Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video

I lit actress Lauren Graham using clamshell lighting for this Netflix promo spot. While it wasn’t exactly a beauty spot, I utilized beauty lighting to make Lauren look her best, since this was for a big announcement about her new series.

Interviews are one of the most common threads that unite video shooters and cinematographers, for all types of projects. That’s because the interview format has a tendency to find its way into almost all forms of production at one time or another. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting corporate, commercials or documentaries. I’ve seen the interview shot even work its way into narrative films and music videos, which might open with a character or musician giving a few sound bites in an “interview.”

Your job—which is to shoot the interview—is to light the talent in the most flattering way possible, but in a contextually appropriate way.

Let’s expand on that for a moment: What I mean by “contextually appropriate” is that the subject should be lit in a way that supports and complements what they are speaking about in their interview. It typically wouldn’t make sense to light a forensics expert talking about autopsy reports with the same warm and friendly lighting that would be appropriate for a mother talking lovingly about her child. Context in lighting is everything.  

What About Beauty, Fashion Or Glamour Lighting?

Additionally, at some point, you may occasionally have been asked to shoot something tied to beauty, fashion or glamour.

If you’ve been in this position before, how did you change your “normal” interview lighting setup to accommodate this request for a softer, warmer, more idealized look that’s typical in beauty and fashion?

If you’re not sure or you weren’t happy with your results, stay tuned: That’s what we are going to cover in this article. We’ll explore how to create lighting for beauty and fashion, and how to obtain flattering results that are simple, easy and quick. This will give you and your clients results that jump off the screen and flatter your subject.

Chances are, you can deploy the same lighting and grip gear that you already own and you’ve been using for normal-looking interviews. But for this primer, we’ll discuss different techniques and rules that apply to get that beauty/fashion/glamour look.

Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video
I lit actor Colin Farrell using a normal soft key source on the right, a white reflector camera left, and a small hair light behind him on a 40-inch C-Stand arm, to pop him out from the muted tones of the wall behind him. This is a good example of “normal” interview lighting.

Three-Point Light For Normal Lighting

We’re going to assume that at this point in your career as a videographer, cinematographer or still photographer, you have a grasp of the basic three-point lighting technique:

In most “normal” lighting setups, you would have a key source—something large, diffused, set at about 45 degrees from your talent.

On the opposite 45 degrees to talent side, you would have a fill source, which can vary in size but is usually in the same realm as the key source in size or a larger diffusion disc or reflector. Or it could be another light source but dialed down so as not to be as bright as the key source on your talent’s face, giving some “modeling” and dimensionality to your talent’s face.

The third source is usually located behind the talent and is often placed high up, out of frame. This light is referred to as a hair light or sometimes as a rim light, depending on how this third light is being used.

The most commonly used technique for beauty and fashion lighting is referred to as “clamshell” lighting. The name will become apparent as you read on.

In a “normal” interview lighting setup, the goal is usually to achieve some semblance of subtle shadowing on one side of the face. In other words, the “key” side is brighter, and the opposite side, the “fill” side, is usually a bit darker.

Since video is viewed on a flat two-dimensional screen, one of the goals in lighting is often to make the image appear more three-dimensional. By changing the contrast ratio between the brighter and darker sides of the face, the shadows look super cool and give an image more depth, but shadows also tend to emphasize minor textures and flaws in the talent’s skin. For normal situations, you want to add some dimension in the image, but you still want to maintain the appearance of flawless skin with your talent.

Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video
Here’s a profile diagram of clamshell lighting: It utilizes a top source, center axis to talent and a bottom source, also center to talent. The camera shoots the footage centered between the two soft sources. This style of lighting minimizes skin imperfections and is extremely soft and flattering to skin, hair and eyes.

Clamshell Lighting For Beauty, Fashion Or Glamour

If achieving smooth, flawless skin in the image is more important than achieving lighting with a bit of shadow, the simplest, most effective way to light the talent is with clamshell lighting.

While your key source in a normal lighting setup is set around 45 degrees to the camera right or left, in a clamshell lighting setup, your key is placed above the camera. By bringing the key light on axis with the camera’s lens, you eliminate almost all shadows from the talent’s face as the light comes from the same angle the camera is seeing.

This has a tendency to fill in and softly wash out any skin imperfections, as no shadows are cast by the large soft source that’s straight on to the talent. The next ingredient is to add an under fill source. This is another soft light source that is located low, in front of the camera, usually on a short height stand, or at times, you can rest the lighting source on the ground. This source is on the same exact axis as the key light up above it.

