How I Shot a Spread for Harper's Bazaar Using Only $100 Garage Lights

Having really expensive gear can make you a versatile photographer with an advantage over your peers. In my opinion, knowing how to use gear creatively is a much more critical skill.

Earlier this year, I was hired to do a shoot for Harper's Bazaar in my studio. For the first few years of my career, I used strobes to create dynamic highlights and shadows. Now, I use constant light for 99% of my shoots because it fits my workflow better and because the technology has increased so dramatically in the last few years to give better CRI and stronger light, as well as other factors that make them easier to use over strobes. Specifically, most of my shoots are lit with my two 100-square-foot fake windows that are powered by 20 2,200-lumen four-foot LED light bars that cost about $100 total.

Here's how to build that exact setup.

Why Use Fake Windows?

Take a look at this video on the inverse square law:

In short, the closer the light is to the subject, the more rapid the fall-off is. Additionally, the closeness and the size of the light source make the light softer. Having a large, close light source to your subject will give you soft light with a dramatic fade from highlight to shadow. My favorite modifier for that when I use strobes is my 185 cm umbrella. That would get you roughly 19 feet of surface area. I would get it just out of frame for really soft, flattering light. But I decided to go bigger, so I made two 100-square-foot fake windows. Because they are windows, they can be in the frame, and the subject can be right up against them. So, fake windows let you go larger and get your subject closer. I chose to use fake windows over real windows because I wanted consistency without having to rely on certain times of day and cooperating weather.

This image was shot at 9:09 pm.

At my previous studio, I had a fake window frame, and I shot strobes though it, but you need the strobes to be a certain distance behind the window to get even light, so the whole thing took up way too much space. With LEDs, I was able to attach the lights directly to the wall, and the entire setup only takes up about five inches of space off the wall.

How to Build Fake Windows

I bought these four-foot LED lights on Amazon on a Black Friday special for about $100 for all 20. They are very lightweight and produce almost no heat, although they do get warm after extended use. They have adapters so you can link 10 of them together and turn them on with one plug. If you do any more than 10 lights, you have to run two separate plugs. So, I had 10 lights on one AC adapter and another 10 lights on a separate adapter. I plugged them into a smart plug that lets me turn them on and off with Alexa.

Here's how it looked when I was building it:

On the left, I had the wall framed up and had the mounting brackets evenly spaced. On the right, you can see the lights snapped into place with the metal mounting clips. There is a connection cable at the end of each light that daisy-chains them together.

Diffusion Is Critical

The vertical beams above are to create offset to hang curtains. I attached a sheet of diffusion fabric over the front of the beams. There is about a one-inch gap between the lights and the diffusion fabric. With just that single layer of diffusion, you can still clearly see the light bars behind the fabric. To add another layer of diffusion, I took a 30-foot sheet of chiffon fabric and draped it in half over a curtain rod at the top, giving me two more layers of diffusion. I used a double curtain rod and hung the chiffon over the inner curtain rod, and I hung sheer fabric panels over the outer curtain.

Multiple layers of fabric for diffusion to allow the light to blend together.

Depending on your exposure settings, you can still see the light bars if you shoot dark enough. I like the blown-out look. If you need to, you can use a Curves adjustment layer to bring down the brightest spots of the light bars and bring up the brightness in the spaces between the light bars to get it smooth.

Use a Curves layer to blend the light if it is showing through the diffusion layers.

What Color Temperature to Get

This photo above shows another version I have of the fake window that is 10' x 10' and uses an ultra-warm chandelier as fill, opposite cool light coming through the window for beautiful color toning straight out of camera. This window uses 6,500 K lights. The other window uses warmer 4,000 K lights because I have it opposite a cool-toned background and because I wanted to mimic a warmer morning or sunset light coming through the window. I also set my camera white balance to daylight because I've found it gives me the best tones straight out of camera at both windows.

How to Shoot with the Fake Windows

I love shooting silhouette shots where the subject stands in front of the window and I am shooting them backlit. It gives a soft glow around the contours of the body and the face.

The light source hits evenly from behind and wraps around both sides of the model. The properties of the inverse square law give you the rapid light fall-off, so the highlights hit the contours of each muscle and quickly fade to shadow.

In this picture here, for example, the backlighting of the large window creates a laser-thin contour down the face and the edge of the whole body. Because I have such a large light source, I am able to use elongating poses with limbs extended to add length to the model and create a visual flow with the subject.

Here, the model is about 10 feet away from the window, so the light is harder and gives that thin, crisp highlight down the contours of the model.

But the important thing is that when you shoot with constant light, it is what you see is what you get. You see a cool shot and you take it. Using soft constant light also allows me to shoot a lot of video content, which is a terrific upsell.

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8 Comments
Mike Ditz's picture

10x10 lights panels...wow.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Interesting setup. Thanks for sharing that.

Jeff Bennion's picture

Thanks for reading

william sheehy's picture

It's amazing what the new digital cameras can do.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

You can do same things with old digital cameras and old film cameras.

Mike Ditz's picture

With old film cameras I think it would be tough to get the exposure needed for a decent image. Newer digital cameras are pretty amazing with high ISO, what is the fastest color film these days 400 iso?

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I remember shooting ISO1600 color film. It was grainy, but OK. 400 was a mainstream.

Mike Ditz's picture

I found anything over 400 was useless. Now with digital there are a lot more possibilities.