Magazine Article


Ken Chernus' Outdoor Lighting Secrets For Assignment & Stock
Lighting Technique

twin boys
Fig. 5
Ken Chernus

men at the beach
Fig. 4
Ken Chernus

couple at the beach
Fig. 2
Ken Chernus

polo team
Fig. 3
Ken Chernus

Fig. 1
Ken Chernus

Text by Andrew Darlow.
Images by Ken Chernus.

Southern California-based Ken Chernus has truly "Seen the Light," and throughout his long career, he has transformed that light into a large collection of striking imagery. Specializing in stock and assignment photography, Chernus' clients include major magazines, fashion/beauty accounts, and many Fortune 500 corporations. In this 5-Step Technique, he reaches deep within his bag of tricks to describe some of the specific approaches he takes when producing his outdoor assignments and stock projects.

STEP #1 Plan Ahead & Scout Your Location

When shooting outdoors, the location choice is critical, and Chernus spends considerable time preparing for his commercial and stock shoots. He explains: "Most of my work is done along the southern California coast, so I've learned to tap into the motion picture-related resources in the area. In the L.A. area I recommend the 900+ page LA 411 Production Resource Book for different location services, and many other great resources. There is also a New York version of the 411 Book and both can be found on When I am asked to find a home on a beach, or another specific type of location for an assignment, I will often call a company like Malibu locations ( They have a library of more than 4,000 available homes and other locations in the L.A. area, and they have many digital photos of their locations, which can help to narrow down the list of options. Even if they send over photos of a few 'perfect'-looking places, I always recommend scouting it in person, unless the location is very far away. When scouting, I will take digital photos, create a Photoshop Web Gallery and post the images to my website for client inspection. An important tool to bring along when scouting is a compass, which will help to determine the sun's position at any time throughout the day. I also recommend checking the time of sunrise and sunset, which helps to maximize the amount of 'magic hour light.' In addition, always check the weather forecast; The Internet is a great resource for that.

"Sometimes the perfect location is right in your neighborhood, as was the case with the butler shot. Keep in mind that permits are often required to shoot on public property, and property releases are necessary when photographing certain products or places. Proper insurance coverage is also vital; There are many issues to consider, and groups like the ASMP ( and APA ( have great articles and info online to help."

STEP #2 Cast Your Talent & Hire a Stylist

Choosing the right talent is a critical part of any job, and Chernus describes his approach to casting for many of his projects. "For most of my advertising and catalog work, as well as stock shots like the one of the couple next to the fire on the beach, I will contact a few modeling agencies who then send over about 50-100 comp cards based on my general guidelines. After selecting my favorites, I schedule a go-see at my studio, and photograph all the models with my Canon EOS 20D on a white background for reference. Like with the location photos, a Photoshop Web Gallery is created for my own reference and for client approval. I will often find someone for a future project when casting for a different job, so it is important to take good notes and retain all relevant contact information.

A stylist is another critical part of many assignment and stock projects, such as the Butler image. In that case, I photographed the gentleman not only as a butler, but also as a priest, and the stylist was responsible for obtaining all clothing and props. It is a good idea to maximize the options you have when doing a stock shot, and ask your stylist to bring extra props and clothing. Very small changes in clothing, props or setting can result in many more marketable stock images, and assignment work will also benefit from the additional options."

STEP #3 Light It & Start Shooting (Film)

Now that all the prep work is done, Chernus begins by describing the lighting for the Butler image. For years, Chernus only shot medium format film, but he now shoots almost 100% with Digital SLRs: "If I were to shoot the butler image today, I would use a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II. Until just a few years ago, film was the best option for me, but that has all changed. The lighting I use with digital is almost identical to transparency film, though I'm even more careful about preserving highlight detail, and I only shoot in the RAW format.

"The butler image was shot at about 9 a.m. after a night of rain, and the sky added just the right drama to the scene. (See Fig. 1) I used a Profoto Pro-7b 1,200 watt/sec portable strobe with a single Profoto Pro-7b flash head and an 18-inch Balcar umbrella. I really like the ruggedness of the Pro-7b; Its output is adjustable in 1/6 stop increments and I can get 500 pops at 600 watt/sec, with flash recycles of about 1-2 seconds. Even with that much power, I will almost always rent a second battery along with the Pro-7b, and I will bring a small handheld Canon 550EX strobe unit as a backup. I used a Hasselblad 500CM and 60mm lens with Agfa Ultra 50 ASA negative film and steadied it on a Gitzo medium-size tripod with a Gitzo ballhead, about 10 feet from the subject. The umbrella was placed about five feet to the left of the camera, and about six feet off the ground. No fill cards were used. One of the main advantages of shooting with strobe outdoors is the ability to overpower the natural light, and thus, control the exposure of the foreground and background. In this case, I used a Minolta Flashmeter IV to light the butler at f/8, and I underexposed the background about 1 to 1.5 stops to create the final look. After fine-tuning the exposure with the help of the Polaroid 669, I shot about four rolls of film (full body and close-up) with the butler expressing different emotions and with him holding the tray containing a variety of different objects."

