Light We Like: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Like Platon, photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders does most all of his portraiture with one, soft light. So he's an especially good person to learn from if you are still waiting to snag that second flash.

Greenfield-Sanders has made a career out of shooting elegant portraits of people, lit simply but beautifully with one light source. He also uses large format cameras for their extreme detail and lush tonal range. This consistent setup allows him to spend his time exploring expression, detail and subtle subject/photographer interactions.

This Ovation TV excerpt gives a little look into how he works, and how he approaches his interaction with subjects. Hit the jump for links and two more videos: One from a Fashion Week project, and the second a li'l sump'm-sump'm for the laydies...

(Briefly NSFW-ish)


Related: Sanders' website


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Blogger Sean "Madman" Sullivan said...

Interesting camera. Goes to show you don't need a ton of equipment to take a great portrait. Only problem I had with the video was his self-serving need to inject his political idealogy into it. His "George Bush's" war comment was unnecessary.

July 11, 2008 12:20 PM  
Blogger Rosh Photographer said...

Thanks for posting these videos. Not a lot of technical talk in this video, it's even a little political.

But, I enjoyed his discussion about how he works with people and thoughts on his work.


July 11, 2008 12:23 PM  
Blogger David said...

Well, it is his video. And bear in mind, it is in the context of a series of photos on vets injured in Iraq. He has a message (just like most all of us do) and he is using photography to communicate it.

Whether you agree with his message or not, it is hard to argue with the fact that he is using photography very powerfully as a medium for his particular message.

July 11, 2008 12:32 PM  
Blogger Jack Kelley said...

Terrific photos, but the first video put me off my feed. We barely glimpse his lighting setup. He tells us every phrase he utters is calculated to relax his subject. He inquires after Patrick's parents, elicits an interesting answer, and then responds with a couldn't-care-less "Really? C'mon over here." Utterly oblivious to irony, he casually mentions "George Bush's war" -- to me the ultimate airhead meme, certain to please half his audience while cheesing off the other half. Way to amp up the comfort level, Tim. Next time: more lights, less lip, please.

July 11, 2008 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like he is shooting with 8x10 polaroid (where is he getting that these days?) and also with 8x10 film?

July 11, 2008 12:44 PM  
Anonymous Billy said...

8x10, wow, i hope he has stockpiled enough polaroid for the rest of his career.

i personally like to learn about a photographer when i watch a video. you get a better feeling for who they are and how it influences their work. If you dont like personality i suggest you check out more pro photo life videos.

July 11, 2008 12:56 PM  
Blogger Ron said...


Off topic: you thinking any time soon of a seminar in Germany? I was at the Paris seminar, but live in Germany and get a sense that the Strobists here would be all over it.

July 11, 2008 1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the ultimate in less-is-more photography. He can achieve stunning results, even with an Olympus D-SLR. One can learn a tremendous amount just looking at the results. Big, soft light, when positioned correctly at the right power, is just gorgeous.

As an artist and more importantly as a citizen, Greenfield-Sanders has every right to describe the war in any way he chooses. It is neither self-serving nor air-headed to point out the simple fact that the Iraq war occurred for one reason and one reason alone: George Bush wanted it to happen. It certainly isn't my war; I knew it was a monumental mistake at the time, and I have not been asked to make even the slightest sacrifice for it. Greenfield-Sanders' photographs demonstrate in the clearest terms that many have made unimaginable sacrifices that humble us all.

July 11, 2008 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Steve O. said...

Please do not let these comments dissuade you from posting more of these great videos. I find that I am learning something from every one of them. They all cannot be "here are the secrets to perfect photos" tutorials. Some videos reveal communication skills, some reveal technical skills, and others let us see how others work (and I find that very inspirational). Thank you and keep up the good work.

July 11, 2008 1:44 PM  
Blogger David said...


Actually, yes. I am looking at planning a Euro trip as we speak.

July 11, 2008 1:55 PM  
Blogger David said...


Fair notice: I just got a stream of anonymous, mostly political comments which are going to go unmoderated and prompt me to note that this comment thread won't be turning into the platform du jour for the Iraq War argument.

Plenty of other places for that.

THanks for understanding.

July 11, 2008 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Ivan Correa said...

