The New iPhone Fashion Shoot: Bikinis, Foam Core, and Flashlights

Five years ago I filmed the iPhone Fashion Shoot, a 10-minute video in which I take professional looking images with the iPhone 3GS. That video was supposed to inspire photographers who assumed that their work was suffering because their gear wasn't ultra expensive. The video became extremely popular and became very polarizing. The majority of people thought my images looked good because I used fancy lights.

For the last five years people have been asking me when I was going to revisit the iPhone Fashion Shoot. I had already proven that you can take a great picture with any camera, but when was I going to prove that expensive lights and modifiers aren't what make images look good? At first I said I never wanted to do another professional photoshoot with my phone because I didn't want to become "that iPhone photographer" but as time went on I thought, ahhh who cares. When I heard the iPhone 6s was coming out on September 25, I decided now was the best time to create a new video to prove once and for all that quality photography can be taken with any budget.

The Concept

Like the first video, I wanted to take professional looking images but this time I was going to make it so simple that absolutely anyone would be able to recreate my shots. Instead of using a fancy studio (which was actually just my garage in the last video) I decided to do the shoot around my house and then outside at the beach. Instead of seamless paper I decided to use backgrounds that anyone could easily find. Most importantly, I limited my lighting budget to about $40 maximum per shot.

Gear Used

  1. iPhone 6s 128 GB (literally any other camera would work as well so I'm not interested in hearing that an iPhone isn't a cheap camera)
  2. Black foam core
  3. White foam core
  4. LED flashlight (I can't find the exact brand)
  5. LED panel

Shot 1

The Beauty Shot 

For the first shot we set up on my porch. One thing that I didn't make obvious in the video was that we were standing under a roof. That is very important when it comes to getting this look. All humans, but especially women, do not look flattering with light coming from above them (the sky). Lighting from above creates long shadows under the nose and chin and dark bags under the eyes. By placing ourselves outside under a roof we were able to get directional lighting from the front and we then used black foamcore to create more dramatic shadows on the side of Mela's face. We then finished the image with a white piece of foam core to get white behind Mela's hair. After about 20 minutes of Photoshop we created our final look.

Shot 2

Harsh Fashion Lighting 

For the second shot we bought a piece of fabric from Walmart for around $5 and taped it to my wall. I then used an LED flashlight positioned right above to phone to create a flat, harsh-looking fashion image. We tested the iPhones "flash" and it looked much worse than the flashlight positioned just a few inches higher. The iPhone's flash is so close to the lens that it didn't create any shadows on Mela's face at all. By using the flashlight I was able to get a slight shadow under her chin which added to the aesthetic. We weren't paying attention during the shoot and the shadows on the background were a huge pain to fix in post. We spent the most time in Photoshop on this image and it still has issues. If this was a "real" shoot, we would have been much more careful.

Shot 3

Laying On Hardwood Floor

We tried a few complex lighting scenarios for this shot but ended up sticking with something super simple. Mela simply laid on the floor, I stood over her, and my assistant and I worked on getting a flattering angle with our flashlight. Simple is usually best. We did very little in editing for this final image.

Shot 4

Sitting On The Sand

I actually got a lot of great images in this location that look very different but to keep the video concise I only edited one shot for the video. I positioned myself and the model so that she was being lit by the brightest part of the sky so that I could capture detail in the sky behind her. We then added a LED panel on the left and a piece of white foam core on the right to brighten her up allowing me to darken the scene even more. In Photoshop I darkened the scene even more to make it a bit more dramatic.

Shot 5

Laying In the Dunes

This shot was totally natural light. I almost didn't put it in the video but I liked the final shot so much I decided to keep it in. In Photoshop we did some basic blemish removal and dodging and burning to make her pop off the scene a bit more.

Shot 6

Sitting In The Water

The final shot was very similar to the fourth. We used the LED panel as our key light in conjunction with our ambient light and a white piece of foam core to the right. In post we decided to remove the bridge and distracting parts of her hair.

About The Model

Patrick found Mela on Instagram last week and we convinced her to drive down from Wilmington, N.C. (to Charleston, S.C.) for this shoot. She is an incredible model who is capable of completely changing her look from shot to shot. She also did all of her own hair, makeup, and styling. She will be moving to Miami, Fla. in the near future and I have no doubt she is going to blow up in the near future. Follow her on Instagram here.


When I released the last iPhone Fashion Shoot video I was shocked at the response. Photographers were actually angry with me and many of them tried to argue with me that a cell phone isn't as good as a professional DSLR. OF COURSE IT ISN'T. That isn't the point. Yes, the iPhone, a flashlight, and foam core is enough to create a professional looking image online but a $6,000 camera will always be better. 

