Glamour Lighting SetupsSubmitted by Michael on Thu, 2010-11-04 05:56

Lower back? Low key lighting! - The little Low Key Tattoo

A lot of excellent photos benefit from concentrating most of the light on the one important spot that the photographer wants to bring across. Low key photography is a good strategy for this type of composition. Let’s say you have model who not only got beautiful buttocks, but she also got a nice little tattoo right there - is that then probably the spot at which you want to concentrate most light? Well, at least I would - as you can see in this video.

Since I am photographing her “low”er back, I guess it’s a good idea to use “low” key lighting. In this photo shoot we are posing our model in a low key lighting setup that throws quite soft and dimmed light light onto her lower back from two interesting angles. See how it’s done:

If you look at the video and particular at the lighting diagram in detail, then you might notice that I truly underexpose my frames. Low key lighting straight in camera. Yes, that’s different from conventional wisdom which might tell you that you should expose correctly, even if you shoot low key and rather dim the photos later in postproduction. I’m perfectly fine with this traditional method. However, with my current camera I cannot see differences in quality between the two approaches - even though theoretically there must be some. Since I shoot my photos for the practical purpose of making human beings happy and not for scientific quality benchmarks, I personally prefer to directly underexpose the low key photos in camera. This way they have the low key character straight out of the camera. I like it when everybody involved in the photo shoot can directly see the results. Maybe I am just lazy to do stuff in post production - but I won’t admit that right here and now. I understand that there are other approaches which have their benefits too.

If your current postproduction workflow involves a lot of standard adjustments like exposure, white balance, saturation and sharpness, then how about trying to shift this things to the time you shoot the photo? How about getting it right in camera, just for the fun of it? Not because generations of photographers before us had to get pretty much everything right in camera when they shoot on film, no, who cares? Just for the sheer fun of it. Try it out and use the settings of your camera. Chances are that they are working much better than you expect.

Some photos from this photo shoot







Model: Kate
Photography: Michael Zelbel
Postproduction: Gina Hernandez
Graphic Design: AlexZlatev



I wish you good light!
-- Michael


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That's fantastic light, Michael! Very sweet pictures.

Thank you, Steven! I love cousin Kate's tattoo so I going to publish one more post with her, this time with a very different light - really different. Stay tuned

Hi Mr. Zelbel.

Ive been following you for quite some time now. I must be your biggest fan ;-).
I am curious on what you did in post production on this shoot. Could you tell us a little on that?


Sure I can tell you what I did for post production but chances are you won't like my answer.

Like always, I selected a few images that I liked and dragged them into a folder named 03 Postproduction. What happens then is that the software Sugarsync mirrors the images onto the harddrive of my retoucher Gina Hernandez in Mexico. Gina retouches them in Photoshop, saves them, and they are synced back to my harddrive. Done.

From the layers in Gina's Photoshop file I can tell this:

  • changed from 8 bit to 16 bit => because we have quite deep shaddows that would build artefacts if we use effectlayers in 8 Bit mode
  • removed little skin issues with the rubberstamp tool
  • used a Curves layer to lift the midtones from 125 to 135 - which actually makes the image a bit flatter
  • used a Hue/Saturation layer to boost the saturation of Reds by +5 and lighten them by +10

Here's the thing: I am quite good on photoshop but I hardly ever do it. That's why I don't want to post my own PS tutorials on SmokingStrobes. To me it would feel somehow not true. But on the other hand Gina is a real photoshop genius. She is so much better on that than I am. So I asked her to record a retuching tutorial and once that is done, I will post it here and let you know. Deal?


Thankyou for your kind reply. When should i leave my family and company behind and start as your apprentice? ;-).
The one thing that annoys me in this strobismic world, from websites to McNally books is that they allways show the end result after it has been post-processed. I personally think it is much more learningfull if we saw the image as it came out of the camera. So much can be done in post today that a picture can differ so much from when it came out of the camera. Therefor i think it is much more exciting to see the images as it came out of the camera. Do you know what i mean?


> Do you know what i mean?

Absolutely. I too think it would make sense to feature more unreworked stuff in tutorials. And in closed user groups and private coaching that's perfectly possible. On a blog like this I personally have the following dilemma: The model usually participates in the shoot because she wants to have killer photos of herself out there - which is understandable. She usually is not fine with having her unreworked stuff published. For that purpose I usually had to work with models who I would pay for doing tutorial videos. But that's out of budget for me.
Having said that, there are exceptions and if things go well then next week I am going to post unphotoshopped photos in next weeks blogpost.
BTW.: If I am not much mistaken then Joe McNally shows a bunch of unreworked photos in his videos on Kelbytraining - but I am not 100% sure about that. He was in the booth next to us on photokina the whole week - I missed the chance to bring up that topic: being more honest in tutorials :-) I'm sure he is one of the few who would have the guts to go there. Another one who has no shame to show unpolished photos is Drew Gardner (who actually was in the same booth as Joe). On his DVDs Drew shows for instance that on his well known water buffalo photo there were actually quite some things that he had to remove in PS: A camera man who was not supposed to be there, the owner of the buffalo and more. He is not afraid to show that he actually reduces noise in the dark brown water buffalo fur with the Neat plugin - which may be a questionable tool in case of ... fur. He shows how he messes with perspectives when composing photos which he accidentally did with different lenses instead of using the same one and much more. He is a super cool dude. Unfortunately he does not feature strobist style stuff. He uses rangers.

