shooting Mapplethorpe style protraits : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I got hooked on LF photography a few years back, but other interests have taken me away from it. Well, it is now time to jump back in and go for it....

Shooting Robert Mapplethorpe type portraits were fun, challanging and beautiful when they turned out well, but when they didn't ... I waisted a models time and mine (except for the experience I got).

Question: When using flash in a studio setting, is it possible to use a spot meter and attempt working within the Zone System?

Likewise, how do you meter in this situation so the skin looks a light grey. Mine often turn out with skin tones too dark or too hot, shadows too light or too dark, etc.

Could you also give me some advice on using a flash meter in this situation?

How would YOU do it?

thanks. Chris

-- bob brown (, December 02, 1998


1. Yes it is possible. I use a Minolta Spot F meter, but Sekonic makes a spot ambient/flash meter as well. Polaroid will help greatly too.

2. Try placing causasian skin tones at one stop over (brighter) than your reading. For example if reading the skin tone gives you f/22, open up to f/16. In Zone terms, you are visualizing the skin exposure at Zone VI. Take several readings to make sure you are not reading a hot spot.

3.) I would advise using a standard incident type flash meter (like the Minolta Flash IV or Flash V (sorry but I have little recent experience with other brands of meters, but I am sure Sekonic, Gossen, et. al. make fine meters too)) rather than a spot meter. Are you using a flash system that has modeling lights? I find these to be invaluable as they help me judge by eye what the rough ratio is between shadow and lit tones.

Lately I have been looking at Mapplethorpe's book "Certain Women" for the first time in a couple of years. I was astonished to notice that unlike my previous impression of this book, RM did not have one particular lighting formula. He chose his lighting scheme to fit the subject He usually used a lot of bounced fill, some times the only light I see is light bounced from a reflector, usually two large soft boxes placed close to the sitter, Sometimes RM used a very soft, diffused, non-specular backlight/hairlight that by general portrait book standards is under exposed. So lately I have been trying this out by bouncing this light off the ceiling in my studio and metering it (with an incident meter) at one stop below my main light. Make up is also important, try light powder applied with a brush not a pad or a sponge.

The main thing that makes his portraits of women so strong, is his rapport with them: there is in many of these photos a shared momentary intimacy. plus an incredible printing job, and reproduction thereof. BTW as best as i can tell he was using a Hasselblad, not an LF camera.

-- Ellis (, December 02, 1998.

Like Ellis, I use a Minolta Spot F (F=Flash). The great thing about spot meters is that you can measure the contrast range: look deep into the shadows, look at the highlights, and understand how that range fits into whatever your film can handle.

Sure, you can also point generally at the skin, and give it one stop more exposure. But remember that some skin will be in shadow, some will be highlight, and you have to decide what you want to look "light-grey".

In this situation, shooting in B&W, I usually find the deepest shadow and lightest highlight (normally the lightest thing in the frame) I care about. If the range is about 6 stops, I place the shadows on Zone III. If the range is more or less, I might adjust the development (and possibly exposure). With this technique, the skin might or might not be "light-grey", it depends on the lighting.

That metering technique is not appropriate for trannies, where you should care more about the highlights than the shadows.

Modelling lights are, IMHO, essential. Unfortuntely, they may not be "accurate", especially if you use two or more different models. You might experiment with a fast film and *just* the modelling unts, ie no flash.

-- Alan Gibson (, December 02, 1998.

I will bet Robert Mapplethorpe used a lot of film and both his & models time in getting the lighting and exposure experience to be able to produce his work the way he wanted it. He didn't print it himself, but had a professional printer do his work. If you want to learn to control the lighting it will take a good investment in time to get the experience. There won't be any shortcuts. Set it up & shoot, keep good notes and let your models know you are working for more than the "standard" shots & then you will be collaborators in a successful endeavor rather than wasting time. Good work takes a lot of effort and will have to be finessed. As for skin tones, shoot at what you think is correct and then shoot again in increments and analyze your results carefully until you know just how much over the spot reading will produce what you need. Equipment differences, line voltage, small light placement differences, film emulsion variations, all kinds of small things will keep this from being totally & completely repeatable but may also lead to results that will make you glad you kept shooting.

-- Dan Smith (, December 04, 1998.

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