A Simple Lighting Set Up for Beautiful Skin

Clean beauty images are defined by great looking skin, and beautiful skin always starts with great light. 

Of course, great skin usually begins with good genes and great skincare, but that isn't something a photographer can control. What a photographer can control, though, is what kind of light they use to make skin look flawless. Flat light is the most common type of light for making skin texture look nice and even. The caveat to flat light is that you lose depth and structure.

If depth is something you like in light, as I do, then you have to find a middle ground between retaining depth and showing the structure of the face, and minimizing texture.

We need to make the light directional enough to show off bone structure by creating shadows in the right places, and soft enough to make the skin look great.

One way to do this is to start with a standard beauty lighting pattern, butterfly light, where the light is directly in front of the subject and higher than the eye line, facing down at them, something like a shower head. This puts the shadows beneath the nose, cheeks, brows and jawline, much like you'll see in old Hollywood portraits of actresses. This gives us shape.

Now, we want to soften the light, so that the shadows aren't hard because HARD LIGHT + DIRECTION = TEXURE

To soften the light, the best way to is to start with a large light source. The larger the light source is in relation to the subject, the softer the light. In these photos, I'm using a 60" Photek Softlighter. Now I have soft, directional light, but I also want to fill in the shadows and lower the light ratio so that there isn't too much contrast. To do that, I bring in two white reflectors, in this case V-Flats, to bounce back light back into the shadows and soften them. This will leave me with bright, soft looking skin while retaining bone structure. 

The final touch is to do careful editing in Photoshop. There won't be too much to do, unless there are obvious blemishes like pimples that need to be removed, but you can add a bit of contrast back into the light, if you'd like, to increase the appearance of depth.

Here is the set up I used, and the final image.


Each image was taken with the same set up, in order to get great looking skin, and then contrast was added back in Photoshop to show off bone structure and the depth of the light. On the second two images to the right, a bit of contrast was added to the light by replacing one of the white reflectors with a black flag, to stop light from bouncing back into the shadows.

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For me, this is a great method to flatter my subject by making their skin look fantastic, while also showing off their bone structure and giving myself lots of options for retouching later on.