Unique Beauty - Lighting Out Of The Box

Unique Beauty - Lighting Out Of The Box

Throughout my career so far I have failed over and over again. Although it’s the successes that I'm remembered and known for, it’s the failures that are always the catalyst. At the end of the day, the key to success lies in failure. This improvisational beauty shoot was only a success because I set myself up to fail.

It was a pick-up shoot, an unplanned venture that neither the makeup artist, Casey Ritchie or I had any plans to take on. But, we set out to create something unique and special, that we lacked in our individual portfolios. Luckily, only several hours before the shoot, Miss Kentucky Teen USA Megan Ducharm agreed to the challenge. How could I make the results exclusive and different?

I had played with interesting shadows, background Gobo patterns and cutout backlighting before, but none of the images ever remained a staple in my portfolio. But, I decided to give it another go. Inspired by a music video from the nu-metal act Korn, I wanted the background to look similar to a room with open bullet holes and light pouring through said holes. I wanted the image to be cold, very digital and surreal. With that vision planted, I started building the set from square one.

I took a quick drive over to my local Target and grabbed the last two pieces of black foamcore in stock. Foamcore can be found in the school and business supplies aisle near the poster board. The total cost was a whopping $7.39 at $3.69 each. After casuallly browsing a few more aisles, I returned to my studio and grabbed a metal shot glass and began to frame up the holes that were to be cut out of the board. One-by-one I cut 8-10 holes in each board. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but I knew that it wouldn’t matter as everything would be out of focus and in the background.

Once the holes were cut, I taped both sheets of the foamcore together with 4” wide black gaff tape. Using one of my Manfrotto 420B Combo Boom stands, I rigged the foamcore sheet with two A-clamps to the boom arm. To guarantee a dark background and absolute zero fill, I set two V-Flats behind the “swiss cheese” section of foamcore. My set was built, now it was time to light it, this is where the real challenge began.


Since I had done a full blown shoot with peg board in the past, I knew I had to put some powerful light behind the foamcore to create the desired look. I placed two lights behind the foamcore and had my assistant position them correctly where they would not cause any flare or direct light to the lens. A few of the holes lit up, but it was about what I expected: flat. From experience, I knew I need to create some diffusion in between the background and model. The best diffusion for this application is fog. But, fog in a studio isn’t something I recommend doing a lot. The fog can only be triggered in small amounts and in a small room like mine it can take over quickly. Once the fog travels in front of the model, the shot is hazy and can cause focus problems. With that knowledge, we dispersed a quick punch of fog in front of the background and I fired a few out of focus test shots. The light poured through the holes and caused beautiful giant beams, creating the exact look I wanted.


Now that we had our background lighting in place, it was time to build the beauty lighting and believe me, I struggled. As photographers we always have our “go-to” setups. But, I wanted to really explore with this shoot, so I tried 4 -5 different key light scenarios, including bare bulb, an umbrella, a octobox and then finally landing on a Profoto Softlight White Beauty Dish. Instead of doing a flat angle standard beauty dish style of light, I decided to boom the dish and feather the light, so it wasn’t nearly as direct. The placement of the key and model was nearly 12 feet forward from the background, so that even at a small aperture(f/16) the background would blur.


Although, the extreme backlighting could provide enough contrast from the background, I needed that extra subtle touch of highlight on Megan’s cheek and hair. To create that subtle highlight I added two lights on either side of Megan modified with a gridded stripbox that had two levels of diffusion. Not only would it be soft light, but also directional light that I could control. With a few test shoots and power adjustments we had the “kickers” just right.


The last addition to the setup; the beauty fill. In this case a Profoto D1 500 modified with a 2’x3’ RFI Softbox, which we placed underneath Megan’s chest. This light not only filled the shadows created by the key, but also shaped amazing catchlights in her eyes. Most photographers use a reflector or a sheet of white foamcore, but I prefer a stronger catchlight in the eyes… fill to taste.

Pre-lighting is a process that should always be done ahead of time, long before the subject is ready. By the time Megan was complete with hair and makeup our light was ready and the fog machine was hot. Right out of the gate we nailed our first set of shots and we even decided to take on a composite image. I quickly realized that I needed shoots like this, I needed time to explore and even improvise without the added pressure of financial investments. It was fun and it didn't feel like work.