The point is that today, with this amazing technology at each of our fingertips, you can no longer blame your equipment for your body of work. A talented photographer can create compelling images with any set of tools just like a talented musician can create beautiful music with a cheap instrument. The most expensive guitar in the world will not be able to create music if the person holding it doesn't know how to play. 

Your gear isn't holding you back, stop worrying about what you don't have and get back to mastering your craft.

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Previous comments
Chris Adval's picture

Okay Lee, I agree your gear isn't holding you or anyone back but how about the lack of talent (models) available and talent to achieve your vision best (for personal projects) are not available without a huge price tag or at the least some price tag to travel further to the model (such as if you live in the middle of nowhere and need to travel to NYC or Philly for the models you need to tell your vision best)?

When I say huge, I mean huge where you cannot afford it no more than once a year. I do shoot a bunch of kickass models though in NYC when I'm visiting NYC for the holidays to save those traveling costs.

Sheng Zheng's picture

well done lee. the 3gs photoshoot and pye's version are also great. i've been watching them occasionally to remind myself to go out and shoot more without worry too much about equipments/props. im heading out now to find myself a steamy hot neighbor :)

Alan Eicoff's picture

OK so I rang my across the hall neighbors bell and asked if I could take some cell phone pictures of her. I think she misunderstood! She called me a pervert and slammed the door in my face. Oh well she is in her late 50s and didn't look like Mela anyway. - Just Kidding! Nice job Lee!

Rex Larsen's picture

Very entertaining. Well done !
I like the improvised lighting with a flashlight, lcd, etc.

james digiorgio's picture

Not saying great pics can't be snapped with a cell phone but I shoot glamour (for a living--all of my living--for over 20 years) and if I walked onto a location set or into a studio, whipped out my iPhone, and started shooting the model(s) with it, my client would think I was smoking crack (or worse) before I arrived. Here's some 411 for aspiring commercial model shooters of all kinds: Perception is important! And I'm talking about your clients' (or hope-to-be clients') perceptions... i.e., their perceptions of you! Just because you know you can snap some good pics with your phone, don't expect your client to know that. As a rule, most clients don't know jack about photography and/or photography gear. They only know what "appears" professional to them. And your phone, as awesome a camera as it might be, isn't going to wow anyone and, in fact, will likely un-wow them in big ways. Anyway. Just saying.

Keith Bradshaw's picture

How in the hell did you guys edit this video and retouch these photos in 1day?

Patrick Hall's picture

While other people are out partying, drinking, watching football, and enjoying long Sunday brunches, we are both tucked away in the FS cave working our asses off! Thanks for helping us film all of this on Saturday!

Annupam Singh's picture

Must admit the camera on the iPhone6s is really good for a smart phone. I shot some BTS with it in 4K and the results are pretty good

Lord Mason's picture

Good points.
Why do so many (male) photographers consider a girl in a bikini "fashion"?

aaronbratkovics's picture

"The point is that today, with this amazing technology at each of our fingertips, you can no longer blame your equipment for your body of work. A talented photographer can create compelling images with any set of tools just like a talented musician can create beautiful music with a cheap instrument."

Good article.

Andrew Griswold's picture

This is just fantastic Lee, really well done and I can't tell you how excited I am for this video to be out there. Having grown my photography career loosely based on shooting with nothing more than just my iPhone its amazing to see what guys like you can do with it!

Henry Louey's picture

Yes. But can you do this with a Camera Obscura? :P

Anonymous's picture

You forgot to mention Photoshop
so it has to be like :
The New iPhone Fashion Shoot: Bikinis, Foam Core, Flashlights and Photoshop
Because lets be honest ... without photoshop it looks bad.

Anonymous's picture

And if you want to have absolutely cheap get rid of the iphone , lights ,foam core and use only photoshop
One of plenty:

Yann Kempf's picture

Maaan, you gotta tell me where I have to live, to have smokin hot chilean-american neighbors who just accept to have their pictures shot when I ring their bells ;)

Doc Pixel's picture

LOL! Seriously Lee... you took both of my recent "snarky" comments in other threads that led to down-votes... and combined them into one EPIC article! Good job! ;)