I agree with David on Tim's comment over George Bush's War (although Cheney's the man). I don't understand how photographers can't learn from a video like this. I feel sometimes we loose perspective of what photography is. In film, directors give their own interpretation of how they see the world and that's why we go after their work. Why photographers have to be different? I'm realist and understand that for a lot of people the technical aspect of a photograph is everything. I totally disagree. He made a statement over him taking the same picture over and over again, I call that mastering your craft. Repetition is the secret here. If we go a bit over the technical aspect and try to concentrate on the person behind the lens maybe we could grasp a bit of information over how Timothy's personality is reflected on the final product. At the end, a real photographer is more than numbers and equations, it's more about how he translates his understanding of life passing by in front of him (and yes, this applies to any given situation, including portraits). Sorry for the long post but I had to say it. Keep it up David.

July 11, 2008 1:58 PM  
Blogger Ryan Allan Photography said...

Not every video needs to be a lighting tutorial. I prefer to hear the photographer. Connection with people is much harder a subject than where to put a softbox.

I like the simple setup with good results. Nice work.

July 11, 2008 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the video!

Is there a way to use an OCTABOX with a strobe?

July 11, 2008 2:25 PM  
Blogger David said...


Theoretically, yes. But they suck up light. You'd prolly want to use a large, shoot-thru umbrella for efficiency.

July 11, 2008 2:54 PM  
Blogger Corey Woodruff said...

I Tivo'd this show on Ovation when it came out and after watching it sveral times it became one of the reasons I finally dove into photography. I love his simple techniques as it's inspiring to see what he does with so little.

I have nothing wrong with his political comments either, as the whole goal of this program was to provide insight into each photographer and their work. It's especially relevant considering the subject of the specific project he mentions.

July 11, 2008 3:03 PM  
Blogger Basswork said...

While his injection of politics is tiresome, his point about taking the same picture rings true. The human face is so expressive and malleable, you don't need to get tricky with light. The face says it all.

William Coupon has shot everyone from Mick Jagger to George Bush using the same basic one light setup and backdrop and his portraits are all fascinating.

July 11, 2008 3:53 PM  
Blogger David C. Pearson, M.D. said...

Ugggghhh... More teaching and less preaching would be better. This video wasn't about photography or photographer. It was one man's political drivel dressed up as a photography video.

(Don't get me wrong, he's perfectly entitled to his opinion, but it makes his video virtually unwatchable and in that sense it fails.)

July 11, 2008 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Thomas said...

Just when I started feeling that soft lighting was dull and uninspired and that I needed to get more grids and snoots to make expressive images, this guy demonstrated just how cool it can still be to simply put on a big Octabox. Thanks!

July 11, 2008 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah man the vids are no longer available? that sucks...

July 11, 2008 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Gee whiz, this country is getting polarized. Whatever happened to "the middle?"

They are beautiful photos, and technically wonderful. He said three words that ID'd him as probably being on one side of a polarizing issue. And that makes the video unwatchable?

Are we getting so hard-nosed (even M.D.'s for Chrissakes -- that's downright scary) that if someone has a different ideology it invalidates them?

I would think that even Hitler could recognize that Jesse Owens was fast. If you are that much pro Iraq War, then never use an Octabank again. It's as simple as that.

July 11, 2008 5:46 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I love his work.

I spend my life photographing people, and its not at all about being so communicative and chatty, and full of great jokes and stories, its a subtle and gentle art, allowing your subject to know that your'e not going to make them look bad. like its so easy for you, and its just an everyday simple thing, making a portrait. no worries.

by the way, thanks for a great site. been lurking here for a while.


July 11, 2008 6:10 PM  
Anonymous scott said...

You know, if YouTube displayed nudity, the special TGS did for HBO based on his portraits of porn stars (an interesting book, too) would undoubtedly have elicited different responses from the peanut gallery.

Back on topic though, I also wonder what his work (and people like Wegman) is gonna look like when there are no more Polaroids.

July 11, 2008 7:48 PM  
Anonymous Brandon D. said...

Thanks for posting this video.

All political gripes aside, a lot can be learned from these videos. As a "digital shooter" turned "digital+film shooter" myself, it shows that wonderful results can be achieved with both digital and film especially with a Strobist's mindset. I'm just glad to see that people are still shooting film, especially at the highest level of photography.

I also liked the way he always seemed calm and collected when working with his subjects. Everything he did seemed smooth and natural. It's guys like him, Platon, and others who reinforce how important it is to be heavily invested into the subject during the shoots [as far as attention and energy is concerned]. That's something we gear-heads could always improve on, haha. So, I'm glad emphasized that issue in these videos.

I can't wait to see more of these sorts of videos.

-Brandon D.

July 11, 2008 7:50 PM  
Blogger Walter said...

TGS is easily the most overrated photographer of the 20th C - or maybe Litchfield - banal shots of ( usually ) famous people. The top 100 strobists could eat him day or night

July 11, 2008 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Gabby said...

