The great photographers of life – like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans and Robert Frank – all must have had some special quality: a personality of nurturing and non-judgment that frees the subjects to reveal their most intimate reality. It really is what makes a great photographer, every bit as much as understanding composition and lighting.—Caleb Deschanel
During the 1960s and 70s, Helmut Newton came to the magazine and set the world on fire with his black and white images that were naturally lit. While the concept sounds easy, just show up someplace with decent indirect lighting and shoot where there are no shadows, photography for Helmut was never that simple. He would scout locations and check for the perfect time of day when the lighting was going to be precisely the way he wanted. Then, he was picky as hell about things such as reflection and making sure that poses put shadows precisely where he wanted them. There was never anything accidental or surprising about Helmut’s photos; what you saw was exactly what he intended.
Then, starting in 1976, Arny Freytag pretty much took over Playboy’s® gatefold and did so with highly-specialized lighting schemes that sometimes used as many as fifty flash heads to create just exactly the precise amount of light he wanted across every inch of the photograph. Arney didn’t just make sure the lighting for the model was correct, but he cared about the background as well, whether it was a complicated room full of furniture, or something seemingly as simple as a rumpled sheet. Arny would fuss endlessly over the precise placement of lights, taking endless Polaroids® until the lighting was to his critical satisfaction.
When Hugh Hefner started the magazine, there was an inherent emphasis on quality because he wanted a men’s magazine that would stand out with class and not be like the low-class smut being produced at the time. He knew that was the only way to win over the large-scale acceptance of the men’s magazines necessary to make it profitable. There was no room in Hef’s magazine for bad lighting or poor photography. Even non-nude photographs, such as those accompanying the famous interview portion, were by photographers who knew how to light a portrait correctly.
Playboy® faces a tough battle ahead if it plans to go up against men’s giant such as GQ and Esquire with the bad lighting some of their photography has shown the past 20 years or so. There simply is no substitute, now or in the future, for a photograph that is lit properly from the very beginning. If an editor wants to capture readers attention, good lighting is an absolute necessity, even if readers don’t recognize it. Sometimes it’s the details that keep a magazine from being passé.