Copyright Yousuf Karsh

Copyright Yousuf Karsh

One of my favorite photographs, this image of Albert Schweitzer was taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1952. It’s a fantastic image, let’s examine it for a minute and try and pull some secrets out of it.

First off, where are the light sources located for this shot? What kind of lights were used, and what qualities did they lend the image? To figure this out the first place to look is to the shadows of the image. Where are they located? Well, for one, the eyes are in a bit of shadow. there’s a shadow under the nose, and the inside of the hand has shadows on it as well. Since shadows are underneath things, I’d have to guess the lights are high up, above eye level, and there’s probably one on each side, which are responsible for the highlights on the sides of Albert’s nose here. The fact that the front of his nose isn’t well lit makes me think the lights are about on the same plane as his face is. The lights are placed to emphasize texture and form, not to smooth the skin.

Karsh liked to use these types of lights:

Copyright Yousuf Karsh

Copyright Yousuf Karsh

It’s basically five hard light sources in a box with two barn doors to control light spill. Looking at the picture of Schweitzer, that hardness of light source gives a very specular result on the texture of the skin, giving an incredible amount of detail to the pores and wrinkles.

One other thing that Karsh often did was he’d print out the negative (medium format or larger) and then he’d use a pencil to darken in the lightest parts of the negative. This had the effect of letting him control the shadow levels and gave him an incredible amount of control over the final image’s tonal range. Looking through his work, you see a lot of tonal variation in his images, all the way from pure whites down to pure blacks.

Yousuf Karsh was an incredible photographer, and his style remains as impressive today as it did decades ago. He was a true inspiration for photographers, and there is a lot to be gained from studying his work.