Lighting Fashion

Lighting Fashion

Lighting Fashion

Fashion photography is both fun and extremely challenging, especially if you are working within a plain studio – but it’s important to think creatively in terms of wardrobe, hair and of course lighting. It’s all too easy to set up a plain grey background and a couple of softboxes for every shoot. However, there are times when you need to be more hands-on with your lighting in order to add a little more drama. And nothing does this more effectively than a really hard light source. Enter the snoot...

In this shoot I wanted an abundance of drama and strong shapes. We used dark clothing with a sheen; metal accessories for reflective and punk-era qualities and really bold, structured hair. Keeping the fore-lights dark and moody against a relatively light grey background helped bring out both the shape and the attitude of the model.

Getting Started

The snoot is often an under used reflector as it produces a narrow pool of light and very harsh shadows. This makes it fairly inflexible, in as much as it is easy for a subject to move out of the light as it only lights a small area at a time. Conversely, it proves really useful if your subject is reasonably static, you prefer lots of definition and want to keep plenty of shadow within your shot. Remember, it pays to be proactive with your lighting throughout the shoot, so keep checking and tweaking as you progress.

Camera Settings

  • ISO 100
  • f/11
  • 1/200sec


  • Savage - Fashion Gray

Step One: Key Light

To retain more of the shadows I decided to short light the model, which would give shape to the face and light the upper part of the clothing, but also retain the nearside shadow detail. It takes a bit of tweaking, but you’ll soon get there. Start by marking the ground where you want your subject to stand. This will give you a permanent reference and enable you to quickly see when your subject moves out of the light. It will also help you meter before your subject stands in front of the camera. Now fix a snoot to your key light and position it approximately 50-60 degrees off the camera axis, so that it lights the shortest side of the subject’s face (cheek to cheek as opposed to ear to chin.) Adjust the height of the light, so that it throws the shadows downwards, but not so much that you lose the catchlight in the subject’s eyes. It may be beneficial if you get your subject to pose whilst setting up this light, so you can clearly see where the light is falling. Once done, meter the key light to f/11. It can be quite difficult to get an accurate meter reading from a snoot, simply because the light falls off around the edges very quickly, so it is worth taking two or three meter readings and checking the highlights in your camera’s LCD to ensure your get a good exposure.

Key light only

Key Light Only

Key light: Gemini with Snoot

Key Light Diagram

Step Two: Fill Light

Although I have referred to this light as a fill, it is only marginally filling in the shadow details and is almost acting as a second ‘spot’ light. In this example, I have positioned this light so that it is primarily lighting the arm/ dress, but the fall-off from the light is also lifting the shadow detail of the face. Grab yourself a second head and affix a snoot, positioning it approximately 30 degrees to the right of the camera. With your subject in place, aim the snoot at the area you want to highlight or shadow area you wish to fill. You can now meter this anywhere between 1 to 2 stops lower than the key light, making fine adjustments to suit the wardrobe or skin tone of your subject. It pays to take another test shot at this point, so you can identify the areas of your subject the snoot is lighting.

Fill only

Fill Light Only

Key and Fill light

Key and Fill Light Only

Fill light: Gemini with Snoot

Key and Fill Light Diagram

Step Three: Hair Light

Once you are happy with the placement of your other lights, it is time to add a hair light. On this occasion, I decided to go for a broader light source for the hair light and opted for the beauty dish, so that it drew out all the intricate details of the hair and also lit the shoulders. However, I was also mindful of minimising the spread of the hair light (so that it didn’t adversely spill light onto the background) and fitted a honeycomb grid to the beauty dish. One key piece of kit is a boom stand, which facilitates getting the hair light directly overhead, without the stand intruding in the frame. Using a boom will help easily make all the fine adjustments you need to ensure the hair is properly lit. Begin by fitting a honeycomb grid to a white beauty dish and fitting it to your light before fixing it to your boom, as it is a lot easier to do it this way. Once fixed to the boom, position the beauty dish directly over the model, so that it lights the hair and shoulders. You will find that adjusting the height of the beauty dish will affect the spread of the light. You can also use the mark you made on the ground for the model to stand on as a reference to assist you in getting your hairlight central. As for metering, there are no pre-defined power settings for hair lights, as everybody has different hair, so it is a case of making small adjustments to suit your subject. Essentially, dark, matt hair will require more power than light and shiny hair.

Hair only

Hair Light Only

Key, Fill and Hair light

Key, Fill and Hair Light

Hair light: Gemini with 21" White Beauty Dish and Grid

Key, Fill and Hair Light Diagram

Step Four: Background Lights

Okay, we’re almost there. Time to think about the background lighting. It isn’t always imperative to light a background, however, spending five minutes to set up a couple of lights can really add to the overall shot, afford you lots of control and save you hours of ‘dropping-in’ backgrounds during post processing. But you need to take each shoot on its own merits. For this I wanted to avoid a high-key background as it would lose the mood of the photograph and add too much contrast against the dark wardrobe. On the other hand, a very dark background would lose the shape of the hair and model. It is for this reason I decided to use a white Colorama to create a subtle light grey gradient that complemented the wardrobe and brought out the bold shapes.

Background only

Background Light Only

All lights (Key, Fill, Hair, Background)

All Lights Image

Background lights: 2 x Gemini with High Performance Reflector

All Lights Diagram

Remember, it isn’t about the model or power of your Bowens lights, but more about using the right shapers and modifiers to create drama and mood in your photographs.

Start by positioning a light on each side and slightly behind the subject, directing both of the lights towards the background paper or wall. Symmetry is fairly important here if you want to achieve an evenly lit background. Once in position, fit a Bowens High Performance reflector to each light and tilt the light downwards so that it lights the beginning of the ‘cove’ in the background paper. Introduce a small amount of power on each light and take a test shot to see how intense the grey of the background is. If you prefer, you can meter the lights individually to get them evenly lit. Alternatively, if you are using the same model of light, at the same distance and with the same reflector, you can simply adjust them both to the same power output, which will provide you with a pretty even result as well. It is now a case of quick and simple adjustments. For a lighter grey background, you can simply increase the power of the background lights or decrease them for a darker grey. For less of a gradient, position the lights at less of an angle, so they light more of the background or angle them more towards the ground for a stronger gradient. Experimentation is all part of the fun.

As with many lights, there aren’t any exact meter readings as each studio, background or modifier is different. Your best tool here is your camera’s LCD. Once you have dialled the key light settings into the camera, you can get an instant visual on the intensity of the background, allowing you to make rapid adjustments on the fly.

Keep Moving and Keep Changing

When you are using narrow light sources, you will find that the light on your subject can change fairly dramatically with small movements. It remains important to keep tweaking and adjusting the lighting as your subject moves and changes so that you can get the best lighting, mood and shape out of your photograph. If you are struggling with the dynamic range and contrast, you may find that a couple of white polyboards will give you the extra boost you need in the shadows. Remember, it isn’t about the model or power of your Bowens lights, but more about using the right shapers and modifiers to create drama and mood in your photographs.

Final Image

Feature Video

#TeamBowens photographer and lighting educator Christian Hough guides us step-by-step through a commercial fashion shoot using a mixture of monolight strobes and generator power packs.

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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