Recreating 'Girl With a Pearl Earring': Study From the Masters

Post + Photos by Rick Sammon You all know Rick Sammon. Gregarious, lighting-sharp photog who scours the world in search of singularly unique subjects. To date, he has traveled to more than 100 co...

Post + Photos by Rick Sammon

You all know Rick Sammon. Gregarious, lighting-sharp photog who scours the world in search of singularly unique subjects. To date, he has traveled to more than 100 countries, braved a much-publicized rescue from the wild Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and published 36 photography-industry books over the past 20 years. His life is the stuff of legend. Last year, Rick and I spent a good deal of time together, bonding as professionals, tech geeks, and lighting freaks; recently, he was gracious enough to travel to our studio in Petaluma to appear on yet another fun-filled TWiT Photo episode with Leo and me. Below, Rick dishes on his creative process for his “Girl with a Pearl Earring – The Photograph.” Teeming with tips and tricks for lighting up your pictures like the old, painterly masters, this guest post is solid gold.

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We can learn a lot from the master painters.

One of my favorite paintings is “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. The painting has been referred to as “The Mona Lisa of the North.” Hey, I like it even better than the Mona Lisa.

One of my favorite movies is “Girl with a Pearl Earring” starring Scarlett Johansson.

Both the painting and the movie inspired my shoot: “Girl with a Pearl Earring – The Photograph.” My goal was to try to recreate the beautiful lighting Vermeer used – which included the nice catch light in his model’s eyes and the soft side lighting. Perhaps most important I wanted to recreate the mood and feeling of the painting – or should I say the model.

I studied pictures of Vermeer’s famous portrait, following the advice I give my photography workshop students: Study the works of master painters. These works will teach you about light and shadows, color and detail, posing and composition . . . and many more elements that go into making a good image.

I made the portrait in my office. I don’t have a studio, but I turned my office into one in about 15 minutes. We shoot here during my Croton Creative Workshop.

Please add Croton Creative link above:

Here is the simple process I went through to get the image:

The first step was to find a model, which turned out to be my friend’s daughter, Maggie.

Next I bought the propos: two scarves from Macy’s. Maggie already had the jacket.

Before my Maggie showed up, I set up a very basic lighting system. One Canon 580EX II Speedlite in a Westcott Apollo soft box. I fired the flash with my Canon ST-E2 Wireless transmitter. I shot with my Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 100mm lens.

Some lighting tips:
• The larger the light, the softer the light.
• The closer the light, the softer the light.
• Don’t point the light (Softbox in this case) directly at the subject. Rather “feather” it, that is, point it slightly in front of the subject.
• Don’t underestimate using only one light source. If it worked for Vermeer, who used one window light, it can work for you.

During the shoot I shot tethered, using Canon Digital Photo Processional to see my pictures on my MacBook Pro. The Beatles looked on, from a poster I got in 1967.

I had a print of Vermeer’s painting attached to the soft box, and one next to my computer, for guidance. Maggie had studied the painting and the girl’s expression for a week before the shoot.

It was finally time to shoot! My wife, Susan, helped set up the shot, while Zoe, another friend’s daughter, held a Westcott black panel on the opposite side of the soft box to eliminate any reflected light.

I did a bit of work in Photoshop: cropping, increasing the contrast, dodging the earring, and using the Color Replacement brush to change some of the colors in the image. I spent maybe one hour in Photoshop.

What really makes this image so cool is Maggie. Never underestimate the importance of a good model – and the right model. I knew Maggie was perfect for the part.

So again, study the work of the masters if you want to master your lighting.

For more lighting tips, see my apps:

Light It! and Rick Sammon’s 24/7 Photo Buffet

Explore the light,


One of my favorite paintings and artist too! The movie inspired me to move out of my home based studio of 15 years into a north light facing space in a 100+ year old building.

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