In this post, I'll provide a behind the scenes look at photographing a world-class painter and sculptor, Victor Hugo Zayas. I won't lie, creating this portrait was a little intimidating. Photographing a classically trained artist means you are photographing someone who KNOWS their colors and tastes. You'd better bring your A-game to the shoot. 

Mr. Zayas is a master who has had over 100 exhibitions in the span of 30 years. His gorgeous large scale paintings and sculptures can be found in private art collections across the globe. For the past decade he has had a stunning 6,000 studio in Los Angeles. Every time I walk into his studio I am awed and inspired by his talent and prodigious rate of creation. I've had the pleasure of photographing Victor and his work several times, most notably when I photographed his sculptures made out of the remains of guns. The sculptures were displayed in the Laguna Art Museum and his exhibit "Mi Obra" garnered world-wide media attention, and was featured on BBC.  You can learn more about that project here. In all the time we'd been friends and worked together, I'd never taken a formal portrait of him.  When told me he was going to move his studio to be closer to his parents, I knew I had to take his portrait in his L.A. Studio to capture that place and time. 

Behind the scenes. Xplor 600 main light with 50 inch Westcott soft box on the right. For fill light I used a Manfrotto Lykos LED on the left.

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Collaboration makes for great photography. Victor and I first discussed where in his studio we should shoot the portrait. Although I brought a backdrop, I quickly discarded the thought of using it because when you are in a studio with gorgeous art, you make it part of your photograph.  

Main and Fill Lights

After deciding where to shoot, I set up my main light to the side and slightly in front of Victor to feather the light. The main light was a Flashpoint Xplor 600 watt strobe with a Westcott Mega JS Apollo 50 inch soft-box. I shot the strobe into the soft-box and reflected it through the diffusion panel. I took a few test shots wit the main light, then added a Manfrotto Lykos LED as a fill light on the left side at shoulder height. I love the Lykos lights.  They are lightweight, powerful, battery operated (no cords!), screw easily into a light stand and have  a nob to dial in the power from 1-100. They can also be controlled by blue-tooth to your smartphone.

Lens and Camera Settings

I am a Canon shooter and prefer the 7DMk2. The lens for the shot was the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8, shot at 70 mm at 1/125 of a second, f/5, ISO 200.

Relationship with the Subject

At the end of the day, what really made the portrait was the relationship with the subject, not the gear.  Let me explain. You need the right tools for the job. You need to know how to use the gear backwards and forwards. Your lights, camera, stands and strobes have to be reliable and helpful, but you can't think about the gear during the portrait or it interferes with your relationship with the subject.

After adjusting my main light, fill light, setting my f/stop, ISO and shutter speed, what you have to do is pull expression from the person you are photographing. You have to be able to read them, interact and respond.

Victor and I have known each other for at least 10 years. We were friends before I started to photograph him. That made it much easier to work with him. He trusted me, and I knew he was just a bit nervous to be in front of the camera for a portrait. 

Being uncomfortable in front of the camera is not uncommon. It's my job as a photographer to make it easy and comfortable for the subject. This is true whether we are old friends or new acquaintances. 

When I sat Victor down for the portrait, he was uncomfortable, at first. Victor is a warm and friendly personality, he is used to making others feel at ease. He is a gracious host and always welcomes new friends into his studio as if they were old friends. When I saw that he was uncomfortable in the chair, I knew I had to change something. 

Since we were in his studio and next to his supplies, I quickly reached over and put several paint brushes in his hand. Instantly, he was at ease and the warm smile I knew returned to his face.  When you give a subject something to do with their hands, particularly something they are very familiar with, it puts them at ease. This is one of the reasons I wanted to photograph him in his environment. It doesn't hurt that his paintings are gorgeous and make wonderful backdrops for photographs.

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I'm pleased with the portrait we created. The portrait showcases Victor's warm personality, and the environment of his Los Angeles studio will be forever captured. If you enjoyed this post, I'd love to hear your comments. You can email me


Victor's work is currently on view at the Tacoma Museum of Art, in the exhibit "Places to Call Home: Settlements in the West," through February 10th, 2019. Victor's new studio is in Orange County, CA. You can see more of Victor's work here: 


Kevin Gilligan is an a museum displayed, award-winning landscape, portrait and sports photographer from L.A.'s South Bay. You can read his bio here. He can be found @photosbykag on social media. 

Thank you Victor Hugo Zayas for your constant inspiration, helpful critique and support! "Composition, composition, composition!" 

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