Completing The 'Up-Lit Photo Challenge' Is Extremely Difficult

Being a well-rounded photographer who can succeed in any situation is the ultimate goal for most photographers. However, what happens when you are forced to take a portrait by lighting from below? Today, I take the challenge. 

Most photographers enjoy the comfort of using their most tried-and-true lighting techniques. Whether it is lighting from 45 degrees with a large softbox, or using two octaboxes above and below for that classic butterfly lighting, or perhaps just using a single bounce light into the ceiling, it is very easy to find a lighting style that works most of the time and simply sticking to that over and over again. 

But what happens when you are forced to light a subject in a way you've never tried before? Would you crumble, or would you rise to the occasion? That's the question I found myself asking myself when I came up with the concept for a new photo challenge series I hope to feature often on the Fstoppers YouTube Channel. What sort of results can a photographer come up with someone else gets to place the key light location?

Horror Up-Lighting: Does It Ever Look Good?

In the video above, I told Lee to set up a photoshoot challenge, and in good faith, I would be the guinea pig in my own creation. With a bit of cheating involved, I wound up picking the dreaded "up-lighting" setup. This lighting setup, where the key light is placed below your subject's face, is often called the "Horror Movie" lighting because so many villains and antagonists are lit this way to give a much more sinister appearance. Besides using up lighting as fill light for headshots and dramatic beauty portraits, I've actually never given the up lighting technique serious consideration in my own work. Needless to say, this challenge wasn't going to be easy, and that was not even considering my model's crazy manscaping and wild wardrobe choice. 

The Basic Setup

If you want to reproduce the final image I took, and hopefully it was good enough to inspire some creativity for your own use, I'm going to outline the three-light setup below. Of course, watching the video above should answer any questions you might have and give you a better idea of where everything was placed. With this three-light setup, all flashes were Profoto B10 or B10x Strobes set to the exact same power. The camera was a Nikon D850 and Tamron 24-70mm lens set to f/2.8 for a shallow depth of field aesthetic. 

The Key Light: The whole challenge is based around the main light lighting our subject. For this shoot, I used a new Profoto OCF 2' Collapsible Beauty Dish we recently got for the studio. I love traditional beauty dishes, but traveling with one down to Puerto Rico where I now live is pretty cumbersome, so I left it back in the Charleston studio.

While beauty dishes are known for their soft, even lighting, I thought it could be interesting to use the light modifier without the soft diffuser (sometimes called a sock). If you look at the beauty dish photo above, if angled specifically, you can get the unique effects of a hard light spilling out from the opaque reflector mixed with some of the soft fill light bouncing off the white edges on the dish. By tilting the dish back towards the camera, I could add a bit of contrast to my subject's face while also flagging off the light from spilling onto the lower part of his outfit. I've definitely used a beauty dish this way in the past, but never from below and never at an angle quite like what I'm describing.  

The Edge Light: Once I felt my subject's face was lit pretty well and the requirements for the "up-light challenge" were met, I decided to help separate Charlie from the backdrop. To help separate his hat and shoulders from the dark background, I used a Profoto OCF 1'x3' stripbox placed up and behind him. With this light facing down towards his shoulders, I was able to add a nice theatrical highlight around his entire body that gave his image a more three-dimensional look. This edge light or rim light look is something I like to do when I want to create a more over the top image that fits more of an action, movie, or video game vibe.

The Background Light: The final light I decided to use was a soft fill light on my Gravity Backdrop just to pull out some of the texture and give a different tonality to the area behind my subject. I could have used any type of light modifier or even a bare bulb flash, but to really mute it down, I went with a Profoto RFi 3' Octabox primarily because I had recently built that softbox up for another shoot featured on our YouTube Channel. 

The Final Results

Below, I have posted the final before and after image of my submission. Usually when filming any YouTube content and especially a challenge video, I'm always aware that the final photo you take is not always your best work. In this case, with something as challenging as up-lighting a crazy pirate/boat captain named Charlie, I wasn't simply hoping for a decent image but avoiding a total embarrassment altogether. However, I'm actually pretty proud of the final image. Going through this process definitely has me second guessing my lack of up-lighting in my work. 

As you can see in the before and after image, I really didn't do a ton of adjustments to the image straight out of camera. In Lightroom, I desaturated the image a bit and tweaked the overall contrast a bit, but most of the heavy lifting was done on set by planning out my lighting and taking the time to confirm everything was looking good before knocking out 20-30 frames. Once the image was captured and I opened it up on my computer, I decided to add a few layers or blurred rain and some out-of-focus overlays just to give it a bit more mystery, cohesiveness, and an overall finished look.  

With this first challenge behind me, I'm excited to pass the challenge on to all of you. Next time you have someone in front of your camera, take a moment out of your shoot to attempt a shot using up-lighting and see if you can create something that might actually be portfolio worthy. You can post your best image below in the comments, and we can all share our experiences. 

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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You did a great job on this. Just to see how our human minds are biased toward forward or side lighting instead of top or bottom, you can open this web page in a browser on your mobile phone dn a dark room at night in front of a mirror, since it is bright white, and with the phone facing you, rotate the phone in a circle around your head. The most pleasant appearance is often somewhere near 90 and 270 degrees, and the most unpleasant appearance is somewhere near both 0 and 180 degrees. In natire, in the absence of light boxes and extra light sources, a harsh light source under or over the face is most undesirable, in my opinion, unless/except for effect. To be able to sculpt and soften the effect as you have done takes skill and equipment that I do not have. 😃

I'm going to give this a shot, I think I look scary enough in regular light but could probably up it a notch with a selfie done in this style!