Craig Marshall's picture

I've been setting myself the challenge lately of photographing what I need with the tools I already have. I wanted to get the same light quality out of my cheap Yongnuo speedlights as I get from my Profoto. I had to do a lot of testing and then make modifications so that I get the same light quality, and succeeded. I put a bracket onto my umbrella holder so that the flash would fire into the center of my umbrella and umbrella octobox, I also had to use the cheap plastic diffuser on my speedlight so that the light behaves in the same way as the profoto.
I had make my own beauty dish for under $20 and found I could get same light quality as my Profoto beauty dish. Light quantity is a different story, it would take 8 - 16 speedlights to match the power of Profoto.
I conclude that professional gear, or more modern gear is considerably easier to work with. With little knowledge images captured with with Profoto lights are incredible, the guys at Profoto did all the hard work and for the longest time made me look good. I spent two days testing and tweaking my speedlights before learning how to get considerably better quality. The one thing I really must have is a modern camera. The mirror on my old Nikon D200 explodes like a bomb, and shakes my camera so bad even a good tripod can't control the vibrations without locking the mirror up prior to capturing images.
These videos are great for demonstrating how important light is for capturing amazing images. Just as you said the images you captured look better than probably 99% of photographers out there because they have no understanding of light, or for that matter even basic understanding of how to use their camera that well. Nobody would ever think a smart phone camera can capture images as well as a DSLR, but that's all relative. Like I said most photographers don't even have a basic understanding of how to use their cameras, and as such cannot capture images close to the quality you produced with the smartphone, and in speaking relativity the I-Phone camera is the batter camera. If people don't get the idea behind this video they will NEVER be any good at photography.

john pritchett's picture

For our website business I bought an iPhone 6 Plus several months ago mainly for the camera. It's replaced my Canon 5D Mark III for 99% on my photos. The first time I actually used it for a business portrait the client asked what kind of camera I was using. It was mounted on my tripod and I was using 4 hot lights and reflectors. Telling her it was my iPhone piqued her interest. Of course, ergonomically and optically the Mark III is still king, still lurking in the shadows waiting for a chance to kill the 6 Plus...

Desmond Gerritse's picture

Great article and awesome photo's. Really shows it isn't all about the gear and never should withhold you from creating good photos.

Percy Ortiz's picture

Well that's really unfair. No one has professional neighbours like you do Lee

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Lee, your iphone fashion shoots are some of the best illustrations of Roland Barthes photographic paradox that I've ever seen.

For those that are unfamiliar with Barthes, he wrote two very famous essays about photography. The more famous one is called "Rhetoric of the Image" and the other is "The Photographic Message." In the latter essay, he describes the paradox of how photography is an entirely mechanical medium yet the success or failure of an image is usually based on the subject matter itself. Another way to put it would be that while the technical process of photography is OBJECTIVE, the message of photography is always SUBJECTIVE because it's based on what is "in" the picture rather than "how" the picture was taken.

In my opinion, the iphone photo shoots are not really proving that "gear doesn't matter" as much as they're proving that the "subject does matter." If you'll notice, most of the convincing critiques about these videos have come from people that are pointing out the subject matter rather than the technique. Barthe's photographic paradox is alive and well in the iphone fashion shoot!

(BTW - it's an easy essay to read. Anybody should be able to finish it in one sitting.)

Weston Kruse's picture

Great video and article Lee!

Mayo Nayse's picture

Damn Patrick, you have to hang out in IG more often. She's stunning.

Patrick Hall's picture

Ha, Instagram paired with Facebook is the greatest way to find hidden talent. At this point though she isn't that hidden I guess

Andrew Sible's picture

Thanks for doing this, it's a wonderful article! Tempted to try it myself actually. I agree that dotted background looks like a nightmare to fix! Good images, I am impressed.

Mauricio Martinez's picture

Ok first of all ..... the note was fun .. BUT ! the thing here is that a client , or a wise and with good eye client wouldnt buy the PHOTOS if they know about quality .. they actually look like if they made em at school .. quality is for begginners .. sorry i wont buy it at all . But the effort is good just to mention it ! . the illumination actually looks cheap, the photograph looks boring in many ways (the model looks great of course nice body) but no way that would pass for a commercial photo.

Justin Berrington's picture

As someone who is pretty new to photography I'm not sure what to think about this article. I agree that you need to have a solid understanding of light, composition, posing etc. But I don't think these images are all that good. I feel that some people here may be giving extra credit to Lee because they look up to him. If some regular ol Joe like myself posted these they wouldn't even get a vote or a like. It's kind of like knowing what gear a photographer uses and automatically liking their images because of it.

Patrick Hall's picture

That is a fair assessment for sure. However I have personally seen soooo many images posted on the community and thrown my way for critiques over the years that I can fairly objectively say that these images are still above 70% of the images being created by so called professionals. I think communities like Reddit and Youtube act as a good general concensus if people like the images or not and most people do like them (those readers do not know Lee from FS). As the retoucher on these images, I'm not 100% satisfied either but I think the ultimate purpose was to prove a general point about gear and using your brain to craft your vision. But you are right, these photos aren't in the top tier of photography but still better than most attempts.

jon snow's picture

Excellent post Lee and great respect to the neighbor.

Christian Webb's picture

You are hysterical and......the man! Great stuff dude. lmao.

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