Today, I ended up in a site showing famous people faces in a very first plane. I just got impressed by the quality those photos had.

What do you think are the factors you have to tweak to reach that quality?

In this case, I think they've used a high quality prime lens with a very big aperture. The camera body must be also a important factor. But is there anything else?

What about the lighting in those photos?

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    Look closely at the eyes: you can see the light box.
    – whuber
    Mar 4, 2011 at 4:56
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    Hmmm...I'm left wondering whether I'm the only one who found these pictures exceptionally ugly and unimaginative. When you get down to it, "pictures" is almost a falsehood though -- we don't really have multiple pictures -- we just have one picture repeated dozens of times, with different people parked in front of the camera. It's one thing to show a distinctive style -- quite another to show a total lack of imagination, with no style at all. Mar 4, 2011 at 15:41
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    @Jerry: No, you're not the only one. They feel intrusively close to the subjects and because of that it makes me uncomfortable to look at them. There's far more detail than I want to see, and the subjects flaws are almost emphasized, rather than diminished as we usually see in photos... Which, I suspect, is part of Martin Schoeller's point (though I don't know for sure). They remind me of the stark uncomfortably close tabloid photography from the early-to-mid 20th century by photographers like Weegee... Mar 4, 2011 at 17:31
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    It actually reminds me of Chuck Close's superrealist painting style. The stark, hyperdetailed "warts and all" intrusiveness is part of the effect -- I don't think you can get the full effect until you see the pictures up close, in person and ten feet tall. I'm not saying I like the effect (and yes, there is but a single note playing in that song), but when you have a perspective that makes you feel you could crawl into those pores, it does kind of grab your insides a bit.
    – user2719
    Mar 4, 2011 at 17:53
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    @JerryCoffin To my eyes, they look creepy, actually. If that was intentional, I should say that the photographer did an excellent job. Dec 21, 2017 at 4:05

5 Answers 5


The lighting appears to be a single large roundish softbox (like the Elinchrom Octa) immediately behind the photographer/camera in most of the images. The shadow pattern is very similar to what you'd get with a ring light -- the outlines are darker than the center and there are no obvious shadows under the eyes or nose, etc. -- but softer. There is a vertical stripe "missing" from the lighting pattern, though -- and that'd be the photographer's position. The stripe is rather rectangular, though, which leads me to believe that the photographer has placed a gobo either behind -- or perhaps in front of -- the camera in order to keep the reflection out of the subjects's eyes. At least one picture, though (Paris Hilton) seems to have used a similar setup with either a large square softbox (Quadra, if we're actually in Elinchrom country) or two vertically-oriented rectangular softboxes (still huge) placed either side of the camera.

The camera is definitely a view camera, very likely an 8x10 with a 210mm lens going by the perspective -- which makes these photographs essentially macro photos. The aperture setting could actually be quite small by 35m-format standards -- f/22 or smaller wouldn't be out of the question for the depth of field we're seeing.

  • 1
    The photographer, Martin Schoeller, is featured in a video on YouTube, where you can see him shooting with an 8x10.
    – Greg
    Mar 4, 2011 at 6:29
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    The 8x10 was a certainty just from looking at the images; the 210mm lens is a guess based on my own 8x10 shooting. Obama's image had me wondering about a 150, but the rest look very 210-ish.
    – user2719
    Mar 4, 2011 at 6:50
  • And note that there is no light from above in the vast majority of these images -- one can never extrapolate a single shoot to an artist's entire portfolio.
    – user2719
    Mar 4, 2011 at 8:04
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    I am impressed of all the technical details you are able to pick from just looking at the photos !
    – Guillaume
    Mar 4, 2011 at 12:35

Well, the lighting in the photos look like lights on the background, and two relatively large lights illuminating their face (you can see the catchlight in the eyes), very possibly some rim light too.

You're spot on about the large aperture, even the ears are out of focus. However, considering how sharp the photos are, its possibly stopped down a bit (but not much at all) and the lens is close to the subject to decrease depth of field. Since he's shooting 8x10 view camera, I imagine the depth of field can be pretty shallow when needed.

As far as camera goes, who knows. But you can get amazing results in a portrait studio setting because of the lighting with many, many cameras these days. Given that he's shooting that many celebs though, I would imagine he could be using something like a medium format hasselblad - but frankly who knows.

Besides all that...check out this strobist post for a behind the scenes look at this photography.

EDIT: That specific video shows the two large boxes like I said, as well as a beauty dish center and up. It looks like he's shooting with a 8x10 view camera.

  • 1
    Very narrow DOF: not just the ears, but the tip of the nose in all most all of them.
    – mattdm
    Mar 4, 2011 at 5:07

Also, do not forget post editing. Slight sharpening, careful highpass filtering, to highlight all skin details.

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    Not at all necessary -- 8x10 chromes will have this sharpness and resolution without any playing around in post (softening is part of the normal process, in fact). It's easy to think "sharpening" when you're used to digital, but there's no antialiasing filter to overcome with film and if you've never worked with large format and a reasonably modern lens, you really can't appreciate the amount of contrast and detail available.
    – user2719
    Mar 4, 2011 at 9:06
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    Not necessary, but you can get the same look (at least when downsized to web resolution) without an expensive large format view camera by careful post processing.
    – Matt Grum
    Mar 4, 2011 at 11:49
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    @Stan Rogers - could you post some examples of this? most of my knowledge of medium/large format cameras comes from Ansel Adams' books, i'd love seeing what kind of pictures people can get with current technology :) Jun 9, 2011 at 16:36

Martin uses Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera for his close up portraits. He lights with 2 Kino flo 4Bank lights and a strobe for background. Negatives are drum scanned for digital editing.


Martin Schoeller did an interview with Popular Photography in which he talked about his setup:

I have never taken a digital picture, except for on vacation with a snapshot camera. I still prefer film and will continue to use it until the end. Film just looks so much better in galleries and museums. I use all different cameras. For my "Close Up" series I used a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with a 140mm lens.

As for post-processing, he mentions that:

I exclusively use negative film, because it has the widest range of tonality. We scan them on a drum scanner and work on them in Photoshop. The scans for the "Female Bodybuilder" series were 1.86 gigabytes per image. I don't think there will ever be a digital camera with that kind of resolution, since there is only a very small group of potential costumers in need of this kind of detail.

In another interview he talks a bit about his lighting setup:

I use the Kino Flo’s for my close-up. For strobe I use the Profoto Acute’s. They’re more lightweight and easier to travel with. But ultimately anything that flashes is fine by me.

There is also a picture of his setup for the "Close Up" series:

enter image description here

In case you're wondering, here's an approximate pricing of his equipment:

  • Mamiya RZ67 Pro II - $650 (used)
  • 140 mm f/4.5 Macro Lens - $425 (used)
  • Kino Flo 4Bank 4' Gaffer 2-Light Kit - $3000 (new)

A photographer named Ben Tolosa attempted to replicate that look using a Canon 5D Mark III and cheaper lights:

enter image description here

To my opinion it doesn't look as sharp as Martin's portraits, but it should be good enough in case you would like to try and replicate the style.

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