Chernus continues by describing the photo of the couple on the beach (See Fig. 2). "This was another stock shot, and consisted of a few simple, but important details all coming together at the right time. First, the fire was made with pine logs placed into a dugout hole on the beach. Timing was critical to capture the scene, since all the light was natural. One 4x8 foot white foam fill card was placed to the left of the couple to fill the shadows. We started about five minutes after sunset, and continued for about one hour. It was shot with a Contax 645, 80mm lens and Fuji NHGII 800 speed negative film. I rested the camera close to the ground and used a sandbag, which is great for stability and control. I metered for the shadows and tested the scene with a Polaroid 669 before shooting about 10 rolls. I was able to get a range of expressions from the models by asking them to relax and just enjoy the experience.

The photo above (See Fig. 3) is of an actual water polo team from a high school near my home. Casting was easy, but finding the right location proved difficult. Finally, I located a private school with a great pool and wall, and shot not only this portrait, but many other group and individual photos of the team over a period of about six hours. It was shot with a Contax 645, 80mm lens and Kodak NC 160 speed negative film."

The main challenge for this shot was to soften the harsh light, which was full sun when shot at about 4 p.m. "To do this, I rented a '20 by,' from Castex in L.A. (, which is a 20x20 foot frame that holds a white translucent silk used primarily for motion pictures. Silks come in different strengths, including China silk, which reduces light about 1/2 stop and Regular silk, which reduces it about one stop. Due to its size, I hired three assistants to help, and I shot in the pool area while it was being set up. The 20x20 was placed directly over the group, supported by two high rollers, which are like tall, heavy-duty C-stands that roll, and four 4x8 foot sheets of white foamcore were placed in front of the group outside of the frame, tilted up at them to provide fill. Silks come in many shapes and sizes and I often use other light modifiers, including Scrim Jim from FJ Westcott ( and frames from California Sunbounce ("

STEP #4 Light It & Start Shooting (Digital)

Chernus describes why he moved toward digital capture: "It frees me from many of the headaches that I used to encounter with film, especially when I needed to edit and retouch many photos for a client or stock submission." He continues: "For the stock photo of the 'Beach Boys,' who are real surfers that I met at the beach, I used only natural light and one 4x8 ft. foam fill card to the left of the camera and just out of frame, to soften the shadows. I shot the photo at about 4 p.m., and used a Gitzo Monopod that I especially like when I'm on the beach because I can easily stick it in the sand for stability. I shot it with a Canon EOS-1Ds and Canon f/2.8 80-200 L, which offers excellent sharpness and 11-megapixel files that size up beautifully in Photoshop CS from about 30MB to 50MB to meet my stock submission requirements.

"One of the products I use a lot when shooting on the beach is the Folding Marine Dock Cart, because it is so easy to roll on the sand ( See my equipment list for more information about my digital and lighting tools. One low-tech tool worth mentioning is 4x8 foam core, because of its weight, cost and versatility, and I will sometimes cover it with silver Roscoflex #3803 or #3804, which matches the reflective characteristics of the traditional soft leaf side of a reflector board. Other critical location tools are my Motorola Walkie Talkies (Talkabout 101s). I have four, and they can all be set to the same channel, so that I can communicate with my staff regardless of how far I am from the set. This is particularly helpful when I need to tell my digital assistant to come to the set to swap out a flash card, or to communicate with our hair stylist or makeup artist."

STEP #5 Process & Deliver

"Scanning and editing are important parts of any shoot, and I recommend testing various service bureaus to find those you can trust to provide the services you need. When I shoot film for stock and need high quality scans, I use three different companies in L.A. (,, and Another important part of my workflow is determining what files should be submitted for stock in color or black and white. When I want to convert to black and white, as in the case with the water polo image, and above image of the twin boys (See Fig. 5), I use Lee Varis' excellent split channel technique ( Lee is currently Digital Director at A&I in LA ( and I've learned a tremendous amount from him over the years."

To see more of Ken Chernus' work, visit