments at the climax of the jump. When you find that moment you reach maximum energy and the sharpest image.

For this shoot Albert is working with three Profoto Pro-10’s to freeze Sergei’s body while in motion. The unique speed and power of the Pro-10 allowed Albert to catch that frozen moment at the top of the jump – he calls it “a portrait in movement”.

Albert noted that he sees life through the rectangle of the lens. He builds each of his images in that rectangle, from conception to final composition. With precision, he hones the geometry and graphics of the shot; the look, the backdrop and the angles.

For the hero shot Albert experimented with different backdrops and fabrics to get the right effect. He started with a white canvas behind but after a couple of shots this wasn’t working for him and he switched it for a black one. He changed the patterned fabric for simple black chiffon.  Initially, Sergei twirled through fabric rather than leaping into it. This was great for video but too fast and complicated for a still. Albert asked two assistants to climb ladders and release the fabric as Sergei leapt through it.

 Thanks to the Pro-10 Albert captured the sharpness of the moment. And by reflecting the light he allows it to bounce off the fabric, creating movement around the frozen dancer.

Shaping the light

Light has been at the heart of every image since the beginning of Albert’s career. He refers to “simplicity” consistently when describing his relationship with light and how he uses it. “Begin simply then take a journey with the light. Experimentation is the most important thing. Make the light interesting”. Distancing yourself from your usual lighting routine keeps your craft alive and allows you to see your shot with new eyes.

Once he has set up a shot Albert concentrates on the light, shaping it to fix the mood and landscape. In the studio, Albert plays with light, shifting it on an image and shaping it to attain the effect he wants. He focuses on the quality of the light and starts simply as he sets up the equipment, “I like to start with simple light and then manipulate it.” 

 Look at the image of Sergei with the crown of laurels and how the light cascades down his face, even across his cheeks despite the tilt of his head. For this image, Albert used Profoto Softlight Reflectors to achieve a smooth light and crisp definition of the natural contours of Sergei’s face. He aims one key light on Sergei and builds from there. “It’s important to be very precise but at the same time simple,” he says.

He builds the light slowly as he works on every small detail. Light is the essence of the image and he channels its power through the position of the reflectors, the tilt of Sergei’s head and the angling of the light on Sergei.

He works with flags to control and shape the light bringing focus to areas he wants to highlight and removing focus from areas where he wants less. He has a vision of how he wants to craft the image with light and directs his assistants to set up this vision. He tells them how to move and angle the light. He asks one of his assistants, Edward Smith, for a long, narrow flag to reduce the light on Sergei’s forehead. Edward improvises, tears a piece of black cardboard and hands it to Albert. His precise positioning of the card achieves what he wants: he darkens the light on Sergei’s forehead while maintaining the light and focus on his eyes, nose and cheeks.

Becoming art

Albert finds his final shot. By retouching it with a few small details he finds the perfect shot.  With that, his image has just become a piece of art.

Magical ending

Three iconic images emerged from the magic of this shoot. In the documentary ‘Dancer’ Sergei’s grandmother told us when he was young “He danced with his very soul and transported himself into music.” With his talent and his light shaping skills, Albert translated those words to images.

Creative team

Photographer: Albert Watson
Talent: Sergei Polunin
Wardrobe Stylist: Freddie Leiba
Hair stylist: Tomi Kono
Makeup artist: Seong Hee
Assistants: Taro Hashimura, Edward Smith
Digital operator: Adrien Potier
BTS Photographer: Samantha Grönblad
Studio: Dune Studios

Written by: Clare Gillsäter

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