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Illuminating the Face, by Peter Hurley: A Review

Tips & Tricks

Back in 2011, photographer Peter Hurley teamed up with our friends over at FStoppers to create a tutorial video called The Art Behind The Headshot. That 4+ hour video more or less became required watching here at BL for anyone shooting any kind of portraiture, not just headshots. In fact, I still refer to it from time to time to prep for a new client; it was equal parts motivational video and coaching tutorial.

Now, three years later, Peter Hurley returns with another tutorial called Illuminating The Face. This is the next logical release after The Art Behind The Headshot, and Peter sent us a copy for review.

Here’s the one-sentence review: This is yet another home run for Peter Hurley, and if you happen to photograph the human face, regardless of your genre, this needs to be on your “must watch” list of tutorials.

What came before…

Let’s talk for a moment how Illuminating The Face differs from The Art Behind The Headshot. The Art… was very much a non-technical tutorial. It was a lot like having Peter Hurley coach you on how to interact with your subject, how to direct them, what to look for when pressing that shutter button.

Peter Hurley in <i>The Art Behind the Headshot</i>

Peter Hurley in The Art Behind the Headshot

That’s not to say that there was nothing technical in that video; Peter did cover his trademark square box lighting technique that had turned heads on the internet and spawned a slew of  copycats and admirers — including, I’m not ashamed to admit, yours truly right here on this blog.

Yet The Art… wasn’t a technical tutorial. It was very much a “human” tutorial, and was gloriously welcome at a time when there was a glut of learning resources about lighting and a real dearth of the same about the art and mechanics of working with a human being. As I said, it’s still very much something I refer to often, and is easily one of the best $300 investments I made in my own work.

So where does Illuminating the Face come in? Well, in many ways, this is almost like a “Part II: The Technical Stuff” followup to The Art… It has all the lighting and technical data that photo geeks like me lust after (and have likely watched waaay too many hours of), and then some. Inverse square law, anyone? But wait — didn’t I say just a few paragraphs back that there is a glut of learning resources about lighting? So do we really need another one?

The answer, if you haven’t guessed it, is yes. Yes we do. Because there’s a huge difference between quantity and quality, and regardless of how many lighting tutorials exist on the interwebnets, there really good ones will always stand out. This one from Peter Hurley is one of those really good ones.

Some of the lighting scenarios covered in the video.

Some of the lighting scenarios covered in the video.

What’s in the box?

Let’s go over what’s in the tutorial, and along the way, you’ll see why I think this is such a standout tutorial. First: It’s long. Not creativeLIVE-long, but at 4 solid hours, it’s not a quick watch. Moreover, it’s dense; every second is packed with information, and quite frankly, if you try to have this on in the background, you’ll miss out. Give this your undivided attention and… well, you’ll still need to re-watch it a few times to get the most out of it.

Illuminating… starts with some lighting basics. Peter goes over the gear he’s using, and right away, you see that he’s not going to load you up with how much he loves his Hasselblad and his Kino-Flo lights. Rather, he’s using gear that even those of us on a budget can afford – he’s shooting with a DSLR and is using Profoto lights that we offer for rent at pretty affordable rates. Moreover, further into the tutorial, he introduces you to some ridiculously cool DIY components that look, to use Peter’s own words, like an art project his daughter might have created.

DIY components used in Peter's tutorial

DIY components used in Peter’s tutorial

At any rate, if you thought this would be a tutorial where the gear used started at around $2000, well, don’t fret. As long as you have a flash that can go pop, you can use these techniques. He does use the modeling lamps from the Profotos to shoot his test shots, but that’s primarily so we can see the results of his light manipulation live.

That light manipulation, starting with one of the best explanations of the inverse square law I’ve ever seen, forms the bulk of this tutorial. For the first three of the four-hour-long lesson, Peter basically walks you through a series of techniques, modifiers, and processes you can use to position and manipulate your strobes.

Shot simultaneously on 4 different cameras, the screen often splits into a multi-angle view so you can see what’s going on from different perspectives. So, you can watch as he adjusts his home-made foamcore flags and the effect that has on the model via the proportional modeling lights of the Profoto D1 heads.

Illuminating the Face uses multiple angles to illustrate techniques

Illuminating the Face uses multiple angles to illustrate techniques

Here’s another reason why I think this tutorial is so seriously good – though a lot of these lighting scenarios are planned out, they don’t feel rote. More than once, you hear Peter saying some variation of “Okay, I moved this light over, let me see how that looks.” The net effect is that you’re basically working through his process with him, watching him twist and turn lights, move and remove modifiers, and see how those things affect the final portrait.It’s a fascinating look at how he sometimes works himself into a photographic corner, then solves his way out of it. Those solutions can range from the simply elegant (just bring up the light and narrow the aperture), to the amusing (a 5-degree grid on a snoot??), but they’re always enlightening, and are an insight into the mind of a successful pro.

The final hour of the tutorial is a series of “live” shoots. As opposed to the first three hours, where his models sat or stood patiently as he moved lights and modifiers around them, now they move as well under Peter’s expert direction. Here we see shades of what The Art Behind the Headshot was all about, and it is, once again, very enlightening to watch. We also see a few setups with multiple people, which we haven’t seen in Peter’s tutorials before, and how he lights them both.

Two models pose for a shot

Two models pose for a shot

The Final Word

You already know my opinion of this tutorial – if you shoot the human face, and you use strobes or some other form of generated light, you need to get this video. Lots of other folks present videos with preset conditions that make the process look effortless; in Illuminating the Face, Peter actually shows you how the sausage is made. That’s actually him moving around, positioning C-stands and lights, adjusting booms and light levels. He’s not sitting comfortably and getting an assistant to do it; you actually get to watch him work.

That’s kind of important. When I was first starting out with strobes, I was unsure as to how to even position a light. If I’d had this video when I was first starting out, being able to see just how you move and adjust a boom on a c-stand would have been helpful. Watching a pro actually do the sweaty work of raising and lowering lights? That would’ve been amazing.

This tutorial isn’t just for beginners; as a lighting geek, I expected to go, “yeah, I knew that” most of the time. I’m just ridiculously pleased that those moments weren’t nearly as numerous as I thought they’d be; that bit about using a snoot and a grid together? That was genius! I would never have thought of that, but it totally worked. There were plenty of moments like that, and sometimes, even something as basic as watching the bits at the start about light falloff would trigger “aha!” moments as I recalled that I actually blanked on that bit of knowledge during one shoot or another.

Get this video, folks. Get it, and The Art Behind the Headshot. They’ll be one of the best $600 (they’re on sale for $450 together) combined you’ll spend.

Here’s the trailer for the video… Illuminating The Face With Peter Hurley from FStoppers on Vimeo. Illuminating the Face is on sale now for $300 at the FStoppers Store. Buy it with The Art Behind the Headshot for $450 for a limited time. As always, questions and feedback are welcome in the comments below.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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