I can't remember how I ran into Jusepe de Ribera's (b. Spain 1591-1652) but somehow I did. I was immediately impressed with his use of light and how the direction of the light caused shadows to form from the brow over the eye sockets, to, in my opinion, emphasize the shape of the skull, reminding of death (maybe). I then began seeing this everywhere from The Godfather to random TV shows, which made me wonder where the hell have my eyeballs been all of these years.
What I enjoy about this lighting scheme is that it's a simple, one light technique that expresses much. I err on the side of simplicity. It's elegant and one can focus more on subject than technical diagrams (unless you have a crew. If you have a crew working with you, use the crew). Much of my photographic method has become simpler. One light. One lens. One camera.
What I wanted to learn to do was how I could artificially achieve a de Ribera look while out in the street. When this was first attempted, it was difficult to hold the flash at an angle over the subject's head. I could rely on street lights but they're not always around. Indoors is good but there's usually a lot of light bouncing around. The problem I had with the flash was that the light was too harsh. I found that putting a small diffuser could do the trick. Maybe take it old school and place a napkin over the flash head (oh the things you learn with zero budget).
For the shot below, I ended up using a Westcott Apollo Orb, which functions as a Octobox. I liked how the light wrapped around the subject's body while also casting a deep shadow over the brow. It was, again, a simple one light setup and it worked. The light was placed almost directly above her head, angled toward her body.
Check out some of de Ribera's paintings:
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