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Secrets to Crafting Top-Quality Beauty Portraits: Studio Lighting

Secrets to Crafting Top-Quality Beauty Portraits: Studio Lighting

Of course, the way we handle light on location or in studio and the physical laws of light are still the same. Human sense of sight has a very high dynamic range, whereas the dynamic range of digital camera sensors is many times less than that of the human eye.

Therefore, in order to create a more realistic photograph we should try and match the luminance range of a scene we're capturing to what we normally see with a naked eye. So, when it comes to lighting in photography, ultimately our goal is to increase Dynamic Range by filling in dark shadows and capturing details in both the brightest and darkest parts of the image. Unless of course, your creative idea behind the photo is to achieve dramatic, moody light.

That is where traditional studio lighting principles begin, and we sure often deviate from that with our creative ideas and artistic lighting. I like experimenting and breaking some rules too, but whenever I am browsing through my new images, one of the main elements I am watching closely for is clipping in the highlights and shadows.

I always try to avoid that and the sure way is, of course, lighting my portraits properly. If I didn't do a great job with preserving details in both shadows and highlights with my lighting, I still have a chance to save them by getting the best out of my Raw files. But since we're here today to talk about lighting, let me share with you my thought process and decisions in various shooting situations.


Light Modifiers

My most favorite and most often used light modifiers for key light are Beauty dish and large softbox. Which one I choose for a particular shoot will depend on a few circumstances:

  • How big the area I want to illuminate is: full body shots (softbox) or close-up beauty (Beauty dish), or both types of images in one photo shoot (softbox).
  • My subject's skin condition: flawless, even skin will allow me to use a slightly harder light (Beauty dish) and for aged or problematic, uneven skin I will use a softer light to avoid exaggerating skin problems and make my post-production stage easier and quicker (softbox).
  • My creative ideas: sometimes even if I'm shooting close-up beauty, or simple portraits, and my model's or client's skin is great I may still go for a softer light, if that's what I envisioned for the final images of that particular photo shoot.
  • Many faces in one photo shoot: when I am shooting for a client with a few models, which I did not select and haven't seen before the shoot. I will normally setup softer light (softbox), just in case some of my models have less then ideal skin.



Beauty Dish

In this image I used a Beauty dish as my key light source modifier. My silver reflector was in front of the model to fill in deep shadows under her nose and chin, and regular metal reflectors on the background and rim light sources.

My model's skin was flawless and we had an amazing Makeup Artist on set, so I knew that harder light was perfectly acceptable in this situation.


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-shahModel: Shah of Aston Models, LA, Makeup & Hair: Germaine Nichols



For the following two photos I used a large softbox as my key light and the rest of the setup was the same as in the previous image. It was a photo shoot for Pravana, a Los Angeles based hair product company, and I had ten models to photograph.

Besides, this photo shoot was all about hair and hair colors, so I chose to go with a softbox to capture the main details in the most flattering light, and avoid creating more retouching problems if one or more models did not have nice, even skin.


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-kareyModel: Carey, Makeup & Hair: Pravana Artists & Stylists


The following image has not been edited, so you can see what unaltered softbox light looks like on skin and hair:


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-karey2Model: Carey, Makeup & Hair: Pravana Artists & Stylists


If you haven't been regularly shooting with the mentioned above light modifiers, you may not notice the difference between the lighting in these images (Beauty dish vs. Softbox). Yes, it is very subtle, but you will learn to see it as you shoot and analyze your images more.

It usually is quite easy for an experienced photographer to determine what light modifier was used as key light in a photo, which means the difference is there and it is visible to a trained eye.

Start training yourself by assessing the depth, darkness and hardness of the shadows under the models' noses and chins and you will soon be able to tell the softbox light/shadow from the Beauty dish light/shadow.

Beauty dish light is always just a tiny bit harder (= darker and more defined shadows) than softbox if you're using a diffuser (a "sock"), and even harder than that if you're using a grid.


Regular Metal Reflectors


For the background and rim light sources I always use simple metal reflectors. The light they shape is very direct and hard, but by adjusting strobe power and its distance from the backdrop or the model you can achieve nice rim and background light.


Silver Panel Reflector

And of course, there's always my irreplaceable lighting tool - the 40" silver reflector.

It is always silver, because I don't want any color cast in the reflected light, which you may get if you use a golden reflector. And white reflector does not reflect the light as well as silver.

If you don't have a reflector you can easily make one by taping or gluing aluminum foil (the type that we use in the kitchen, approx. $5 for 75 sq ft) to a piece of cardboard. Or just use a silver sun shade from your car - it's also relatively cheap ($10-20) and does a great job.

If I ever fail to bring my reflector to a shoot (it's super rare, but does happen), I will fire one of my additional strobes or flashes into a white wall behind me. Or even just into a large bright surface behind me, if the walls are painted into a color other than white, or are too far away to bounce the light off and fill in the shadows on my subject.

In the following two images that I photographed during my recent Beauty Photography workshop in Umbria, Italy (organized by Photoshop Guru Marianna Santoni), you can see how drastic the difference is between dynamic range in photos shot with and without a reflector.

These images are deliberately demonstrated unedited, so you can see everything as shot.


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-Umbria-smallModel: Selene Gnavolini, Makeup: Francesco Riva of Chanel, Hair: Geordie Nonlaimpiccheranno


 Color Gels

I use color gels to alter colors of the light sources in my images.

Make sure to check out my article Shooting With Color Gels, if you like artistic, colorful lighting.

Color gels that you can buy online and in camera stores are usually of various density, which will affect the amount of output power you need to set your lights to. I personally buy simple colored gift wrapping paper from hobby & crafts shops and because it's very thin, I sometimes have to fold and double it to achieve richer colors.

In the next photo my lighting setup included a Beauty dish on a boom as a key light, regular metal reflectors on the light with orange and blue color gels behind the model.

Reminder: when shooting with color gels, remember to turn off the modeling lamps to prevent the gels from melting.


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-toriModel: Tori Tracy, Makeup & Hair: Mikala Jean Vandenbroucke



Other Light Modifiers

And even though I have said earlier that I mainly shoot with my two most favorite light modifiers, I still sometimes use other types such as umbrellas, octaboxes and regular metal reflectors.

For example in the following lighting setup I used a 7-foot octabox, because we were shooting a collection of images with close-ups and full body length shots. This large light source allowed my models to have as much freedom for movement as they wanted.


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-emily-finalModel: Tori Tracy, Makeup & Hair: Mikala Jean Vandenbroucke, Fashion Designer: Eliana Smith


In the next image I fired my strobe (key light) into an umbrella. I photographed it during my trip to Las Vegas in 2012. This light modifier choice was made simply because I could not fit my Beauty dish into my suitcase.

The quality of this light is slightly different from both softbox and Beauty dish - it is a little harder than Beauty dish in my case, but you can soften the light if you shoot through an umbrella.

An umbrella may not look as professional as the other two when you mount it on your light at a client shoot, but it is still a great light modifier for portraits and close-up beauty, which you can easily travel with.


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-jamilletteModel: Jamillette Gaxiola, Makeup & Hair: Sherri Jessee, Assistant: Mikala Jean Vandenrboucke


And lastly, I sometimes use a regular metal reflector to shape my key light as well.

Just like I mentioned before it gives a hard, very direct light, which may visually resemble sun light in photos. You can see what it looks like in the following image where we used only one light source:


creating-beauty-portraits-fstoppers-ajaModel: Aja Warren, Makeup & Hair: Samantha Ward

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