High Contrast Nude Photography – How to light and shoot bodyscapesJan 21 2014 · 0 comments · Photo Blog, Photography, Photography Ideas, Tutorials, Video, Video Tutorial
High contrast nude photography can be an interesting subject to shoot. Last night a had the opportunity to give an impromptu class on lighting and how to set up the lighting scenario. This got me thinking it could be something worth writing about. Anyway the basic technique is often referred to as a bodyscapes. Sometimes it’s called low key photography but by definition the photos I use as examples aren’t low key. They are high contrast. Low key, bodyscapes or high contrast nude photography it’s all just one small portion of how to use different lighting setups to get the results you are looking for. To shoot the technique you need not actually shoot nude. It can be done with clothing but in general some skin is required. In the end what we are doing is placing the light source at an acute angle to the subject. This creates highlight and shadow detail from the subjects curves and muscle tone.
Why Shoot High Contrast Nude Photography
So, the question might be why bother with high contrast nude photography at all? The simplest answer is because the photos are beautiful and the lighting set ups are deceptively easy . Just as an example, for the photo of Ashley below, I used one simple light. She was back lit with a small strip light that was placed about 2 foot behind and above her. That’s it. Just one simple light. Because of the ease and simplicity of the set up high contrast nude photography is great for beginners or photographers without a lot of experience. Setting up effective lighting can boost confidence and prove that anyone can get great results. Hell, it need not even be nude but high contrast photography in general. In the end it’s all the same. For more advanced photographers? Simply because you are capable of more advanced lighting setups doesn’t mean you always need to use them. Less, can be more as the old saying goes.
A quick side note about the image above. As a rule I tend not to be a big fan of selective color. The photo above, from 2009, is one of only two images I’ve applied selective color too in perhaps the last 10 years. Even so I think it works here and I like the effect so in the end I went with it.
High Contrast Nude Photography – Success and Failure
By success and failure I basically mean are we getting the results that we want and are we using the best approach? Are we getting the shot in camera the way that we want or are we spending hours in Photoshop and post production? With that in mind we’ll start with failure and some common mistakes. Before we start it’s important to remember that no matter what anyone tells you there is no right or wrong way to setup the light. If it works for you then it works for you. There are however better ways to reach your goal and ways to get the shot in camera with no need to post process the photos. I’ve been shooting my high contrast nude photography the same way for about 7 years. If however I learned a new and better technique tomorrow I’d switch in a heartbeat. There’s little point in hanging on to old techniques that aren’t effective. With that said I have found two main problems people have that severely limits their success.
Big Light and Greek Gods
First they use way too much light. Sometimes they use umbrellas or large softboxes. Sometimes they blast their model with huge amounts of light. Often they will do both. Look at it like this. None of us are Greek gods and You’re certainly not Zeus so there’s no sense in throwing lightning bolts at your model. Lighting up the sky isn’t the answer. What we want to do is just “kiss” the model with a touch of light. Just a soft little touch. Turn back the power and use a small softbox or striplight. A strip light is great and allows us complete control over the spill of the light. If you don’t have a strip light a small soft box will work fine. Depending on how much wrap around we want a small softbox could be preferred. As stated above you also want to light your model from behind rather than the front. The light should just graze across the models skin. For that reason you want the light to be low and pointing back at you rather than shining down on the model. This will create the deep shadows and pull out muscle detail and shape of the models figure.
Video – How to Light and Shoot Bodyscapes
Below you will find my video on how to shoot and setup the basic lighting for bodyscapes. There is also a bit more information tossed in here and there. For the most part we use a simple one light setup with the light behind and slightly above our model. We also use a very light coat of oil to make the shin shine and a touch of water to create beads similar water on a freshly waxed car.
Thank you too:
Jeff Bangert of Jeff Michaels Photography
Carly Shea for being our model for the video
Without them this video could not have been done!
