Lighting Techniques

On Lighting Styles: Holly Andres Breaks Down Her Painterly Approach

November 14, 2017

By Brienne Walsh

Holly Andres approaches lighting with the eye of a painter. “I studied painting, and I look through the lens like a painter,” she says. “I oftentimes shoot on a tripod. I’m considering all the entirety of the frame and looking at the way the positive form interacts with the negative space.”

She creates dramatic imagery on location, and while she sometimes mixes her light sources, she prefers artificial to natural lighting. “When natural light cooperates, it’s great, but otherwise, it’s so anxiety-producing,” she says. “Strobes, lanterns, reflectors—they take you much further in any direction you want your lighting to go.”

Andres made a name for herself with her fine-art photography series such as “The Fallen Fawn” and “Summer of the Hornets” that depict eerie scenes reminiscent of the photographs of Gregory Crewdson and the films of Todd Haynes. Her images are flush with color, and beautiful, but still transmit a sense of impending horror. Her distinct style has won over editorial and commercial clients including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New York, TIME, Refinery29, Saks Fifth Avenue and Facebook.

© Holly Anders

In Detroit, Andres made a portrait using only available light. © Holly Anders

“Her lighting is very cinematic, and that is part of what attracted me to her,” says Jody Quon, the photography director at New York. Quon recently hired Andres to shoot “A 43-Day Fashion Shoot,” an editorial spread that featured real women in 15 cities around the country, and took Andres on the road with nothing but an assistant, and a minivan full of designer clothing and equipment. Quon hired Andres for the job because she wanted the individual portraits to hint at a larger narrative.

To prepare for the New York magazine shoot, which was an intense, fast job with lots of variables, Andres did test shoots near her home in Portland, Oregon to try different lighting scenarios. She sent the experiments to Quon, who found herself drawn, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the “slightly lit, slightly cinematic” shots.

Generally, Andres’s set-up includes a Profoto B1 Kit, with two or three Profoto strobes. For indoor shoots, she includes a Chimera lantern softbox, usually hung from the ceiling, which she feels emulates the light already available in a room. To get cinematic lighting, she’ll place a light at a 10 or 15 degree angle to the camera, and a light in the back of the room, behind her subject. She also works with a 60-inch parabolic umbrella, a set of grids on the Profoto strobes and Cinefoil when she wants to further focus and snoot the light. To emulate the glow of a television or create the feeling of a nightmare, she uses gels that create a spooky radiance.

Once Andres hit the road, every other day she would drive for seven to 10 hours to a new location, where she had the night to unpack the van and prepare for the next day’s shoot. “I spent 15 days drugged up on Dramamine, coordinating the shoots, virtually location scouting,” Andres says. The rest of the time, she was shooting.

On the morning of each of the 15 shoots, Andres set up lighting while her assistant steamed the clothing. She modified her light according to natural conditions—in Detroit, for example, she got an incredible portrait of the musician Nisa Seal using only the afternoon sun.   

© Holly Anders

For another shot in Texas, Andres mixed natural and artificial light. © Holly Anders

Each location provided its own set of challenges. In terms of lighting, the most difficult location was in Parker, Texas. The town is home to the house used in the television series Dallas. Andres shot two models there—Olivia Simons, an interior designer, and Kate Reed, who works for IBM.

For an exterior shot of Reed wearing a Dior dress and standing in front of a Cadillac at twilight, Andres mixed natural and artificial lighting. She used a single strobe and a single parabolic umbrella hung just to the left of the frame to create a long shadow behind the subject. To capture the car’s headlights, Andres increased her ISO. In the background, the house is softly lit by the pink and glowing streaks of the sunset.

Most difficult of all was the interior shot in the bedroom of the house itself. Simons was wearing a shimmering pink Gucci dress. “It grabbed the light pretty nicely,” Andres said. To create an overall soft glow, Andres hung her favorite Chimera lantern from the ceiling. To increase the light on Simons’s face, Andres placed a light behind the heavy blue drapes on the bed in the room. To create the sense of an open closet door to the left of the frame, Andres tucked a light behind the wardrobe. With the aid of two strobes and a white reflector disk behind the camera, Andres finished lighting up the room.

In the end, Andres did very little work on the images in post-production. “This project was like a sprinting marathon. I was hoping I wouldn’t botch the shots. For them to be successful was just extra crazy on top.”

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