But the key to getting a really nice, soft and even lighting texture on your talent is highly dependent on achieving the correct ratio between the upper key and the lower fill. If you have too much under fill light coming in from underneath the talent, the lighting can look strange. Subtlety is the main factor here. It’s recommended that, for instance, if your key source is set for around 60 percent power, you will probably obtain the ratio you desire by dialing in about 10-15 percent power on the under fill source.

Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video
Here’s a profile diagram of butterfly lighting. It also utilizes a top source, center axis to talent and a bottom source, except in this case, it’s a reflector instead of another light and softbox, resulting in a slightly different look under the nose with some soft shadow and contour.

Another Variation: Butterfly Lighting

There is some controversy regarding clamshell lighting and butterfly lighting. Some suggest they’re the same thing.

Generally, if two lights act as two independently powered sources, this is described as clamshell lighting.

Butterfly lighting is similar, except that instead of another light source and most often another softbox being used underneath the talent’s frame line, a white, gold or silver reflector is deployed horizontally right under the talent’s frame line, so that it reflects the light coming from the key source back up into the talent’s face.

In clamshell lighting, typically no shadow is seen underneath the talent’s nose; the lighting fills in that shadow area. In butterfly lighting, there is typically a figure 8-shaped subtle shadow and light area underneath the talent’s nose. These are both really just variations on the same thing.

You should experiment to see which method suits your talent and your desired look. I’ve used both, and either can look right in certain situations.

Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video
I utilized hard hair lights (ARRI 650 fresnels on dimmers) to separate these two dark-haired talent from the black background.

To Hair Light Or Not To Hair Light

Classically, most beauty and fashion lighting traditionally featured fairly hard-edged hair lights. The hair light serves to place a halo of light around the talent, allowing them to look more three dimensional and pop out from the background. The popularity and style of hair light is sort of bound with trends, though.

Currently, over the past few years, hard-edged hair lights have gone out of style. While they can look appealing, they tend to emphasize a more obvious lighting style. With the current trend of everything looking more naturalistic and realistic, these types of hair lights can look a bit dated. Besides lending a look to the image, the hair light also serves a function as it can actually separate the talent from the background.

If you have a person on camera with black hair being shot against a dark or black background, you probably will be required to use a hair light just so their dark hair doesn’t blend in with the background, resulting in a face floating in a dark limbo.

Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video
I lit Bruce Miller, the creator of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with a rim light so that the sides of his face and darker shirt would pop from the dark background.

What About A Rim Light?

A rim light is really just a hair light at a lower angle. You’ll find with talent who are bald or have very thinning hair that a hair light won’t work very well. The skin on their head literally acts as a round reflector with specular highlights from the light ending up on their temples or upper forehead.

In these cases, you may elect just to skip the hair light. Assuming you are using a small Fresnel for this purpose, if you attach barn doors to the hair light, you can then aim that hair light at their shoulders, using the barn doors to flag the light off of their head, instead hitting them with the light around their shoulders and the sides of their arms. This will still allow them to pop out from the background as the hair light would normally do, while avoiding the specular highlights showing up on the talent’s head.

Lighting For Beauty And Fashion Video
Even though I often light with daylight-balanced LED lights, as key and fill sources, I often use an ARRI 300-watt Fresnel as a hair or rim light. The Tungsten 3200k color temperature provides a nice, warm glow to add some color contrast against the 5600k LEDs.

Color Temperature For The Hair Or Rim Light    

You can consider playing with color temperatures for your hair or rim light so that you build some color contrast into your scene. For instance, if you have keyed and filled your talent with daylight LEDs (5600k), try using a tungsten hair or rim light. Its 3200k color temperature will give your talent a slightly warm halo of light around their hair or edge, which can look very flattering.  

The Primary Concept

Good lighting is all about experimentation. Clamshell or butterfly lighting are the two easiest, most practical lighting styles for most beauty, fashion or glamour looks, but they aren’t the only ones. There are other higher-end beauty and glamour lighting styles that work very well but require large, expensive and very powerful lights and huge diffusion sources, like 8 x 8-foot or 12 x 12-foot diffusion panels or larger. So, they are a bit beyond the scope of this article.

Clamshell and butterfly lighting are both available to anyone who is using regular and smaller lighting kits and with careful setup can yield world-class results. Next time you need to light someone to look their absolute best, try clamshell or butterfly. You’ll be amazed at the results.