I Like My Women Soft
by Walter Graff

Look at any of the old great leading ladies in movies, whether it is in still or motion picture and what do you see? If you don’t have an answer, take a look as some examples first:

If you didn’t figure out what I am taking about from looking at the photos above, it’s that women are often lit head on or without much shadow, and for a good reason. Very simply women look best lit flat from the front like the way still photographers often set up their strobes.

I say this because as a young grip, the folks who taught me lighting were the old school gaffers who could light three sets with two lights. I’m not
kidding. Actually many of my early mentors were older guys who actually
worked on many films in the late forties and fifties and they really
taught me a lot about how to make a woman look great.

Kitty Carlyle Hart, made a great compliment to me once. Hart was a famous singer, actress from the golden age who you may remember her as a long-time panelist on “What’s My Line”. I was shooting a program about her deceased husband a well known writer and director. After setting up she noticed herself in the monitor and said“My God, you light just like the oldstyle gaffers used to in motion pictures.” I told her it was for good reason, teh old guys taught me my art. I was touched as my mentors really were so good to learn from and for her to say that really made my day.

So when faced with an interview recently with singer, actress Vanessa Williams, I applied my old-school knowledge and ended up getting an
equally nice compliment from her handlers. They had rented a Penthouse suite to have several interviews done to promote her upcoming greatest hits album. While it was cool suite, it wasn’t the greatest for doing
television. Half of the room had a glass enclosure meaning there was lots of light that I could not control. But that’s the spot I was given and that’s what I worked with. The photo below (#1)shows the space. It looks
better here than it did to me because the iris of the camera taking the picture doesn’t show how bright it really was. Thankfully it was a
overcast day. At first glance I decided the room leaned to the left so she’d be on the right. (See my article on weight in a frame on this site to learn more).

One of Ms. William's handlers asked to see a monitor before we go. This can be trouble as sometimes people have ideas of how they want to look, but that doesn’t always mean they look good in the end. Ask me to tell you my Maria Shriver story sometime.

In this case I started with a Chimera and a 600 watt Omni light as a key. I was going to place this light just to the left of camera. Problem was a person asking questions needed to sit there, so I made it just higher than she was so she was sandwiched under the light and to the left of camera. No one minds this, as they know it’s about the talent and making them look good. And since I wanted a nice soft light on Vanessa, this was going to do it.

I then worked a backlight from the opposite backside of the frame, which you can see in the wider shot of Ms. Williams coming up on the next page. I used some of the pillows on the couch to cover the bottom of the stand and block it and serve as a sort of sand bag to stabilize the stand. My sound guy George always sits in for me as talent so I can aim everything.

Another thing I was taught was that women look good with accentuated backlights. By that I mean I give more backlight than with a man. Sometimes I even give them a blooming backlight because it simple makes them look great. I was limited in this room with my backlight as there was no space to put it, but I knew I’d get a bright hit on her head.

What bothered me was I had a stark background. It was lots of white and lots of bright white. So I took a light and created a color wash on the wall and broke it up with my cukaloris again. I decided that pink would be a good color to use. It wasn’t my favorite, but it worked with what I had and many times it’s about dealing with what you got.

At this point I was pretty much set. The handler wanted to look at the monitor when I said I was ready for her, but I asked him to let me get her in the shot and tweak before he looked.

When she sat in the first thing I noticed was that as close to center as my key light was, she still was shadowy on her right side; A bit too shadowy for my tastes. So I needed to add something quick. And it had to be something real soft and almost non-directional. I could have simply bounce some light into the ceiling but the ceiling was too high and that would make more shadows. So I quickly threw a flex fill on the floor under her left side and set-up an Omni, closed the barn doors down and
spotted it into the floor and the flex fill. Ah! It was what I needed to soften her up and it took away some of the shadow under her chin
that sort of bothered me.

Now I was ready for the handler to see her on the monitor. I hoped for the best but like always, expected the worse. I’ll have to tell you my Maria Shriver story next issue because it still puts butterflies in my stomach when someone asks to look at a monitor.

So this fella looked and in a few second he turned to me and said “That looks great, no need to do anything here”. Yes, even at my level, I still have the same fears and insecurities at times. But like I always say, I
don’t know everything and learn something new everyday so I like still getting butterflies. And the result?

#1- Medium Chimera with 600 watt open-face fixture. It is just above sitting height looking slightly down. The idea is to hit her as square in the face as possible.

#2 & #3- 600 watt open face and foam-core cut out with pink gel for color on background.

#4- 100 watt LTM fresnel on a dimmer at about 40%. This warms the color temperature of the light while giving me the effect I want. It is high so I get hair glow.

#5- a 36” flex fill laying on the floor, white side up. A 600 watt open face with doors open only an inch spotted into the flex fill. This gives the shadowy part of her face some glow.


Wide-shot. Notice the flower I placed over her shoulder. I turned the lamp behind her off because its in a bad spot and it doesn’t move from the wood it’s bolted to. And you can the light stand on the right which is a high backlight. The pillows in front of the stand both masking it from camera and acting as a sand bag.


What you do not see in the photo above are shadows on her face. She is lit very evenly and softly. I believe that in general women need to be lit soft (unless something is calling for them to be lit another way).

Copyright 2013 by Walter Graff. This article may be circulated and shared as long as the following reference is made: 'This article appears courtesy of Walter Graff- http://www.waltergraff.com'

Please don't hesitate to send me an e-mail if you have any questions or comments please e-mail me at Walter@waltergraff.com