Dramatic Beauty Portrait Tutorial Part 1: Complete Lighting Setup and Gear List

This is Part 1 in what will be an 8 part series for a dramatic beauty portrait. In the series of tutorials, we will go through everything from the gear used, to the lighting setups, and all the way through the complete retouching process. In Part 1, I will breakdown my gear list used for the shoot and I will thoroughly go through my lighting setup. In this video tutorial not only will you see the gear and setup, but also a behind the scenes look as me and my team go through hair, makeup, and shooting. The complete series of videos will be available here on Fstoppers and on my YouTube Channel.

Now that you've watched the video, lets take a look at the gear list in more detail.


Einstein Monolights by Paul C. Buff

The Einstein is a 640W/s monolight. They run $499.95 each, and in the world of professional lighting that is a very low price tag. The Einstein is basically the entry level professional quality strobe. What makes it "professional"? Well, first of all this is a very subjective statement, but consistency in output, consistency in color temperature, recycle time, and flash duration are some of the main lighting characteristics that determine the quality of a lighting system. The Einstein strobe is a very consistent light with remarkable flash duration. I would highly recommend reading this article from Patrick Hall which outlines the comparison of flash duration between the Einstein, Profoto, and Broncolor.

Of course you do to some degree get what you pay for and if you haven't seen an Einstein before, you can see in the video that the bodies are plastic. Paul C. Buff often used cheaper parts like the plastic bodies in order to provide a quality product at a budget price.

Main Light Modifier

Mola Demi Beauty Dish

If you haven't heard of Mola, I would recommend checking out their lineup of lighting modifiers and even more so, their blog which shows their products being used on some of the highest-profile shoots. The hard modifiers that they are known for provide a very unique shape of light. I personally find that for a more directed and dramatic light, the Mola Demi Beauty Dish is perfect. I do however prefer the more traditional shape of say a Profoto Beauty Dish for traditional and commercial beauty lighting.

Background Light Modifier

Medium Softbox by Paul C. Buff

There's nothing sexy about the Paul C. Buff modifiers, but they are cheap and get the job done. Bottom line is they don't look like anything special (and they aren't), but they do what they are meant to do. In this tutorial I used one 32"x40" softbox across the background.


42" Interfit 5-in-1 Reflector

Reflectors are pretty straightforward items, and the exact brand isn't really all that important. I used a 42" reflector for this shoot, but for beauty you can certainly get away with something a little bit smaller. I also used the silver side of the reflector, which is what I normally do. You can also use the white side of the reflector if you want to fill in the shadows a bit less.


Impact Turtle Base C-Stand

The C-stand can be seen in the video. It is holding our main light directly overhead the model.

Mini Boom

Avenger D600 Mini Boom

The Mini Boom allows me to get the C-stand further away from me so I have more room to work and move. I find this useful especially when shooting beauty where the light is directly overhead.

Background Stand

Backdrop Alley Kit

I'm using a very inexpensive background stand kit by Backdrop Alley that holds up to 9 foot rolls of backdrop paper.


Savage 53" Fashion Gray

When shooting beauty it doesn't hurt have a wider roll of backdrop paper, but the smaller 53" rolls are more portable and are sufficient for the job. For this shoot I chose a middle gray that Savage labels as "fashion gray."


Nikon D800

My go-to camera right now for beauty and fashion is the Nikon D800. The file size and dynamic range are perfect for shooting and retouching.


Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G

In the video tutorial you'll see that I have both the 85mm f/1.4 and the 70-200mm f/2.8. You can also see that I chose the 70-200mm for this shoot so that I could shoot stopped down to f/11 and get the added compression of the 200mm focal length. I kept the zoom locked in at 200mm the entire shoot.

An In-Depth Look at the Lighting Setup

The main light is an Einstein strobe at 1/8 power with our camera set at f/11 for the aperture, 1/160 for the shutter, and at ISO 100. The 70-200mm lens was at 200mm. I like to keep my shutter one or two clicks away from its max sync speed to avoid accidently hitting it and winding up with an unusable image. Remember the shutter speed will in actuality have very little to do with the sharpness of our image. At f/11, my image without strobes is pitch black and that flash duration we were talking about, which is somewhere around 1/4000 of a second, is what is dictating the sharpness of my image.

The Mola Demi Beauty Dish was on our main light with the grid also inserted for a more dramatic light. The silver reflector was handheld and reflecting light from the beauty dish back up into the shadows underneath our model. You may notice a slight difference from image to image in the exact density of the shadows underneath the subject's chin. This is because the grided light makes it much more challenging to catch the light with the reflector. One tip that can help, if you are really having trouble, is to dim the lights in the room and use the modeling light on your strobe so you can visibly see the light you are trying to reflect. Camera right you can see the background light, which as discussed was a medium Paul C. Buff softbox, that was skimming light across the backdrop at a much lower power setting. Finally, there are black "fill cards" or simply pieces of foam core on either side of the model to create shadows on the edges or outline of the subject.

In Part 2 of our dramatic beauty portrait tutorial we will take a look at culling and selecting our images in Lightroom and preparing our image for retouching in Photoshop.

Don't forget to subscribe to my YouTube Channel to get updates on the series as soon as they're posted.

Lance Nicoll's picture

owner of Lance Nicoll Wedding Photography - Fine Art Wedding Photography Studio

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Hi Lance...was great meeting you last week!! Great article and extremely relevant to what we were setting up.

One thing I noticed during that time was that because of the minimum focusing distance on the 70-200 I had to be at least around 135mm or so and backed up a little before I could get that tight of a crop. Obviously that works all the way to 200mm but at that length I felt a bit too far away from the model. On the other hand, I actually was impressed with the 70-200's sharpness even on my D800.

However, was considering a 105mm as well per Julia's suggestion...would be lighter too!

Looking forward to the rest of the series!

Jason, I would agree with that, being physically closer with the 85 1.4 or 105 does help to maintain that relationship and communication with the model.

Great video, thx for sharing. You should share some finished photos at the end though.

HI Mark, thanks for watching. This is going to be a multiple post series, so there will be final images in some of the upcoming posts!

Enjoyed the tutorial, but I swear, when I see people not using lens hoods, it gives me hives. Lens hoods should not be an option, they have a function. With all of that light pouring in from behind the model, toward the camera... any light that is forward of the front element causes HALATION and a loss of some degree of contrast. Not the same as lens flare, it does not require a direct specular beam of light to produce HALATION, any and all light, even diffuse light that falls on the front element of the lens will cause a hazing to some degree and when it penetrates the front element it will reflect back off the second element, the barrel surfaces or even the sensor itself causing halation. The degree and the impact it has on the image is a variable dependent upon angle and strength of the light... LENS HOODS USED PROPERLY REMOVE THAT OBSTACLE! Why on earth would anyone nose use a lens hood? Must be some kind of weird new KEWL factor... I know! I know! I've lived too long. No! It's not anal, it's physics!

How on earth could one vote down information on why everyone should use their lens hood? Really? I never cease to be amazed, even after nearly 40 years.

Seems to me that there are a bunch of negative people on this site.