Making A “Monte” Portrait: Take A Simple, Direct Approach
Monte Zucker
• Posted Apr 1, 2005

Photos © 2004, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

My philosophy in my work: I don't photograph the world as it is; I photograph it as I want it to be. So, yes, I'm an incurable romantic. I confess.

Some of the portraits here were created digitally within the last year or two; some were created in the "olden" days before digital (25-30 years ago). These images are exactly as they appear in a new book of mine that was published recently by PictoBooks ( The original book is 15x15". It's available in the full size and in a smaller 5x5 version by contacting them (e-mail: Most of the images are printed on metallic paper--incredible to see and hold!

I gave the files to PictoBooks and they designed the entire setup. Each page carries my message with it. The photographs are displayed with good taste and not a lot of digital effects that take away from the images themselves are applied. It's difficult for some to not use the many gimmicks that are available now in digital printing. My hat is off to PictoBooks for preserving the dignity of my work. Here's a peek at some of their layouts:

Stay Under Cover For Directional Light
Over 30 years ago I made this picture under the eaves of the rooftop of a barn. I had no idea then that this was to be the beginning of a style that I later developed for outdoor portraiture--that is, keeping the subject under cover to get directional light. The outline of the photograph was created in Photoshop by going to Filter/Stylize/Find Edges and then changed to black and white.

Faces And Feelings
This page really shows me doing my thing--focusing on how people relate to each other in serious, smiling, sensuous, and, all the time, loving ways.
What's there is what I want you to see. Everything else has been left out. Whether square (Hasselblad, film-based era) or rectangular (I'm using Canon's EOS 20D now for everything), I usually crop in the viewfinder. The background for these pictures is a small selection from the fabric that was draped around the woman in the larger image. The selection is then stretched in Photoshop through Edit/Free Transform to cover the entire page; the other photographs are then layered on top of it.

Cheating With Window Light
It was almost like cheating when I photographed these models for an advertisement; my first professional digital camera. The reason that I say it was cheating is that there were a complete bank of ceiling-to-floor windows to my left. Large translucent panels that created an effect that you would get from north light windows covered them. White ceiling, walls, and floor bounced the light everywhere. Still, the main light was coming from my left. An additional wall of windows was at each end of the commercial studio. They were covered by sheer curtains that were taped to the walls.
The photographs were made in New York City with the help of Clay Blackmore and about 25 assistants walking around the studio. They were there to take care of the clothes, hair, makeup, accessories, kids, and me--what a fabulous experience! None of these pictures were selected for the ad, but they gave me lots of practice.

To keep the mirror from reflecting the studio background I positioned large white panels on wheels so that they were the only things that showed in the mirror. I removed the edges of the panels in Photoshop.

Black And White From Color
Both of these black and white family portraits were made under incredibly difficult circumstances. When you just can't get people to look at the camera and smile you can always get them to look at something or somebody. I felt like it was a miracle when I got both of these pictures.
I changed them from color to black and white by going into Channels in Photoshop and selecting either the red, blue, or green channel, depending on my inspection of each. I then changed the mode to gray scale, getting rid of all the color. Finally, I switched it back to RGB and did the final adjustments to contrast and brightness.

Full-Length Bridals
What do you see when you look at this page of full-length brides? The answer: Brides and gowns--not necessarily a lot of landscape. Why don't I take a lot of pictures outdoors in pretty gardens? Because I like to work in controlled lighting situations with simple backgrounds that add to the composition rather than distract from it. In my opinion, many photographers go out into the open areas because they feel that they don't have to worry about lighting. In fact, however, it's much easier to work as I do.

Take a good look at some of the illustrations on this page of my book. Notice, by the way, that although there are many images on this two-page spread, there is nothing in the arrangement to take your eye away from the subjects. The layout is simple. It displays the images just the way I want them to be seen.
For the couple with the stained glass window behind them, I exposed for the window and matched my Quantum digital flash to the exposure of the window. A wide angle lens with the couple up close to the camera made them stand out and caused the window to act as a simple background.

The bride with the huge train was photographed under cover at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, with all natural light. A part of the back of her gown is the background for the whole double-page spread.

The bride in the living room was exposed for the ambient light in the room. I took the cover off my Quantum flash and used it bare bulb at 11/2 stops below the ambient light. With Quantum's digital attachment to my camera you can dial in how much flash you want to use and set it from three stops below the ambient light to three stops over. What did I ever do without it? I know; Polaroids--lots of them. It's never been this easy.

The back profile of the bride was created with all natural light coming in under the porch rooftop. I positioned the camera to keep a simple background behind her profile.

All together the page says, "Brides!" The backgrounds are all there, but the brides are still the center of attention.

Learn To Use Ambient Light
You need to know how to put ambient light to use. You need to know where it is and how to harness it to create lighting situations that create the "look" that you desire. The picture of the bride with the flowers beneath her chin has become one of my signature pictures. A window behind her created the highlights on the left side of her face. Another window behind me was the fill light. That's all there was to it.
The profile of the bride was created outdoors under cover.

The shadows in the background of the page were the actual shadows of tree leaves behind the translucent panel when I took her picture.

Black Backgrounds Are Back!
The black background works perfectly for bringing these four portraits together. The pink jumps out at you. So do the faces. Why? Because there's nothing else to take your attention away from their faces.
An Elinchrom blower sent the fur flying in the first picture; made on-stage during one of my Canon platform appearances. The same with the girl surrounded by pink chiffon. I always have yards and yards of fabrics to wrap around my models if I think that the fabrics can be used effectively. In this portrait I had two people hold up additional matching fabric behind her. Completely surrounded by pink, her eyes seem to just pop out of the picture, don't they?

For both of these first two pictures my fill light was down at the knees of these women. The light was pointed directly at their knees, not pointed upward toward their faces. Just a little glow from the light came up into their faces. There are no shadows cast by the fill light; it merely opens up areas of the face where there would normally be shadow. Thus, the eyes are highlighted beautifully with a second catchlight at the bottom of their pupils.

The profile of the bride was made under cover of a porch with a translucent panel changing direct sunlight to soft lighting. Of course, I positioned her to have the shadows on her face just as if I were doing studio lighting indoors. It's the same lighting pattern on basically everything I do.

The girl with the glasses was lying down resting. That's late afternoon direct sunlight on her face. You can see the sun reflecting in her glasses. I simply darkened the surrounding area in Photoshop for drama.

Strong Lighting
I often strengthen the lighting ratio on men's portraits. It seems that a higher contrast in men's portraits makes the men appear stronger, more forceful. The strong lighting in the man's portrait (bottom right) was accomplished by split lighting his face with one light, placing the camera where it saw the 2/3 view of his face and keeping the main light in its normal position (at a 45Þ angle to the front of his face). A fill light (behind the camera) is two f/stops less than the main light on his face.
The other three portraits were lit by window light. I was careful to preserve detail throughout the images--from the brightest highlight down to the deepest shadow. I did it digitally by exposing for the highlights and bringing up the shadows with a reflector.

So, now that you've studied my work by seeing a collection of all kinds of subject matter, can you recognize my style? What is it? Can you see any continuity between all the images? Have I accomplished my goal?

An incurable romantic? I guess that's one way to describe a Monte Portrait.