Capturing Colour

Capturing Colour

Capturing Colour

Shooting hair can be very deceptive when it comes to lighting and is frequently underestimated by many photographers, who consider it to be straight forward in terms of light. However, with endless styles, shapes, finishes, textures and not to mention colours, hair can prove to be both exciting and challenging, even to the most experienced of us. Of course, this is all before you have even considered shaping the model’s face or lighting the background!

As with all genres of photography, an understanding of the outcomes you want to achieve and how to achieve them, plus using the right reflectors for the job is essential and hair shoots are no exception. 

"The secret is to build your lighting piece by piece and take a little time to consider how each light is effecting the shot"

Getting Started

It's all about light, right? Well, yes…and, no. Controlling the shadows as well as the light to draw out the shape of the hair and the face is equally important. Too much light and you’ll lose the mood, reduce the shadows or too much background light and you could potentially wash out the colour. Too little light and you’ll lose the shape. Therefore, getting your hands on the right shapers and modifiers to help you control and direct light where you need it the most is absolutely crucial to the success of any hair shoot. It is less about the power and more about control.

With this in mind, it remains important to consider the background lighting and how light or dark you want it; or, how much space you need before you set-up for your lighting. There’s nothing worse than having to move all your lights to accommodate the background just before you’re due to start shooting, so spend a few minutes thinking about where you will position the background light in relation to the model.

Camera Settings 

  • ISO 100
  • f/11
  • 1/200sec


  • Savage - Fashion Gray

Step One: Key Light

Before you begin to light the hair, it is important for you to think about how you intend to shape the face and how this will affect the hair and whether it will also effect background. In this example, I wanted to retain some control of the light on the hair, yet allow some movement and flexibility from the model and the different shaped hair pieces. I used the Bowens white beauty dish, which creates a clean even light and then controlled the spread of the light by fitting the honeycomb grid. The honeycomb grid prevented light from spilling onto the gelled background, yet remained sufficient to light the front of the model and hair.

To retain a little flexibility with movement and the different shaped hair pieces, I decided on a simple loop/ Rembrandt lighting technique. You can achieve this by positioning your light off the camera axis at about 45 degrees and about one metre above the head height of your subject and then adjust until you are happy with the shape of the face and shadows. As the model moves into different positions or changes hair pieces, you will find a need to move the light between 30 and 70 degrees to retain some shape to the face and light the front of the hair. Remember, as long as you keep the light the same distance from the subject, there shouldn’t be any need for you to re-meter. 

Key only

key light only

21" white beuty dish with grid

key light only diagram

What do I meter my key light to?

Ideally, you can meter the key light anywhere between f/8 and f/16 depending on the depth of field you require for the hair pieces or the power of your lights. Large hair pieces may require a greater depth of field, whereas, lower powered lights may require you to compensate by using less depth of field.

Step Two: Fill Light

Adding a little fill light is a great way of reducing the overall contrast of your shot and being a little more sympathetic to your subject. The beauty dish by itself is a great modifier and once fitted with the honeycomb it creates some really strong shadows. However, on this occasion it provided too much contrast against the already dark background. It also began to lose the important details on the far side of the hairpiece. Enter the fill light.

You can literally use any modifier you need to fill the shadows to some degree. With modifiers producing hard light, you retain lots of control, but you will need to keep the fill light close to the camera axis to minimise any risk of cross-lighting. However, with soft light sources, you are able to move the fill light off the camera axis, as the diffused light helps to elimiate the cross-lighting effect. In this shot, I simply used a small 90x60cm softbox and positioned it a little off axis so it didn’t intrude into the frame and then adjusted the power gradually so that it lifted the shadow details, without making the finished shot look flat. There isn’t any exact metering for fill light, however, a good ratio between the key light and fill light would be 3:1 or 2:1 (the fill light being the lower number).

Fill only

fill light only

Key and fill light

Key and fill light


Lumiair 60x80

Diagram 2


Step Three: Hair Light 1

It is possible to use more than one hair light, especially when you need to draw out bold shapes of avant-garde hair designs. The secret is to build your lighting piece by piece and take a little time to consider how each light is effecting the shot. You’ll also find a boom arm an invaluable addition to your kit bag to help you position the light where you want it, without the stand intruding on the frame. In this example, I wanted to retain control of the spread of the hair light and position it directly overhead and slightly behind, so that it brought out the different textures on the top of the hairpiece, without lighting the face.