It's shoots like these that give me the opportunity to explore and push my lighting knowledge to the limits. Without sessions like these, honestly my client work would not be the same. My clients love to see creative work like this and in many cases contract me to do the same for them. I challenge you to a unique beauty or portrait session. Create light outside the box and a future client might be waiting to love it and pay you for it.

Clay Cook's picture

Portrait and Editorial Photographer, Clay Cook has learned the importance of going the extra mile, after a long, arduous run in the music business. Clay has shaped creative projects with History, Lifetime, Comcast and Papa John's Pizza. In addition, he has photographed assignments for Time, Forbes, The Guardian, W Magazine, USA Today, ESPN and Inc.

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Nicely done!

Thank you Adam!

Would be cool to play with gels on the background lights. Great work!

That would be cool! Definitely something to try, I haven't played with gels all that much. Thanks for reading!

Original arrangement.
Swiss cheese has no holes

Thanks for reading George! Every slice of swiss cheese I've ever eaten has holes...

Thanks to you.
The other day the store dependant explained it:
Gruyere has no holes; Enmental does it.
Effective result anyhow

This is awesome....love it. I really enjoy seeing people piece together lighting setups like this.

Thank you Jason! Really appreciate you checking it out!

I know the Korn video too so I could instantly relate. It also seems like you did that shoot in tight quarters which I also like(I have no studio and a tiny apartment) so I'm inspired to try something similar to say the least.

Amazing results, thanks for sharing!

Thanks for reading man!

Nice shots and helpful tutorial, but the final photos are so retouched that it's hard to tell exactly what you were getting in the camera. Would be helpful to see the unretouched versions as part of the workflow.

Thanks man! I wanted to go for a digital surreal feel. The processing was part of it.

You are an absolutely fascinating photographer Clay! That was a brilliant way to set up this shoot!

Thank you Joshua! Appreciate that!

Great article Clay. This kind of stuff has really been missing from Fstoppers the last couple of years. I mean this is so much more helpfull than a poorly made bts video featuring people getting their makeup done.

That means a lot to me and several of the other writers Tom. Many feel there is a good amount of noise on the site these days, it's up to use to create content that people really want to see.

Awesome! Great to see how some simple things and a fun idea can give a great result. :)
The post processing is a bit too much for me though.

Thanks for reading Wouter! I definitely wanted the end results to look CGI and digitally surreal.

As long as it's as intended, it's all good! :D

I really like it!

Thanks for checking it out Vince!

Very thorough explanation! Nice article and great job!

Thanks Corina! Really appreciate that!

That looks really good. Nice work

Thank you Roman!

I've experimented with that lighting effect but was disappointed. Fog looks to be the missing ingredient. Thanks Clay.

Johnny! Fog is a crucial part to the lighting! Thanks for reading and good luck my friend!


Thanks for checking it out Chris!

Really great article. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for reading Deon!

Clay, do you think using sheer material could create the same effect that the fog did or would it be possible to create in photoshop? (I don't have a fog machine!)

Thanks for checking it out Sue. Unfortunately, because of the way fog travels and diffuses lights, I think it might be the only option to create those nice beams of light. I know fog machines are pretty cheap these days!

Very nice idea clay! keep going, i will wait to see more creative ideas from you and your team.

Thank you Hessam! Really appreciate the support!

Your studio looks about the same size as mine! I don't feel so bad now :)

awesome shot btw :)

It's small but effective and FREE! Thanks for checking it out Iris!

Great as always love!

Thank you! :)

Very cool! The lighting looks superb! Did you build this in your apartment?

Thank you man! I have a small living room studio I built this in!

This is really cool! I am going to try this out. I'm going to use Derek Yarra's idea and try the gels.

Thanks Josh! Go for it!

You're a badass. I'm stealing that peg board idea. Great article Clay and great images (of course).

Very nice work all the way around!

Doing a weekly project over on G+ and picked up a few props today with this in mind.
Thanks for sharing the tip on the smoke ;)

This is awesome!

Great idea

this is very inspiring, thank you !