9 minute read

Fashion, Commercial & Portrait Lighting Guide

In the first part of a major series, Ab Sesay covers some key considerations to get great fashion and portrait images

Welcome to this course on studio lighting, fashion, and portraiture photography technique. It will provide instruction, creative ideas, and confidence when working in the studio. It will also help you build a portfolio, handle and book more clients, and grow into your work as a professional photographer.

It’s designed for creatives and professional photographers who have experience, but are looking to increase skills and challenge their creativity. It’s especially for those who have excelled when working in natural light – and want to learn more about flash in the studio and on location.

We’ll cover everything, from setting up a portrait session and working towards a creative goal, to expertly mimicking natural light conditions. You will learn not only how, but why you’ll want different types of light for different situations, including the fundamentals of creating hard or soft light, and how to use high-speed flash to freeze motion.

But it’s not just about lighting technique. As a pro photographer, you need to know how to work better in teams, how to win, plan and execute big e-commerce jobs for demanding clients – and deliver your best work, by adding to your toolbox of post-processing techniques.

Though the course can be accessed in any order by clicking on the content list, you can work through it chronologically – from the fundamentals, to best practice when working with clients and growing your business.

Above all, this is a course for people who want to get hands-on and create great photos while they learn.

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay

What You Will Need

In each chapter on lighting technique, you’ll find an easy-to-follow example of how to build up different looks and adapt lighting to your creative vision. I’ll also give tips on scaling sessions, based upon tools at your disposal.

The very least you’ll require for this course are a camera, lights, model, mirror, and a large white surface as a bounce reflector.

It would be good to enlist an experienced model, five lights, a light meter, and access to similar light shapers used in each segment, such as softboxes, beauty dishes, and reflectors.

Ideally, you can access inspiring locations, a studio space with high ceilings, and a full glamour team – including makeup, hair, and wardrobe staff.

Start with an Idea

Commitment and ideas are everything. Combined with the techniques illustrated here, your own visual inspiration and projects will make the course fun and fulfilling. You’ll be learning, problem solving, and making great images. To kick off, invest time in a vision board and mood board. They stimulate creativity and focus ideas.

How to Create and Stick to Your Mood Board

Vision boards and mood boards are different. A vision board can contain words, things you’re attracted to, and ideas that aren’t yet coordinated. It can inspire you towards a big vision. It contains all aspects of your portfolio that you’re building. We’ll come back to vision boards in Chapter 11.

A mood board targets a specific piece of that overall vision. It solidifies thoughts and ideas, which can then be shared with as much specificity as possible. A mood board is the creative contract to keep your session visually on the rails. It’s direction for lighting, with examples of what arrangement you are using. It’s direction for the model, in terms of expressions and poses. It’s direction for hair and makeup and wardrobe, and for location and props. Be sure to include images that incorporate all these areas.

A big mistake by photographers is a lack of that clarity. Their mood boards are actually vision boards. They’re too general, and don’t convey ideas clearly. A good mood board communicates everything required to your model, team, and also your client. On set, everyone is coming up with ideas, which can be great, but distracting. When you’re working with a client, your mood board is a great way of conveying: “Well, this is what we agreed on. Do we want to change that? Because if we do, these are some of the things that could go wrong.”

Finally, a mood board can also help you explain the need for particular equipment or locations to a client. If it contains a model doing a lot of jumps, then it’s clear you’ll need a location with higher ceilings. If motion needs to be frozen, you will require lights with fast flash duration and recycling times. If you want a color effect, you can tell the client you need higher power lights, because very saturated gels can reduce flash power by up to five stops, turning your 500Ws flash into a 31Ws flash.

Build a Team for Your Learning Experience

This course is a creative learning experience, so it would be great if you built a photographic team for some, or all of it. As a commercial photographer, you will work in teams anyway. The more successful you get, the bigger they may be.

Properly managed, your team elevates the quality of a project, combining the skills of passionate, expert people. Good communication brings out strengths. Bad communication creates problems. It’s great to leave the door open to someone else’s expertise, but do it prior to the session, or you’ll lose time.

A great way of building a team for commercial projects is to have a core group you have worked with before, even on test projects. Clients will also have greater confidence knowing the team has that experience. Instagram is a great place to find people – and you can do it by sharing your mood board. It’s easier if you seek out another principal for the core of the group. For instance, enlist a makeup artist who likes your work, and you’ll find it easier to draw in others, such as models, stylists, and assistants.

How to Communicate with Your Team

Getting people up to speed before the session will avoid misunderstanding. You want people coming to the set as informed and comfortable as possible.

For your model, provide a one-page list communicating expectations. Show them the wardrobe, in case they have any insecurities, and advise them on any additional garments or shoes. Do they need a manicure or pedicure? Are there hair or makeup requirements?

For hair and makeup artists, be specific. Confirm ideas before the session, in conjunction with your mood board. Agree timing expectations, but build in breaks for the makeup artist or hair stylist to freshen their work.

Man photographing model in studio

Photo 2022 © Ab Sesay | FUJIFILM X-T4 and FUJINON XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/80 sec at F2.8, ISO 1600

Stylists vary a lot in terms of what they expect. Ask if there are any tools they specifically need, like a steamer, clamps, nipple covers, or pins. Enquire about the number of clothing racks and hangers, and if any items need special handling. Little things make a big difference.

For larger commercial jobs, you’ll have assistants. They keep you focused on creativity – and away from technical problems. Ideally, a first assistant should be as technically good as you are. They’ll understand lighting and creative direction – and communicate with others to save time. A second assistant works under the first, helping them rig lighting or manage the set. Finally, a digital assistant also works with the first assistant. They’ll manage images over a tethered connection or by downloading from cards, looking out for changes in exposure or missed focus, as well as general workflow – such as basic color correction, putting images into composites, and backing up images on set.

On larger jobs, you may also have a producer. They put a call sheet together, schedule the day, and make sure you stick to it. They help cast models, book locations, handle catering, and communicate with the client. Basically, they’re problem solvers!

Get Better Results When Working Solo

There’s nothing wrong with working solo. There might be less synergy, but with fewer people you can be more nimble. You can also move from one location to another much quicker.

But if you’re working by yourself – without hair, makeup or styling – don’t take on too much. Scale projects to make them manageable. Be realistic and smart. Choose a model with lots of wardrobe options, who does their own hair and makeup, and who’s worked with solo photographers before. Someone familiar with you is even better.

When working solo, communication with the model needs to be clear. Everything you would ask of hair, makeup people, and stylists, applies to your model. Share your mood board and requirements ahead of time, and ask for photos of the wardrobe, if they’re supplying it. Make a checklist, covering what they need to bring. This professionalism helps build trust – don’t take anything for granted!

If you’re working in a studio or controlled location, and you have time, set up the lighting prior to your model arriving – especially if they’ve come with hair and makeup ready to go. Test the lighting arrangement using your flash meter, or even on yourself with the camera’s self-timer. If you need to test the lighting on the model, do it before they get ready, so there’s no expectation that these are final pictures. And it allows you to make final tweaks while they prepare their first look.

Make Your Projects Successful

All the advice here helps you build towards a successful session, because you want the first image to be amazing. Often, once their model is ready, photographers will take a picture, adjust light, take another picture, adjust some more…etc. If that’s the case, people lose confidence in what you’re doing. But if your first photo is a winner, the tone is set. You’re off to a great start, giving everybody increased confidence.

In the next article, we look at how to read and create hard and soft light, and how a complete understanding of these fundamentals is vital for visual storytelling and winning more clients.

More from this series...