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.

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Previous comments
Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for checking it out Chris!

Deon Maartens's picture

Really great article. Thanks for sharing.

Clay Cook's picture

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!)

Clay Cook's picture

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!

Hessam Yekta's picture

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

Clay Cook's picture

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 :)

Clay Cook's picture

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

Shanna Simpson's picture

Great as always love!

Bogdan Zlatkov's picture

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

Clay Cook's picture

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.

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Josh! Go for it!

Tony Roslund's picture

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

Matt Crace's picture

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 ;)

Florencio Ino's picture

This is awesome!

Lee G's picture

Great idea

Emma Grigoryan's picture

this is very inspiring, thank you !