As I have recently started working in a studio and struggling to keep things interesting with props, etc, I was interested in Timothy's comment that people critisize his work as being the same thing over and over again. Looking at his portraits I saw something different every time and it was all in the sitter's expression.

That third video "for the ladies" was reeaalllly hard to pay attention to the way the lighting was used on the models but I perservered!

July 11, 2008 8:55 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

WAH,WAH,WAH !!! Let the guy say whatever he wants. I am not so easily pesuaded to be tilted in any direction politcally from a 5 minute video on how to take awesome portraits. I instead thought of how poetic if would be if he was given the opportunity to photograph(chute) the person that he mentioned in the video.

PS the misspelling was intentional:)

July 11, 2008 9:38 PM  
Anonymous lenny said...

Boooooooring photographs. The interest lies in his subjects, not his photographs. Reminds me of Annie L. I don't seem him as being "great".

However, I will give him credit for his "people skills".

Imagine your favorite band playing the same songs tour after tour and they play those songs exactly the same way as the songs sound on their albums. When they record a new album, its the exact same "sound" as all their other albums. Sounds exciting doesn't it?

David- How about an interview with Storm Thorgerson or Jerry Uelsmann?

July 11, 2008 9:48 PM  
Blogger Stefano said...

Maybe an octabox is quite expensive .. If you are into DIY (and love small SBs) you can have a look at .. Some Ikea stuff, a little DIY and you can have your large light source almost for free ;-)

July 11, 2008 9:53 PM  
Anonymous kirk Tuck said...

I'm a little shocked that the current generation of photographers is so conservative and politically right wing. The whole history of fine art photographers is heavily weighted toward a more humanitarian and less bellicose point of view. Avedon marched in Selma and protested (and was arrested for protesting against the war in Viet Nam). So many great photographers have made their position against wars so clear. I am saddened that the discourse and ability to ignore the Fox-news-ification of the sampling on this response forum is so......totalitarian.

As to TGS, I too have always been mystified by his popularity in some camps. I find the view camera to be "schtick" and the posing to be sooooooo emotionally constrained.

But I admire his consistency and his endurance.

July 12, 2008 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be honest, I don't really buy it. To me, I think he is just lucky to be able to photograph all those celebrities. Many people over here can for sure shoot what he shoots.

July 12, 2008 2:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so many bullshitters.
He's not an entertainer, he takes photos for the exact reason he said himself: to record people in time. Why does he have to invent himself for your purpose. If you want variety go watch someone else. He didn't proclaim himself 'great'.
Some are demanding that he's supposed to be educating in some way. This is not a how-to DVD you paid to watch just an interview with a person.
His political views are what makes him a person, and his project reflected that. Why would anyone pro-war take photos of war amputees? I think it's great and his views don't concern me. If that little comment upsets you, you don't really have any problems in life.

I feel like the internet crowd is extremely spoiled and ego-centric lately.

July 12, 2008 3:07 AM  
OpenID brownpolyester said...

Sweet video! I would love to have that 8x10 camera he's using in the first video, it's amazing. I just ordered my first umbrella and light stand for my sb600 today. So this was a perfect video to get me excited about a one light setup. Thanks david. I also just wanted to say a little something about the war comment. This guy is up close and personal with the people who have fought and been injured in a war. So I can understand why he said what he said. I would also be upset heart broken to hear the stories they have to tell. I'm glad that he is putting these amazing brave men and women on film for the world to see. This is very important. We need to see this.

July 12, 2008 3:18 AM  
Blogger Gordon F said...

I too picked up onhis comments about how everythign he says is designed to make his sitters feel relaxed...and how he almost instantly stopped the conversation with the lad about his parents... In the first video I found all those portraits very samey...but without doubt they looked like excellent examples of that style.

What struck me most though was the second video where he was obviously sponsored by Olympus to take those sots during fashion week. I was struck how they all seemed quite different, even with the same lighting. Personality shone..but I was left wondering if that was because of some input from him or was it that they were all pumped from being at a cool fashion show day out.....who knows. The important thing I learnt was that he got the celebs to sign a release!

July 12, 2008 6:14 AM  
Anonymous Ken Douglas said...

Thanks for very thought provoking post.

Great photography is about the light and the photographer's interaction with the subject.

I subscribe to Strobist because of my interest in multi-strobe, off camera lighting. But it's great to be reminded that there are other ways of getting wonderful images.

The second video was especially interesting - a lot to learn, even though it requires some "reading between the lines"!

I am surprised by some comments that appear to dismiss or invalidate *all* that was said, because Tim's political views were not aligned with theirs. Blinkered thinking tends not to be a good thing in any aspect of life or society - and certainly not in photography.

