On a recent photo shoot, we were tasked to make this gentle giant look fierce and menacing. Wardrobe got us about 40 percent there, a harsh beauty dish moved us closer and his attitude took us over the top. The key to this style of image is to ensure the light has a purpose; in this case harsh and directional to show detail.

This is how I got the shot. 

Quick settings overview

  • Nikon D700
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens shot
  • Aperture f/9
  • 1/125 sec shutter
  • ISO 200.

Setting up the shot

The Viking was centered in front of a large 27.5 beauty dish position high to produce a Butterfly Lighting effect. A slight turn of the head modified the Butterfly effect by creating a stronger shadow. The Westcott X-Drop black background fell completely black by moving it away from the subject until I had a meter reading of f/1.4. To get the Viking in character, I grunted and stared him down. He returned with a menacing look.

Processing in Lightroom

I have to admit, on set I made this look easy. I selected a gritty preset I created earlier in the week, then tweaked it to get a new look. Once I was happy with the look, I saved the new preset and applied it to all the images. This made the series of images look consistent.

(You can download a free copy of the Viking preset here:

The secret ingredients

It begins with harsh lighting so we can over sharpening the image in post. Desaturate the colors helps give it an older appearance. If the subject has ANY blemishes, remove them first with the spot removal tool BEFORE applying the preset.

Gear used

  • Nikon D700 camera
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens
  • 27.5 Beauty dish with no diffuser
  • Westcott x-drop black background
  • Bowen Light
  • 2 Pocket wizards
  • Processed in Lightroom with Vanelli’s Viking Preset

What would I try different?

It’s always important to learn from each shoot. Here are a few things I would want to try or improve on for the next shoot:

I wish I had more time. The shoot was part of a workshop; The CanAm Photo Expo, I taught at. If I had more time, I would have tried different lighting using just two strip banks.

Dave is also a talented actor, I would have let him run free with different expressions and poses.

Please leave comments below on this article and what you’d like to see in the future. Let me know if you’d like me to cover any other aspects of this (or future) shoots. Thanks for reading!

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Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your tips / insights and setting with us… Generous indeed! And awesome result too…

  2. Nice insight! Thanx:)

  3. Yes, perfectly took shoot, I really love the way you took this photo. I also love to have a black background during my photo shoot.

  4. Interesting and insightful. I will be trying this.


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About Vanelli

After a successful career as a three time Triple Crown Karate champion, Robert Vanelli turned his attention to teaching. As an educator for over 30 years, Vanelli has created several photography and digital workflow program including a special program, Click for Kids. Borrowing concepts from the martial arts, Vanelli instilled values such as integrity, and goal setting using photography as a vehicle to motivate children. As the lead photographer for Exposure Photographic Art Studio, Vanelli has had the opportunity of capturing images of special VIP’s, including the President of the United States, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former president of Toyota, Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, CEO’s of companies such as Yahoo,the Oakland A’s and several martial arts legends.


Lighting, Photography, Portrait, Shooting, Your Focus


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