Backlit Beauty Lighting Set-up for Portraits and Beauty Shots

Let’s take a look at how we can make a really cool portrait or beauty shot by putting ALL of the light BEHIND the subject.  Wait! Did I say behind?  Ok… we’ll make it work.

If you have read any books or taken a class about studio lighting, you have had your head stuffed full of lighting arrangements like Rembrandt Lighting, and Clamshell and Butterfly Lighting… let’s not forget 2 to 1 ratios and main and key and fill and… well you get the point.  Generally the same people that taught you this stuff told you all the RULES that go with it… PHEWY!

Listen… it’s important to know and understand that stuff – mainly so you have a foundation to know what NOT to do if you want a result that is truly creative

I am going to walk you through a beauty lighting setup where I placed all the light – BEHIND my subject.  That’s right… behind, and NO the finished result is NOT a silhouette.

Let’s take a look at the beauty lighting set-up:

Lighting Diagram for Backlight beauty Portraits

Obviously if we don’t want this to be a silhouette, we have to find some way to get light on the models face, so you can see I have my model sitting in front of a pair of white reflectors.

On the left and the right of the camera are two 7 foot tall reflector panels that I built myself – YES – I will do a tutorial on how to make them soon –  and then I have used spring clamps to attach two WalMart Reflectors above and below my subject. 
The idea is to reflect as much light as possible back to my models face.

Now in this set-up I am using 2 strobes aimed at the background – I have one placed on each side.  I also have two strobes aimed at my subject to get a little rim lighting.  We will talk about those in a minute.

First let’s discuss the strobes real quick.  The strobes aimed at the background are Paul C. Buff AlienBee B800’s.   These strobes are rated at 320 watt seconds.  Working in a small studio space like this one – they provide more than enough light for almost anything you would want to shoot.

The rim lights are dialed down so that they provide just a bit of highlighting on the edge of the models face, and shoulders.  This rim lighting helps to create some depth and gives the image a little pop.  Notice I am also using a set of barn doors and a 30 degree honeycomb grid to make sure that these lights don’t create flare since they are aimed near the camera lens.

It is worth pointing out that this backlight concept works best with a white background – we are relying on the background to reflect the light from the two AlienBee B800’s.

Also let’s be clear that AUTO exposure is NOT gonna work here.  Even if you are using Speedlights with TTL metering – this lighting arrangement will probably throw them for a loop and give you a muddy silhouette. Bottom line is that if you want consistently good exposure results in a studio – you won’t be using anything AUTO.

So the exposure is based NOT on the amount of light hitting the white background, but the amount of light reflected from the background, to the reflectors in front of the model and back to her face.

In short… I am exposing for the shadows.

I shoot tethered using Capture One Pro software. 

In the studio I use a 15” MacBook Pro sitting on a tether table.  This set-up allows me to remain very mobile when shooting and gives me the added benefit of seeing large images and being able to really finesse a shot.

I always talk about the idea of “working a shot”.  You know… not just shooting your first idea and walking away.  So in this case I went with a real simple modification.

I switched to a black backdrop and simply turned off the two strobes that were aimed at the background.  Of course I had to adjust my exposure because now the only light hitting the reflectors was coming from the rim lights. That’s why the highlighting on the jaw and hair looks brighter in this version than it did in the original version.

As for the end result… I like each of them for different reasons… but there is only one best shot.  Which do you like and why?  Post your answer in the comments section below.

Which version do you prefer? Comment below
Which version do you prefer? Comment below!