Directly with regards to the lighting:
- Much of her recent work has strong light sources from behind the main subject(s). About 45° (either to the side or a combination of to the side and above) from directly behind the subject seems to be the most common angle in her examples on instagram. She's not afraid to let the highlights go to get the shot she wants.
- She tends to shoot right around sunrise/sunset for many of her outdoor shoots. Or at least she shoots when the sun is fairly low in the sky. Her home near Moscow is at a fairly northern latitude which means even the midday sun is low during the winter, and the sun stays near the horizon longer after sunrise and before sunset as the sun moves at a lower angle relative to the horizon than it does at lower latitudes closer to the tropics. These lengthened times include both the 'golden hour' just before and the 'blue hour' just after sunset. When she shoots outdoors with the sun a bit higher in the sky she tends to process the images to give them the warmth and low contrast of the golden hour sun. Her indoor shoots almost always have either strong light coming in windows or other openings from the rear of the scene with the sun at fairly low angles in the sky or they have 'natural' man made light sources such as candles, lanterns, or fires in an oven or fireplace. These sources are visible in the image while also providing direct and reflected light to other parts of the scene.
- The 'rustic' locations that she seems to prefer often have a lot of dust or fog in the air which gives definition to the light rays behind the subject(s), either directly behind them outdoors or streaming in windows. Steam or artificial smoke (which is mostly water vapor such as from small, portable versions of the type of 'smoke machines' used at rock concerts) can give the same effect.
- Her secondary lighting sources are very soft, yet at times can be very limited to the area of her subject's face. Many of the secondary light sources seem to be soft reflections from objects already a part of the shot's environment but not seen in the camera's field of view. They could also be reflections from 'soft' reflectors. In the comments to one shot she mentions a large tree off camera to the left as well as the sandy soil that reflected light from the setting sun that was on the right behind her subject.
- Where it looks like she is using fill flash, there is often the look of a snoot, grid, or other modifier limiting the spill of the flash to areas beyond the subjects face. Yet the light falling on the face is still diffused and soft, like there are screens or baffles softening the light coming through the snoot or grid. This could also be done with small reflectors and possibly flags to limit the reflection to a specific area. It's often mixed in so well with the ambient light that one has to examine the catchlights in the eyes of the subjects to see it. These could be the result of fill flash, but might also be the result of 'natural' or ambient light sources or reflectors (such as, perhaps, a household mirror) behind or beside the camera.
- Sometimes it might not be 'fill' at all. She has stated in older interviews that she sometimes composites images. The 'fill light' on her subjects may well be the 'primary light' on them as shot. Compare these two images shot with the same lens, nearly the same aperture (f/2.8 vs. f/2.5), from roughly the same distance: This one appears to have three separate planes of focus (the dock about halfway between the frame's near edge and subject, the subject, and the water beyond the subject. The trees in the distance are not as blurry as one might expect for such a shot taken at 135mm, f/2.8 and a relatively near subject distance. Some have theorized that it is one of her composites. This one, on the other hand, appears to be a single image with only one plane of focus and the distant background as blurred as would be expected for a 135mm lens at f/2.5 and focused fairly close. Although this one has little to do with fill light, there is some evidence of compositing as well: The reflection of the sky in the water doesn't match the sky just above the actual trees.
Beyond the lighting:
- Her preferred lenses are very wide aperture primes: The EF 50mm f/1.2 L , the EF 85mm f/1.2 L, and the EF 135mm f/2 L. She is shooting with them on a full frame Canon 5D Mark III. When she gives exposure information she is almost always shooting at between f/1.4 and f/2 (f/2 to f/2.8 with the 135mm). At longer subject distances she occasionally uses narrower apertures. The first two lenses in particular have a distinctive 'look' from the way the edges and corners are rendered due to uncorrected field curvature. What isn't so good for getting tack sharp edges when shooting a flat test chart (lack of flat field correction) can often be magic when used for portraits.
- The subjects are often framed in the center of the viewfinder when shot. Many of her images are cropped to a more square format than the 3:2 aspect ratio of the camera she uses. In a lot of the images, the subject(s) remain centered. If one looks carefully and is familiar with the rendering character of the specific lenses she is using, one can see that when the subject is not centered in the final image the crop is sometimes used to place the subject off-center even though the subject was placed in or near the lens' optical center when shot.
Post processing: Her images appear to have a lot of 'local' adjustments (those made to only a portion of the image) in terms of sharpening and blur, color, exposure, noise reduction, etc. They also tend to have few to no true dark (black) areas. At least some of her images show signs of being composite images (images with various elements in them that came from different initial photographs).
- Although one of the most striking things about Elena Shuminova's images are the color renderings, this is not due to highly saturated colors. Rather, the colors she wishes to not emphasize are minimized. This leaves the desired colors as the dominant ones without oversaturating them.
- Even when shooting at wider apertures that give shallow depths of field, it seems that she will sometimes increase blur in the out of focus areas in postprocessing. Occasionally even a 'Petzval' effect is added.
- Many of her images look like they've had the application of selective sharpening (sharpening a specific area, such as the subject's eyes, more than the rest of the image).
- More noise reduction can be applied to the darker, less detailed areas of an image with a less noticeable effect than applying the same amount to an area in sharp focus. If the subjects is properly lit and exposed, then little NR is needed in those areas but can be more liberally applied in the less defined shadows.
- The same areas that have been selectively sharpened often look like she's used a selective color tool, such as an HSL tool, to enhance the colors of those areas as well.
- There is a lot of color adjustment to her images. Beyond adjusting overall color temperature and white balance globally, it looks as if there is use of a hue-saturation-luminance (HSL) or hue-saturation-value (HSV) tool to adjust specific color ranges ranges individually. In addition to global (the same setting applied to the entire image) color/WB and HSL adjustments, there also appear to be local color adjustments to specific areas of the frame.
- Dodging and burning (increasing or decreasing the brightness of specific areas) is also in evidence. This can often be accomplished via the use of selection brushes to designate a specific area for increased or decreased brightness.
- There tends to be very few to no areas of her images with true blacks. Not only is there relatively low contrast in her images (compared to the same scene rendered with more 'standard' contrast profiles), but the darkest areas of her images usually have color and some level of detail.
There is a lot more post processing going on in most of her images than first meets the eye. It's not just color, contrast, exposure, etc. It's often full blown Photoshop in the sense that most people understand when they say an image has been 'Photoshopped'. Take a look at this image and then this one. According to the EXIF info they were taken within the same sub second. Yet the subjects had time to move and it seems that just to the left of the boys the earth opened up a new swath of itself rather smoothly! Or compare the stacks of books, the windows, and the trees outside the windows in this one and this one.