Thanks again

July 12, 2008 7:05 AM  
Blogger FOTOSOFU said...

David, Thank You for all you do. This video reminds me of when I first started out with only one light and trying to get great photos. All new photogs should look at this video to be inspired and to learn from a master.

July 12, 2008 8:54 AM  
Anonymous Jammy said...

Awesome video's. Keep it up David, seeing the big names work methods and hearing them talk about their craft is incredibly valuable.

Now to be a gear geek... Was that a 5ft-ish Octabox? Like a Chimera 57?

July 12, 2008 1:05 PM  
Blogger Sergei Rodionov said...

Interesting video. Not from perspective of light, really, but mostly from words - we often do forget that whole photography stuff is about documenting our current time in all its forms.

Virtually same stuff as Joe posted in his blog recently , touching whole 9/11 museum subject.


"Is there a way to use an OCTABOX with a strobe?" , i am no David, of course, but i'd say - answer is yes, but you better off using set of 3-4 shootthrough umbrellas with 3-4 strobes. Then you can sit in middle of them and have effects that may outshine whatever huge octabox with 1500W strobe does.. :)

Or just use white sheets from hotel ;)))

July 12, 2008 1:47 PM  
Blogger MK said...

I, too, have seen better "people skills." However, to be fair, it was a rather short presentation. I suspect that he and the soldier were together the better part of a day. We were not privy to all their interactions. But still, it didn't look all that impressive.

His work? I think he does what he does very well. It just doesn't move me.

Political commentary? is George Bush's war.

July 12, 2008 2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TGS has an excellent book or portraits out, and while the set up is very similar the pictures are defiantly unique. He even made Monica Lewinski look good for the cover of her book. I do think of the porn book as a stunt, but it is interesting that most looked better with their clothes on.

July 12, 2008 4:04 PM  
Anonymous ben said...

I think people are getting confused about Timothy's workflow... He does use 8x10 polaroids, but usually as a way to check lighting/exposure. Rarely do they wind up as final pieces. Most of his big exhibition prints are 8x10 color negative...

But yes, I would imagine he has quite a nice stockpile...

July 12, 2008 7:28 PM  
Blogger Barry L. Atkins said...

You know, when I make shots like this, they are called mugshots or booking shots. I like the way he shoots and I like that he uses a simple one light technique.
Thanks for sharing this David.

July 12, 2008 10:01 PM  
Anonymous dave wright photography said...

it's sort of funny to me that people would leave comments complaining that, in the video, he focuses more on rapport with his portrait subjects, and doesn't talk enough about lighting.

these people don't seem to get that, when it comes to portraits, rapport is more important than lighting.

of course that's not true of all photographic genres - but he's a portrait guy!


July 13, 2008 8:00 AM  
Blogger Daniel Han said...


thanks for posting these videos. I always struggled in portraits; lighting setup is a piece of cake, but I always couldn't bring out that inner something out of my subjects.

After watching the videos and having seen how he interacted with his subjects, now I realized what I've been lacking or doing wrong.

I always appreciate your blog.
Daniel from Toronto

July 13, 2008 10:33 AM  
Blogger David said...

To Jeffrey- Thanks for the CSS code to highlight my comments. I modded it a little, and added it in. You da man.


July 13, 2008 1:38 PM  
Anonymous Madelien said...

I personally think his work, with the possible exception of a few black&white's, is very banal to the point of plain boring, only elevated to such heights because of the people in there. If it were a portfolio with nextdoor neighbours and unknown models, we probably wouldn't even give it a second glance. I think nowadays a photographer wouldn't get to where he's gotten with such simple photos.

July 13, 2008 2:31 PM  
Anonymous Brock Meeks said...

I suppose it's natural to look at the simple set up, the apparently effortless workflow and then spit into your keyboard with: "Bah, anyone can do that!" Yeah, he's just "lucky" because he gets to shoot celebs; the beautiful people.

Bunk. It's not nearly as effortless as it seems.

Let's turn around an early comment: "Let's have less lip."

Think this stuff is easy? Then by all means (you naysayers) show us how easy it is with your own one light portraits. Just make sure you can stand the feedback before you post it.

July 13, 2008 3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on give the guy a break. He doesn't even pretend to be making art like some others do. He says he just "records" people in different ages. He's just a master manipulator with people's faces. Nothing to do with "strobism".
Dave, I think "Portraiture 101" should start with a primer on human psychology.

