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John Gress: Becoming a Lighting Master

From picking up a camera when he was 14, to working as a freelance photojournalist for large media outlets, breaking into video, and perfecting his own photographic style after much trial and error -John Gress has become a master of lighting.

We love his use of multiple light sources and modifiers to create cinematic images. We sat down with him to learn about his beginnings with photography, talk about his favorite light set ups and tools he uses. We also explored the importance of personal work and testing new ideas.

“I remember I borrowed my mom's camera when I was 14 for summer camp - I was bullied a lot and kind of the unpopular kid; but now that I had a camera I had an opportunity to talk to people. I really liked that.”

“My best friend at the time talked me into going to get autographs on trading cards from NBA players after their games; I then realized I could take a photo of them at these signings and then the next time the players were in town they could sign that print. I started doing that and loved it so much that I started to get into sports photography; and within a few years I was taking pictures for my high school paper and then the local paper. I was convinced I wanted to be a photojournalist.”
"After I photographed a historic flooding near my home in Oregon - I ended up being connected to two people at the Associated Press who eventually became my mentors. I would freelance about 20 hours a week while also shooting on my own through college."

"At the Associated Press, I asked the senior photographer at the time to teach me lighting; and he said “Light goes until it hits something - what else do you need to know?” So with that I decided to start experimenting and learning on my own with a small kit."

When he started out shooting with strobes and experimenting with modifiers he tested a lot of different brands, John explained. He found other brands to be inconsistent, not making the most of their modifiers.

"I was loving my Elinchrom Rotalux modifiers; it offered a great quality of light and craftsmanship."


"I did tests with modifiers from Profoto and Elinchrom with my Profoto lights and noticed hot spots on the Profoto modifiers, so my preference is with Elinchrom. Also, while at Imaging USA awhile back, I had learned about how the Sekonic L-478DR-EL light meter talks to the Elinchrom Skyport system and thought that was perfect for my needs. Changing the settings from the light meter was revolutionary. I then realized I could sell all my old Profoto gear and buy all new Elinchrom gear and modifiers and still break even."


After John’s photojournalism days he realized he found more joy in portrait photography and working with people who wanted their photos taken.
"So I started to find models on Model Mayhem -and just started experimenting with lighting."

It is so much fun to work on a shot and perfect it -try a new technique and perfect it-try new lighting and perfect it."

"From 2008 to 2010 I was doing two model shoots a week -and I got SO much better at lighting during that time. I thought I knew what I was doing before; but I didn’t until I had that time to really experiment and deconstruct my light setups."

"About four years ago I would use a large main light for the window, another to fill the scene, an edge or a kicker to simulate light bouncing off something in the room, and usually added a hair light to get them off the background. This lighting gave my images a 3D look and preserved details. I loved perfecting this set up and shot it over and over with my model shoots. During these two periods of testing and experimentation I really became so much better at photography."

"I get a lot of messages about workshops and teaching and I was really worried about starting at first. But after I was nominated to teach at a conference I was motivated to put something together and really perfect my teaching too."

"I put together out-of-town workshops and realized people were enjoying it -and so was I. I love meeting and helping people, and it’s fun. I get to be creative too!"

"I remember 10 years ago I really wanted a mentor in lighting; and I felt like if I had that I would have progressed so much faster. I realized that by teaching, I could be that person for others. I wanted to pay it forward so I started teaching workshops."

Other than teaching workshops around the country; John Gress photographs portraits, advertising campaigns, the occasional wedding, test shoots, and even photographs athletes trading cards -the very same trading cards that he was collecting before he first started out in photography.

"I often wonder what 14 year old me would think about 40 year old me. I am doing what 14 year old me would have died to do."
"My biggest lesson is that practice makes perfect - you should always try to shoot stuff for yourself so you can learn and be fulfilled by what you’re creating. A lot of time paid shoots aren't that fun; it may be 45 business headshots or a wedding from hell -but if you photograph something to make you creatively happy, you'll be more fulfilled."

When we asked Gress what his biggest advice to photographers is he said: “When you’re starting out, don’t be like me and switch around lighting companies so much-find yourself a brand that has consistency in color and brightness, picture to picture. Make sure they offer a range of accessories and have high powered and battery powered lights so you can use them anywhere.”

John Gress’s current lighting kit is: 3 Digital RX 1200s, 4 ELC 500 Pro HDs, plus 2 Ranger Quadras, an ELB 400 and 4 Quadra Heads.

To see more of John’s work and information about workshops you can visit

Find him on Instagram at @johngressmedia

Shop John’s Favorite Light Modifiers

  • Litemotiv Direct Octa 120cm

    $509.00More infoAdd to cart

    Litemotiv Direct Octa 120cm


    This 120cm (48") is the big brother of the Rotalux Deep 100cm (39.37"). However, with 16 rods, a heavy-duty bracket and 30% more light output with this new fabric, the Litemotiv 120cm (48") is the ideal light source.

    The Litemotiv bracket is not included and must be ordered separately!

    Add to cart

  • Indirect Litemotiv Octa 190cm / 75"

    $1,420.00More infoAdd to cart

    Indirect Litemotiv Octa 190cm / 75"


    The Octa is ideal when using the reflection method of light distribution and as a result the Octa does give remarkably even illumination over the front cloth. Consequently, it can be used very close to the subject giving particularly soft results. For crisp beauty shots with higher contrast, the external diffuser can be removed.

    The Indirect Litemotiv includes the tilthead, 360° rotating system, internal & external diffusers and carrying bag, already pre-mounted.

    Add to cart

  • Umbrella Deep White 49"

    $139.95More infoAdd to cart

    Umbrella Deep White 49"


    Elinchrom Umbrella Deep White 125 cm (49").

    Add an optional translucent diffuser EL26762 to deliver the effect of an indirect softbox.

    Add to cart

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