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
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.

Vincent Munoz's picture

in good light we the photographers specially, who knows light better than non photograhers, can really pull good quality shots using an iphone. BUT MAN, you just helped killing the industry. the PS camera alone got a big hit because of the smartphones, now thank you for starting people to shy away from DSLRs or mirrorless. not only the camera industries, also the market for portraits.

brad fuller's picture

"Your gear isn't holding you back, stop worrying about what you don't have and get back to mastering your craft." ... you mind if I frame that for my wall? :^)

Michael DeMello's picture

Very cool! I'm a firm believer that there's only about 10% of the time that equipment matters (sports, birding, LE), if you have the fundamentals down.

Tilo Gockel's picture

You are doing a really good job here, congrats, love the results!
And, btw.: the iphone is also good for foooood :-)

Making-of, enjoy!

Khürt Williams's picture

Image #5 is my favorite. I think the skins tone and the foliage give this image a tropical jungle vibe.

I started a conversation in my local photography club and suggested we take on the challenge of doing a similar shoot (indoors since it's mid-october here and we are getting low on light and warmth).

Kuba Kwiatkowski's picture

Im not interested in photography and stuff but i am determinated to get name of that girl from video

Gautham Arumugam's picture

Awesome video and songs. Could you please add the song names?

Joe Hubbard's picture

Did you keep the images in JPEG format to edit them in PS?

James Norman's picture

Brilliant video. Results trump excuses any day of the week regardless of how they were achieved. Thanks for sharing

Kevin Haley's picture

I honestly have no clue how many times I have watched this tutorial/video but it has blown my mind how your able to create these images with just a IPhone. #Classic Definitely a fan of your work.

Lee Morris's picture

Thanks Kevin!