How to Light for Environmental Portraits: Benny Migliorino Shares Tips on His Signature Style


All Photos © Benny Migliorino

It’s welcome news to any photographer when the look of their images becomes a distinct, signature style. That’s exactly what has happened to Benny Migliorino, whose specialty is environmental and location portraits. “A lot of people say that what I’ve become known for is dramatic lighting,” Migliorino acknowledges, “but I didn’t set out to be known for that—it’s just the way I like to light, and the way I want my photographs to look.”

Migliorino’s found he can create his dramatic images by setting the scene with a relative minimum of lighting equipment, which is a great benefit since he does most of his photography on location and doesn’t always have assistants with him.

Whether in conversation or on the job, Migliorino likes to cut to the chase, so let’s do that by getting right to the pictures and their stories.

“I liked the warm tone the light gave to the scene,” Migliorino says of the setup for this image. The line of shadows to the subject’s right comes from the nearby boxing ring. “To the right of the wall behind him was a doorway that allowed some daylight in, but this was essentially one light creating a lot of mood.”

An engagement portrait shot at the Chelsea Market in New York City. “The light was probably eight feet away from them,” Migliorino says. “I put an amber gel on the Speedlight to warm things up and to work with the ambient light from the room behind them. It was pretty windy out there, and the Rapid Box was getting blown around a bit, so I had to set my camera bag against the bottom legs of the light stand to steady it as best as possible.”

Migliorino likes to mix warm and cool colors in his images to give more contrast and pop to the photos. Most of his work is with non-professional models; his subject here is a bass player who’d modeled at a workshop earlier in the day.

“This was a big production with models, stylists, hair and makeup people and a Roaring 20’s theme,” Migliorino says, “and I’d rented some gear for myself and two other shooters. But this shot, as you can see from the setup, was just one big, soft light source, and I like that it’s a dramatic image but one that’s soft at the same time.”

“This was one of my first environmental portraits,” Migliorino says. “It was shot for the drum company that sponsored her. I took a lot of variations, but here I wanted more of a portrait look than a product shot. There was a black seamless background and two SB-800 Speedlights, one bouncing light, from a white foamcore board at camera right, back to her face, and a similar setup to the left to separate her from the background.”

“I’d worked a wedding at this catering hall and thought it would be a cool place to shoot,” Migliorino says. “When I was hired to shoot promo shots for a band I got access to the room. It was an easy lighting setup with one Lowel Omni Light to camera right, bouncing into the ceiling. That was it. Before the band arrived I’d worked out how to set the angles of the mirrors so I wouldn’t get myself in the picture or have light bouncing all over the place, but it took a few adjustments as I was shooting to get it right.”

“That’s me in the picture. I wanted to challenge myself, see if I could do it by myself in my living room. I set up a backdrop and the lights, tethered the camera to my laptop on the floor in front of me and used live view so I could look down and see my positioning. I fired the camera by touching a key on the laptop with my toe. The production shot? My point-and-shoot and its self-timer.”

“I used two Elinchrom Ranger lights here,” Migliorino says, “one at the bottom of the stairwell, with a blue gel, and the other to the right in the hallway at the top of stairs, with a green gel.”

Gear On Location
Migliorino currently uses a Nikon D800 and D700; a collection of Nikkor lenses (16mm f/2.8 fisheye, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, 105mm f/2.8 micro, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms); a total of five SB-700 and SB-800 Speedlights; and an SU-800 remote commander to wirelessly fire the Speedlights from the camera position. A Westcott Ice Light, a dimmable LED, is always in his bag. Migliorino also carries RadioPopper JrX units to trigger the Speedlights when they’re not in line-of-sight setups. “In a perfect world,” he says, “the main Speedlight would be at a quarter power and within eight feet of the subject, depending on the light modifier I’m using, with all the other Speedlights set at one-eighth power. But I’m always ready to experiment and change the setting for the mood of the photo.”

The Westcott Rapid Box 26-inch Octa Softbox is a favorite, and he also uses a Westcott 2334 28-inch Medium Apollo. Rogue flash gel kits for the SB units are must-carry items.

“I tend to bring a lot of reflectors and diffusers with me,” Migliorino says, “but they don’t always leave the car. I’ve got a Westcott 5-in-1 32-inch reflector kit and a California Sunbounce medium reflector, too.” Migliorino will have with him at least one light stand, sometimes two, and either a Lightware FourSquare block that holds up to four Speedlights, or a Westcott Triple Threat that holds…well, you know.

Plus all the batteries and cards he’s learned he’ll need. And then a few more.

Migliorino’s website,, features his images as well as videos of Migliorino and his gear at work; go to Films to access them. His book, Environmental Portraiture: Artistic Lighting and Design for Location Photography, will be published this year by Amherst Media.