July 13, 2008 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I think the work is nice, not extraordinary, but nice. I am sure it looks great on big prints. I also think that to get a good idea of his personal interaction with clients we would have to see him for longer periods. The "really" comment was cut right after he said it, so we don't know if he said "really" or "Really, Buenos Aires has this wonderful restaurant...."

July 13, 2008 7:01 PM  
Blogger kckong said...

no hairlight, no bg light, no fill, no accent/kicker... just one big soft box :) lovely

Wonder what people might say if someone of a lesser stature shot unknown subjects in the same manner

July 13, 2008 10:29 PM  
Blogger Alistair Windsor said...

One of my favourite portrait photography books is Jane Brown's "Faces". She uses ambient light, or when none is available, a single bare bulb when a suitable ambient source is not available.

No backdrops, no flash, but great photos.

This is a book about lighting though not one about strobes.

July 14, 2008 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inflammatory political comments disconnect me and others from the learning mood, and are better served in an appropriate forum, such as an interview video, or a link to his website.

That said, it was refreshing to see well-done single-light portraits. To me, they can most closely approximate the mood of natural light (say, through a skylight) more than most other strobed lighting. I have to wonder about the possibility of using strobes like the 'McNally desert rig' inside a big octabox. Imagine the gelling and sequential and/or grouped firing possibilities using PWs!

As for the comment: "...That third video "for the ladies" was reeaalllly hard to pay attention to the way the lighting was used on the models but I perservered!". My observation is that I don't think those models would entertain the slightest reciprocal feeling for any women...

July 14, 2008 11:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

July 15, 2008 1:21 AM  
Anonymous Wedding Photographer Nice France said...

I think Jack Kelly nailed my feeling exactly - I do not think the first video is either the showmanship of somebody who makes other people comfortable, nor is it very interesting from a lighting educational perpsective...

July 15, 2008 5:36 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Can someone point me in the right direction to discover is system hes using to hang his seamless paper?

July 16, 2008 1:53 AM  
Anonymous Joe Conely said...

Although he is using one light, I find the photography itself neither inspiriing nor that noteworthy. Seems to me he has a career built more on reputation than results. For instance, when he does a close-up of Frankie the dog, the real shot was the owner and friend's LOL reaction at the moment, and he missed that. Sometimes the best shot is the unplanned one and a true portrait artist captures those.

July 18, 2008 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. A lot of judgemental comments here on the 'right' and 'wrong' way to do portraits; a whiff of the 'gear-head' mentality. Clearly I was brought up in a different photographic world to you people, one where plurality of style and opinion is valued. Photography has no rules, deal with it.

July 22, 2008 1:23 AM  
Anonymous san francisco photographer said...

I tend to agree with this -

"Dave, I think "Portraiture 101" should start with a primer on human psychology."

dave wright photo

July 24, 2008 5:38 AM  
Blogger ivysgrandkid said...

You know what? all the people on here who say his work is boring and his skills aren't that great need to rethink again! Helmut Newton ran around the same principle, even Avedon and look what their work did for the medium . Sure the people he photographs may also contribute to the photo but i'm sure years after now when these people are no more everyone will still remember these photographs, He really has a great gift for making his subjects reveal their all to them and in his photographs they come across as being so approachable . Thanks for posting these vids, amazing work!

July 29, 2008 10:56 AM  
Blogger MASilva said...

The one thing that I caught that I really thought was cool was when he stood out in front of the camera to compose the shot without looking through the camera. I've tried a couple of shoots with a 4x5 and composing is not all that easy when you are working with people. I'll have to try this next time.

I would also like to disagree that these photos would not work if they were of ordinary people or neighbors. There are some beautiful portraits hanging in my local coffee spot of posed street portraits taken with a hasselblad - just available light. Also on Platon's site is a link to with some very nice work.

I love taking pics of people, and many of my friends think I'm pretty good at it - I have a long way to go before I can do this sort of thing.

August 05, 2008 8:03 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

Unless you've worked with a 4X5 or an 8X10, you really have NO idea how difficult it is to shoot people with these cameras. It's extremely difficult to do this by yourself and maintain some rapport with the subject:
-Compose the shot, dimly and upside down.
-remember to close the aperture! it's wide open
-cock the shutter
-insert the holder
-pullout the slide, the right slide(I've pulled the wrong one)
-find the cable release
-prompt the subject to give you something
-pray they didn't move too far from the focus point you've set
-insert slide
-remove film holder
-open aperture
-and do it all again!


Thanks for these videos

August 11, 2008 9:56 PM  
Blogger Walter said...

shooting with 4x5 or 10 x 8 is like digging a mine with a teaspoon - it's a lot of work, you get the job done but the result is the same
a page in a magazine

August 12, 2008 6:47 AM  

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