Stephanie Diani draws inspiration from some of the greatest, most renowned portrait photographers the world has ever known. But rather than recreating their work, she channels the inspiration to create something that is uniquely hers. Here is how she does it.
Meet Stephanie Diani, a portrait photographer born and bred in LA, recently relocated from the sunny west coast to what is possibly the world’s busiest marketplace for photographers: New York City.
Like many other photographers in her generation, Stephanie is mostly self-taught. She looked at classic portraits by auteurs such as of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Alex Webb and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She tried to figure out how they did it, and then she tried to do it herself. Finally, she applied that knowledge to create something uniquely her own.
“Arresting,” says Stephanie. “If I could use only one word to describe what it is I try to achieve, that would be the word – arresting.”
In addition to being arresting, what else would you say defines great portraiture?
“I’d probably say two things: gesture and lighting.
“How the subject turns their head, their facial expression, how they hold out their hand, etcetera. There has to be something there to reveal something about the person, something that tells a story. That’s why the gesture is important. It creates a connection.
“Then there is the light. I generally try to create a cinematic and moody light – a light that evokes some sort of feeling. Sometimes I shoot in beautiful available light, sometimes I create that beautiful light myself.”
So how do you actually work with gesture and light on set?
“I try to plan ahead. I try to learn a bit about whomever it is I’m shooting, and I try to have an idea of how I want the end result to look. If possible, I try to find a context and a story to tell.
“Needless to say, that isn’t always possible. I might be shooting a banker, a businessman or someone who doesn’t have his or her own Imdb or Wikipedia page. In that case, I just talk to them about their kids, the weather or something that we all have in common. Something that makes them relax and open up.
That takes care of the gesture. What about the lighting?
“Again, I try to plan ahead. I think about the person and the story we want to tell. I browse through my library of beautifully lit images and illustrations that I’ve collected over the years and try to find something suitable. I print a contact sheet of four or five reference images and try to figure out how to create a similar light. How many flashes will I need? What Light Shaping Tools will I need? Where should I position my lights?
“But this is just a starting point. Once you’re actually on set shooting, you have to adapt and seize whatever opportunity arises. For instance, if a beautiful sunlight shines through the blinds, I’d probably want to play off that. If the room is darker than expected, I’d probably want to add light of my own.”
“The D1 kit does me fine in about 90% of the situations I come across,” she says. “When I need even more light, I rent.”
When it comes to picking Light Shaping Tools, Stephanie prefers tools that give her as precise control of the light spread as possible.
“That’s why I prefer smaller softboxes. If I use a larger one, I’d probably add a Softgrid. If I’m using a Beauty Dish, I’d put a Grid on it. I also use flags a lot. Flagging off light is as important as adding light.”
Lighting Breakdown: John Goldwyn
To get a deeper understanding of how Stephanie works with light, we asked her to walk us through how she lit two of her own favorite portraits.
“I like this one,” says Stephanie. “It was a challenging shoot that turned out really well.”
“We were shooting at a hotel – a very nice hotel, I might add, but it was still a hotel. And even luxury hotels can be tough. White napkins and wooden panels are beautiful, but sometimes awkward in a portrait situation.
“We started off doing a few shots with nothing but Collapsible Reflectors. We got some ok images but nothing out of the ordinary. So I brought in two D1s. One of them was gelled with a cyan color filter to match the blue curtain in the room – which I liked very much. This light was aimed upwards and bounced off the ceiling. The second D1 was equipped with a Grid 10° and used like a spotlight at him. A bit of that light was also hitting the wooden wall behind him. There was also some daylight coming in from a window to the left. That was it.”
You mentioned before that you often try to tell a story with your lighting. What was the story in this case?
“Well, the images were shot for an editorial story in the New York Times. I knew beforehand that the article focused a lot on John Goldwyn’s struggle as a producer. Apparently, he had been fighting to get this movie done for years, almost, and he had faced a lot of skepticism along the way.
“The composition in the image is meant to evoke that sort of feeling. Using lots of darker, almost empty space can create a feeling that can be both calm and slightly threatening, depending on how your day is so far. To me, that fitted the story well. I wanted a bit of … not menace. But unease.”
Lighting Breakdown: Carson Daily
The second shot Stephanie chose was her portrait of TV host and radio personality Carson Daly.
“This one was shot for American Way, the American Airlines’ in-flight magazine. The client wanted a sort of playful and engaging mood. But as it turned out, we were shooting in a more or less empty studio against a white wall, so there wasn’t much to work with in terms of playfulness…
“So what we did was that we used lighting to create that mood. First, we set the main light. We used a D1 with a gridded Beauty Dish and flagged off some of its light. We had a second D1 with an extra small softbox, I believe it was the Softbox RFi 2×2′, as hair light to separate him from the background a bit.
“After we got the main light down, we used a third D1 with a Softbox RFi 1×4′, a Softgrid and a blue color filter as background light. The effect was nice, but it looked a bit cold. So we added a fourth D1 with a Grid 10° and an orange color filter on the opposite side. Put together, the two background lights created a beautiful mix. Some flags were also used to control the light spill.”