Tips & Techniques - Jerry Avenaim    

Portrait Photographer Jerry Avenaim shows you how to Light em up!

Jerry Avenaim, Los Angeles based celebrity, fashion and advertising photographer to the stars, talks about the passions and techniques that have taken his career to the stratosphere and beyond.

Light em' up!
Images and Text by Jerry Avenaim

"Fans of pop culture know Jerry Avenaim for his revealing, off-beat portraits of celebrities and beautiful people (from Angela Bassett in ‘milkshake’ makeup to Robert Blake in the buff), but among photography students and professional shooters, Avenaim is equally famous for his willingness to share the psychological and technical skills that have made him a modern-day master.

When asked to describe his most satisfying project in 2005, Avenaim said, ‘Honestly, the most exciting thing has been lecturing, sharing my experiences, and lighting techniques. I always encourage questions from the audience, and I feed off them. I can see their eyes just wide open. It’s so rewarding to me to be able to give back to the photo community that has given me so much.’

When we suggested that he might be giving away too many trade secrets, Avenaim replied, ‘I always chuckle when I hear that because, let me tell you, there are no secrets. There are three things that no one’s ever going to take away from me, or from any of you: what’s in my heart; the way I see things; and the way I communicate with my subject. We can set up the lights and everybody can go into the studio one at a time and everybody’s pictures are going to look different.’"

Avenaim’s tips and techniques for TGP readers are listed below. If you want still more inside info on Avenaim’s technical wizardry, wait for the 2006 publication of his book Luminosity, which will explain precisely how he shot dozens of his most famous portraits.

1) Get to know your subject as best you can well before the shoot.

1 American Idol
Simon Cowell Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

2) Find a common ground, interests that you share with your subject. This will help to put them more at ease with you.

2 Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

3) Remember to engage and direct your subject. I'll often say something offbeat just to get a reaction, while my finger is trained on the shutter ready to get the shot. 

2 Luke Wilson
Luke Wilson  Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

4) I never filter the lens, always the light. Your lens is going to be as good as the last piece of glass in front of it.

3 Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

5) No matter what the composition I always keep the eyes in the upper third of the frame, it's naturally where we're drawn.

2 Amber Tamblyn
Amber Tamblyn Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

6) Because we see celebrities as larger than life figures, I use a long lens for compression and place the camera angle at about the subject's chest level, this way I'm shooting up at them, fulfilling the viewer's perception.

Chris Evans
Chris Evans  Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

7) You can create beautiful lighting situations anywhere quite inexpensively. For outdoor beauty I'll often use a $5 white beach umbrella to diffuse the light on the face.  This creates an even and omni-directional light.

3 Jodi Lyn O keef
Jodi Lyn O'Keef Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

8) Another way to get a great beauty light on your subject is by "bending light." Place your subject in an open shade area by using a garage, carport or overhang. This also creates a beautiful, even light on the face.

2 Patricia Arquette
Patricia Arquette  Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

9) When using flash indoors or out, expose your subject with the aperture and your background with your shutter speed. This will equally balance the mixture of light. Nobody seems to be able to get that unless they have a picture to put together with it. It has nothing to do with depth of field. It’s finding the balance and equality between existing light and strobe light. You can control your strobe light but you can’t control your existing light. So if I’m outside at high noon, I need a fast shutter speed. Or if I’m inside, I’m going to do what’s called dragging the shutter to allow the ambient light in the room to match the output of the strobe.
For example, I shot the cast of Malcolm in the Middle on the set. They were around the table in their kitchen and in the background was a Christmas tree with lights. I had two large pro-photo lights and five-foot umbrellas lighting the entire set but now I’ve got to drag my shutter to allow for the continuous light-- the hot lights that are lighting the background of the entire room.

4 Malcom in the Middle
Malcolm in the Middle Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

10) Learn the rules of photography and then know how to break them, creativity comes from thinking outside the box.

Carre Otis2
Carrie Otis  Jerry Avenaim All Rights Reserved

11) No matter what your proficiency, if you are an amateur or professional, remember to have fun, and you will always take great pictures.  The biggest piece of advice I give is to get out and experiment.


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