How To Shoot Simple Nude Photography and Light Bodyscapes - A Tutorial

High Contrast Nude Photography – How to light and shoot bodyscapes

January 21, 2014 , , Barry Kidd
Honeybees at the 98th Pennsylvania Farm Show 2014
The Batmobile arrives at Motorama 2014
Nude photography. Bodyscapes of Dani

High contrast nude photography, often called bodyscapes can create beautiful photos for both the beginner and experienced photographer alike. This tutorial and tutorial video will hopefully shed some light on the subject and the technique that I use to create these simple but elegant photographs.

Last night I was given the opportunity to give an impromptu class on lighting and how to set up the lighting scenario. This started me thinking that it may be something worth writing about. This same photopgraphy technique is also called bodyscapes. Some people call it 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 this technique you need not actually shoot nude. We can also shoot it 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 of the subjects curves and muscle tone.

Why Shoot High Contrast Nude Photography And Bodyscapes In The First Place

So, the question might be why bother with bodyscapes or nude photography at all?

Beautiful photos and a deceptively easy lighting set up are probably the best reasons for shooting for shooting bodyscapes. Just as an example, for the photo of Ashley, below, I used one simple light. A small strip light was used to light the subject. The light was placed about 2 foot above and behind 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? Photographers that are capable of more advanced lighting setups shouldn’t always feel the need to use them. Less, can be more as the old saying goes.

Side Note
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 or Failure

By success or failure I’m asking if we are getting the results that we want and are we using the best approach? As photographers we getting the shot in camera the way that we want? 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. Even if you do good work finding a better technique that reaches the same goal is always beneficial. If we get in camera with little or no post processing of the photos it’s even better. I’ve been shooting my high contrast nude photography and bodyscapes 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
None of us are Greek gods and You’re certainly not Zeus so there’s no sense in throwing lightning bolts at your model.

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. The soft box we choose depends on on how much light we want too wrap around our subject. I almost always prefer a small soft box or strip light. 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.  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.

Video: High Contrast Nude Photography – How to light and shoot bodyscapes.

This tutorial video shows how to light and shoot bodyscapes. The technique can also work for other types of nude photography or simply high contrast photography in general

The featured image at the top of this page was from the high contrast bodyscape shoot of Carly Shae. See the tutorial video, High Contrast Nude Photography – How to light and shoot bodyscapes on YouTube as well.

One light black and white, nude bodyscapes photography of Carly

One light black and white, nude bodyscape photography of Carly. From the video above

A sincere thank you too:

Jeff Bangert of Jeff Michaels Photography and Carly Shea for being our model for the video. Only with their help was the making of this video possable.

Big Backgrounds and Fall Off of Light

There are& all sorts of fancy and expensive background materials on the market. My choice is muslin. I like muslin because it’s cheap, durable, washable, easily replaced and gets the job done.

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. Two billion or thee billion years from now that light will still be speeding through our universe.

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. Controlling our light is the real key to getting the shot in camera without the need for 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.

I don’t have any photos of the set up

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’ll have more surface area that will be illuminated by the light. If your model is laying down a large backdrop like paper or muslin that’s stretched out on the floor it’ll cause two problems

Don’t place your model on a large surface

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 purpose 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 all sorts of fancy and expensive background materials 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 use a black sheet for your model to lay on.  I know, I know.  Real photographers don’t use bed sheets.  They say it’s something that is reserved only for your local GWC! People are full of shit! We aren’t going to use 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. You souldn’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses but rather do what needs to be done. 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.

Raise the model up

The next thing we want to do is raise our model up off the floor and place them on a small surface. This is easily the most important step for get 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.

A higher surface 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.

Above is aHigh Contrast Nude Photography or bodyscape of Dani. Below you can see a lighting diagram used for this shot. minus the table she was laying on. It’s about as simple as it gets.

You can see my basic high contrast nude photography lighting setup above. I use it for nearly all of the bodyscapes I shoot. For the digram to be correct the ball should be propped up on a table. Unfortunately the little lighting diagram builder has no tables etc. The table can be seen in the video above.

Setting Your Exposure

Use one light as your main light that will graze across the models skin and bring out detail.

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 to get the exposure. Whether you use a grey card or an exposure meter it all comes out basically the same in the end. Anyway, you’ll want to check the exposure of your light but as we’ve already pointed out you aren’t 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.

When the light is so close to the model her skin will still be properly exposed but the black fabric the she is laying will be under exposed. This is a good thing and the exact effect that we want. If your model is standing the same applies.

Just “kiss” your model with light

If you’re using two lights keep both behind your model. Use one light 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 personally set the rim light at half the power of the main light but that’s just me. What you do is your choice 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 bodyscapes and 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.

Unlike most of my bodyscape photogrphy this shot of Natasha, above, had the light directly over head rather than behind.

Your Photos Don’t Have To be Nude

The photo of Krista below is a personal favorite of mine. “Krista” is a simple little shot and turned out fantastic. Other people seem like it as well because of the number of times it’s been infringed upon. It’s been taken and used without license no less than 800 times. This photograph has been used for everything from record labels to wallpaper too simple avatars and more. I take appropriate action whenever possible. Sometimes things spin out of control and we’re left fighting the battles we can win.

High Contrast Nude Photography? No, your photos need not be nude but the technique does require skin as you can see from the light reflecting off of Krista’s skin in the photo above.

For More Of My Nude Photography

If you’d like to see more of my artistic nude and bodyscape photos have a look at my Nude Gallery here.

Did you enjoy the tutorial? If so 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.



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