Tutorial: Using strip softboxes on a sexy woman

Mostly, I’m a single light photographer.
Well, not really, I often use multiple lights but as good lighting nearly always means that 1 light does about 90% of the work, any other lights that I use aren’t obvious at first glance.

This tutorial is about using a pretty unconventional type of lighting, strip softboxes.


The shot above has been retouched, although not a lot. Retouching is essential for all shots where hard lighting is used, but none of the other shots have been retouched, they are all exactly as shot because I want you to see the real thing, warts and all.

In this part of the tutorial I’ve used a single strip softbox, complete with a honeycomb grid, to produce some pretty dramatic results, and later on, I’ve used a pair of them.

Often, a honeycomb (or a grid as our American friends like to call it) is used behind the subject, to reduce the risk of lens flare, but here I’ve used it mainly to control the spread of light, so that I’m only lighting the bits of the model that I want to draw attention too.

And once again, my model was Keira (link is NSFW) and she has the right look for this dramatic type of lighting – but it isn’t for everyone because it shows up the flaws as well as the qualities of the model, and a fair bit of retouching is always going to be needed with such a small, hard light source.

Hard lighting always adds drama, but in doing so it shows up every pore in the skin, every blemish and every stray hair.

So why use a hard light source?
Well, although it’s a bit of an over-simplification, I think it’s fair to say that soft lighting makes a woman look beautiful but hard lighting makes her look interesting and sexy.

One very important point, before we talk about the photos
The strip boxes need to be absolutely square to the model, unless you’re using them to deliberately create shadows under the cheekbones and lower lip – in which case a beauty dish is probably a better bet anyway. If the softboxes aren’t straight then the light will fall off as it travels further down the model, and this will ruin any shot that’s more than just head and shoulders. For a full length shot, this involves using something like our combined low level stand, which is exactly the right height for our strip softboxes.

Right, let’s talk about the shot below. It’s got drama, and maybe too much.

If we don’t want this much drama then of course we can add a fill light.

But before we talk about a fill light, do you see how quickly the light falls off as it travel’s across Keira? That’s because I’ve placed the strip softbox really close to her. That’s the Inverse Square Law working for us, because the closer the light is to the subject, the more quickly the light falls away.

The fill light
I added a fill light to some of the shots. What a fill light does is to add light to shadow areas, and a true fill light is known as an on axis fill – it has to be on axis to the camera lens, where it lights every part of the subject seen by the lens. Some camera magazines, and many online tutorials and videos, talk about having a key light on one side of the subject and a fill light on the other side but that’s just nonsense, because the second light ends up as being an unnatural second light, casting its own shadows, it isn’t a fill light.

The purpose of a fill light is to stop the shadow areas from being too dark, in other words it mitigates the effect of the key light. Of course, it also reduces the drama, so sometimes it can be a good thing and sometimes it can be the opposite.


Single honeycombed strip softbox with fill

Fill light ratios
People often ask me what the ratio should be with a fill light, and frankly I don’t know because, to me, lighting to a ratio is just about as creative as painting by numbers. I believe that lighting to any ratio should be consigned to the history books, when all pro photographers had to shoot on transparency film that could only cope with a very limited range of contrast. My approach to a fill light when shooting on digital  never ever varies, I start with none at all, then I switch it on at its very lowest power and see whether I like the effect or not. If necessary, I turn it up a bit, test, turn it up a bit more and so on until I’m happy with the result – but I usually end up with very little, if any, fill.

Sometimes, I’m not sure whether I actually want a fill light or not, so I take a shot both with and without one. My method of doing this is simple – I use a SuperFast flash head for the key light and an ElitePro or a SmartFlash for the fill light. The SuperFast recycles instantly and the other head takes maybe 1/4 second or so to recycle, so when I fire 2 shots in quick succession I have a fill light on the first shot and no fill on the second.
The fill light can be literally any kind of flash, it doesn’t make much difference. It’s normally behind me, so it needs to be big enough for it not to matter that I’m blocking some of the light with my own body, which means that I normally use either a large softbox or an umbrella. But, for all the difference it makes, it could be a hotshoe flashgun on top of the camera – the only reason why I don’t do that is that the hotshoe is being used for the remote control/radio trigger.

Now let’s move on to using twin strip softboxes
Using two softboxes, exactly the same as each other, one each side, gives a very different effect.


Double honeycombed strip softboxes, no fill

This shot uses twin softboxes as you can see, and the one on the left isn’t adding to the lighting on Keira’s face but it is lighting  not only her hair but also the ‘dark’ side of her body, and helping too to separate it from the background.

And this shot is using twin softboxes too, but in a very unconventional way, with her facing the camera and lit from both sides. I think it sort of works, but only because Keira is slim; if she was a size 12 instead of a size 8 she would have ended up with a very round face using this type of lighting.

Even with this very hard lighting, this shot looks fairly “gentle” simply because Keira is looking downwards and we can’t see her eyes..


But in the shot above, she is looking straight at you, pretty well daring you to look at her, which adds its own kind of drama. Just a small difference to the pose, in this case whether or not the eyes are visible, can make a big difference.

Here’s the same shot again, but with the colour removed. Mono treatment often suits hard lighting techniques.

As above, but in mono

As above, but in mono