Big Backgrounds and Fall Off of Light
The next issue people have with high contrast nude photography is a failure to create fast fall off of light. To get your head around light fall off you can have peek the link. For the short version all we need to do is unlearn everything you already know about light. We want to pretend that it acts differently and use that concept to get our results. Every school kid knows that if you shine a flashlight up into the sky the light that comes out of the end will go on forever. Long after we are gone that light will still be traveling the cosmos. 2 billion or 3 billion years from now that light will still be speeding through our universe. That is unless it is reflected in a different direction where it still keeps going or is absorbed by an object and becomes heat. As photographers we are going to pretend that this is not the case and that light will only travel so far. In fact we are going to set up our lighting so that light ends when and where we want. Our light will only travel 2 or 3 feet before we command it to abruptly stop. This is the real key to getting the shot in camera without post production in Photoshop. This is accomplished with the type of background we use, the way the background is set up and the intensity of light vs the aperture we are using. Now, since I don’t have any photos of the set up handy I’m going to do my best to explain it for you. First we are going to talk about bodyscapes where the model, in most cases, is laying down on a flat surface. If you shoot on a large backdrop you will have more surface that will be illuminated by the light. If for example you have a large backdrop like paper or muslin if its stretched out on the floor and your model is laying down on the floor this will cause two problems. 1) The surface that the model is on will be too large. This will give a huge area that will reflect light back onto the camera’s sensor. I’m assuming that you’re shooting digital here. If you’re shooting film then substitute sensor with film and keep marching on. For our purposes it’s the same. If you are using a material that reflects light even more, something like black paper, then you will get even more reflection and your background will be completely visible in the photo. Myself, I prefer to use black muslin. I buy it in 10 x 20 foot sections. It’s porous enough that it’s subtractive, absorbs most of the light and if used properly has little or no reflection. There are all manner of fancy and expensive background materials out there on the market but muslin is cheap, durable, easily replaced and works well so I go with that. If you don’t have muslin you can always put down a black sheet for your model to lay on. I know, I know. Real photographers don’t use bed sheets. That’s something that is reserved only for your local GWC! Look, that’s a load of shit! We aren’t talking about using a wrinkled black sheet as a background. We’re simply laying down a clean non reflective surface for your model to lay on. It’s effective and will do the trick just as well as anything else. We’re talking about getting the shot not being cool. We’re also talking about shooting quality high contrast nude photography. What we are not talking about is keeping up with the Jones’s or investing in expensive equipment. If you decide to invest in high grade subtractive backgrounds that’s fine but in truth much of it is completely unnecessary. 2) The next thing we want to do is raise our model up off the floor and place them on a small surface. This is the most important step in getting the shot in camera. A table or even a small folding table will do the trick. You want the table to be heavy enough to support your model’s weight safely. Don’t go setting her up on a TV try or anything flimsy. You don’t want to hurt her! Once you have your table sitting on top of your black background just cover it with a black muslin or sheet. This this reduces the size of the reflective surface to just slightly larger than the model. It also raises your model up so you are not only shooting from a more comfortable position. You can also set your light at an acute angle rather than beaming straight down. For the image below Dani was actually laying on her side on a table and lit by a single small softbox from behind. I rotated the image in post because “it felt better” that way.
Setting Your Exposure
Now that you have your background and lights set up it’s almost time to start shooting. First however we need to get the proper exposure. It’s not important what you use. Whether you use a grey card or an exposure meter it all comes out the same in the end. Anyway, you will want to check the exposure of your light but in the end you aren’t, as we first pointed out Zeus, so there’s no point maxing out your light source. It’s not so important where you start but if, for example, your light is firing 1/125 at f/4.0 you’ll want to set your camera to 1/125 at f/5.6 or even as high as f/7.1. This will allow you to crush the blacks in the shadow region so that you can’t see your background. With the light so close to the model her skin will still be properly exposed. but the black fabric the she is laying on will not be. If your model is standing up the same applies. If you are using two lights keep both behind your model. Use one as your main light that will graze across the models skin and bring out detail. Use the other as a kicker or rim light. I’d set the rim light at half the power of the main light but that’s just me. What you do is up to you but always just “kiss” your model with light. A soft little peck is all it takes. Never blast her with it and certainly don’t go tossing lightning bolts around. That about wraps up my little tutorial on high contrast nude photography for now. If you have any questions or input please feel free to drop a comment below and add to the discussion.
If You’d Like to See More
If you’d like to see more of my artistic nude and bodyscape photos have a look at my Nude Gallery here.
If you enjoyed the tutorial please drop e a line in the comments section below and talk to me. I’d love your feed back on what I can do to make it better. Frankly I think it”s a bit confusing as it hard to explain with only words. I have added the video in hopes that it will make more since. Perhaps that will make it easier to understand. Either way I hope to hear from you in the comments below so please feel free to drop me a line and talk to me. Have a fantastic day and I hope the tutorial helped you out.