A Maxilite reflector and honeycomb grid were perfect for this job, delivering hard light for bold shapes and strong highlights, yet offering excellent control over the spread of the light. When you set-up your own hair light, remember to position it above and slightly behind the subject so not to light the face and control the light with a honeycomb grid. There are no specific power setting for hair lights as every subject’s hair is different. It is simply a case of adjusting the power to suit, keeping in mind that less is more!

Hair one light only

hair one only

Key, fill and hair one lights

key fill and hair


Maxilite reflector with 1/4" grid

Diagram 3

Step Four: Hair Light 2

Now is a really good opportunity to take a step back, fire-off a test shot and see where you need more light and what areas of the hair need to be brought out. This is your next important milestone into building the finished image and improving your understanding! For this hairpiece, I decided that the symmetry and the details on the far side became lost in the shadows, so I simply added another light to draw out more detail. This is where you will really need to control the spread and the power of the light, so that you only light the area you need and do so sympathetically.

Grab yourself a reflector and fit it with a honeybomb grid to control the light. You can then increase or decrease the spread of the light by positioning the light closer or further away from the subject and then adjusting the power output as necessary. Basically, the closer the light is, the narrower the spread of the light will become and the less power it will need. You’ll also find that switching the other modelling lights off will help you see more clearly the area of the hair you are lighting.

Hair two only

Hair two only


Key, fill and both hair lights

Key fill both hair

Maxilite reflector with 1/4" grid

Diagram 4

What about the power?

The metering or power of this light should be similar to that of the first hair light. Use you camera’s LCD and gradually adjust the power until you are happy with the balance of light or it compliments the other lighting in the frame.

Step Five: Side Light

A side light is a great way of recovering shape, adding balance and increasing contrast within shadow areas of the frame. It really couldn’t be easier with the right reflectors and modifiers! In this shot, I wanted to add shape to the model’s jaw line, draw out the shape of the hair and add some subtle highlights to the far cheek. A single light can make a big difference. Grab yourself a Maxilite Reflector and honeycomb grid, fit it to a light and then position it approximately 45 degrees behind the far side of the model. It is beneficial to switch off the modelling lights on the other lights and then return to the position of the camera, which will help you see how the positioning of the side light is working. You’ll find that placing the side light further behind the subject will create more of a ‘rim light’ effect, whereas moving out to the side of the subject, will light a greater area and almost fill the shadows! Each subject will require a different amount of power, depending on their skin tone, reflective clothing etc. However, be mindful that too much power will make the side light a distraction as opposed to enhancing the subject.

Side light only

Side only


Key, fill, both hair and side lights

Key fill both hair and side

Diagram for key, fill, side and both hair lights

Diagram 5

Step Six: Background Light

For this shoot, I decided to keep the background dark to help maximise the contrast between the hair and the background and then tie in the background colour to the hair using coloured gels.

Background light

background only

All lights

All lights


Maxilite reflector with 4-leaf barn door set and gels

Diagram 6

So what colour background do I need?

The shade of background paper is important if you are planning on using coloured gels on the background. It all depends on the intensity of the colour you need. I settled on a medium to dark grey background paper, which held the colour of the gel, whilst allowing the colour to naturall fall-off over a broader area, whilst retaining a deeper and more vibrant background colour. You can of course the change the intensity of the gel and tone of the background by adjusting the power of the gelled light, or, even by using additional lights if you have them.  Although it is pretty straight forward stuff, there are some things you’ll need to consider.

Background Paper

  • Medium/ Dark Grey: Will hold the colour well and allow a good degree of spread for the colour. Darker greys will add more depth to the colour.
  • Black:  Colour will vignette very quickly, leaving you with a smaller area of bold colour which quickly turns to black.
  • White: Allows the colour to wash-out very quickly offering more ‘pastel’ shades. Can easily be lost with unwanted spill light on the background.

Finally, it is important to remember, every subject and every shoot is different and it is the creativity that really counts. If you don’t have all the reflectors to hand, you can still apply all of the techniques within this tutorial in different ways and experiment in your own time. It is important to remember to keep tweaking and adjusting the lights so that you retain control over your lighting and have an understanding of how everything is working.

Final image

final image

Feature Video

#TeamBowens photographer Christian Hough guides us step-by-step through a commercial hair shoot using a mixture of both Gemini flash heads and the Creo power pack system.

In this tutorial Christian covers the importance of using the right lighting modifier for the job. Christian explains in detail each light in his setup and describes how and why he used each light shaper in this shoot, including a 21" Silver Beauty Dish, a Lumiair 60x80cm softbox, plus a mixture of Maxilite Reflectors with grids and barn-doors for added lighting control.

The photography in this post, unless otherwise specified, is copyright of the author and may not be used without written permission. Please respect photographer's rights.

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