Beauty Portrait Lighting Setup with One Light & Reflector for Dramatic Portraits and Model Shots

I have a really simple one light portrait lighting set-up that I use for beauty shots and dramatic portraits. I’ll walk you through it and show you how you can add more lights and gels to turn this simple arrangement into a bold and colorful set-up.


Are you tired of hearing me say keep it simple stupid yet? Are you beginning to understand that a great shot is much less about the camera and the lighting than it is about the moment that you create in front of the camera?

I hope so! Of course, I’m not saying that you don’t need to pay attention to the physics stuff and the lighting stuff – because of course you do! – but all the gear in the world won’t help you if you don’t really know how to use it. The same thing happens if you haven’t learned to understand how light works and reacts in different situations. That’s where the practice comes in.

model with gold lipstick and eyeshadow wearing black vinyl hat

This shot above is of my favorite beauty shots in part because of the dramatic feel with a beautiful asian model and, of course, because of how easy it was to set up the portrait lighting in this case. The real feature of the shot is the gold makeup around the model’s eyes. The choker and head wrap are just some sparkly material that I found at a fabric store and the hat is a sheet of black vinyl that I also purchased on clearance at a fabric store. I have mentioned before that I make routine trips to the fabric store whenever they have big sales. I always make sure to check out the clearance bins.

The shot was made with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens  zoomed to 130mm and set at f/8. The shutter speed was 1/200th of a second and the ISO was 100. Because of the low angle and the size of the vinyl – I had to be sure that I had enough depth of field to keep all of it in focus.

This is another shot that I think looks awesome in black and white.

same photo as before, now in black and white

Full disclosure: this black and white version was an afterthought – it wasn’t planned.  If I would have shot this for black and white after my makeup artist put in all that effort on those gold eyes, she would have killed me. As I have explained before, if I want a black and white shot, I am making that decision before I shoot, not afterwards.

The final images required very little post production beyond the usual color, contrast, sharpening, and, of course, removing of blemishes.

The Lighting Setup

I told you the portrait lighting setup for this shot was simple. One monolight and a 21″ beauty dish mounted on a boom stand, plus a light silver reflector placed under the model’s face just out of the frame to provide some fill and additional highlights on the vinyl. The brightest highlights come directly from the beauty dish and the softer, more subtle ones are from the reflector.

Portrait lighting setup with beauty dish below model's chin and sock above to the left

Also note how high and close the beauty dish is. I wanted the 21″ dish to remain large in proportion to the model’s face so that I still had a broad light source to work with. I also added a white sock to soften things just a bit and to reduce the amount of detail that would show up in the reflections on the vinyl. It was key to have the model looking up slightly so that I didn’t have heavy shadows under her eye sockets and nose.

As is the case with most of my shots, you can do this setup with speedlights, too. The placement would be exactly the same.

If you don’t have a beauty dish yet, you could accomplish pretty much the same look with a small Octobox or a small softbox.

If you like this portrait lighting setup, but don’t want it to be quite so monochromatic, you could start adding additional lights. Here is a version with a background light placed just behind the model:

digital rendering of portrait lighting setup with extra light behind model aimed at background

And then two rims – one on either side of the model:

digital rendering of portait lighting setup with two rims placed behind the model on either side

Here are the rims without the background lights:

digital rendering of portrait lighting setup with rims but no background light

And then you could start adding colored gels to the rims.

digital rendering of portrait lighting setup with orange and blue gels right and left gels respectively

As always – the possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.

I hope that sparks some ideas for you. Take this idea and run with it. Go create and show me what you come up with!

Don’t forget, your BEST shot is your next shot! So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting.  -Adios!

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