Hi Mr. Zelbel.

Thankyou for your detailed reply. I really enjoy your writing/teaching. I think were the same age and i really like your style.
I fully undestand the facts you describe as for why you are putting finished work on your blog. If i was in the shoes of a model, i would feel the same way. To promote myself as a model, i would make sure that the work online would be at it's best.
From a teaching angle, i think that post-proccessed work can differ so much from what came out of the camera that i can be misguiding. Therefor i enjoy tutorial-videos from people like mcNally, David Hobby, Zacarias. In these videos they show what comes out of the camera. Videos are great for that. But on blogs that do coaching like yourself, and books by the likes of mcNally, it sometimes irritates me that i cannot see what came out of the camera. I have grown an experience and from that i can analyze an image and see where the lights might be and their ratio-difference. But still. When i try to mimic some of the ideas from "the greats" like yourself, i often find myself not getting the results i expected and sometimes actually very far from it. This is very much due to post-processing. I think a lot of people are experiencing that. They see a great image on a blog, they check out the description and tries to mimic it in order to see if they can get the same result and learn from it. So they, or we, spend hours trying to mimic something that might have been post-processed so much that it is impossible to mimic.

I am not saying that people should copy paste others work. Personally i tend to mimic the setup, and from there i put in some changes that i think is needed in order to get the result i want. But i must say that the end result for this tattoo shot here is very much the lighting i like and wishes to pursue.

would'nt it be great to grab a book by McNally and see what actually came out of the camera? Or from Chase Jarvis? David Hill? And so on.

I follow your blog for several reasons. Actually i visit your blog more than i visit any others. I like your style, your way of keeping things simple, your way of teaching. So you and Mr. Arias have become my two top idols ;-).

I wish you all the best Michael Zelbel, and i hope to get more than one blog-post every week ;-).

All the best

Hi Lars,

> these videos they show what comes out of the camera

I often show unretouched photos when my wife Emily is modelling, like in our feature at FotoTV: Pantyhoses for photo shoots

> i often find myself not getting the results

What I see with my coaching clients is that in many cases photographers are frustrated with their results because they use overly simplified lighting models when setting up their light. They learn from the gurus that they have to care about the shadows and the highlights and the ration between those two. True, but not enough for playing in the champions legue. They get poor results even though they did everything according to the textbook. What the guru did not tell them was that in order to make the light really sing they would have to care about the shadows, the diffused areas and the specular highlight areas, because all of them are in the frame, pretty much always, and they are 3 different animals. Since they usually blend into eachother the photographer also has to care about the shadow transfer area and the highlight transfer area. That makes 5 lighting areas to care about.You have to control the contrast and also how far they expand. Intimidating? Probably yes, but if you control those 5 then all of a sudden you seriously control the light. 

Photoshop is no replacement for that. If you like to brush up photos seriously in photoshop, then you need the very same knowledge in order to execute the very same control. See the example photo, which is from the shoot I featured in the post High fashion - low effort photography lighting. The above version is out of camera while the below version is the final photoshopped result. The model got a bunch of specular highlights on her head. The really obvious one is the flare from behind. The highlight transfer area of this one is super slim and it's exactly what we want. 

The other specular highlights are on her forehead, her left cheek and her nose. She is wearing heavy makeup and the lightsource was a huge umbrella standing very close to her so the highlights are soft and the transfer area is large. Excellent, but let's use photoshop to drive that up a notch. In order to make her appearing "larger than life" my retoucher diffused those areas even more, widened the transfer area to achieve an out of this world look. Would she have done the same for the flare by applying a standard "blur the whole skin" workflow then the photo would look stupid. 

So the same knowledge that lead me to choose huge umbrellas for main and fill light as well as a concentrated speedlight for back flare, the same knowlege that made me care to have not more than half an f-stop between any of the lighting areas when shooting for a catalog, is the knowlege that lead my retoucher to soften the frontal specular hightlights while leaving the flare as crisp as it originally is.

So photoshop or not, you gotta know this when constructing light like a pro. The standard "care for f/8 on the left and for f/11 on the right" will dissapoint you even though they are technically correct. This is the trap that I see sooooo many photographers run into just because they educate themselves with "pro grade training material" written by someone who never really did lighting himself. Or written by a pro who just don't want to give away all his knowledge. 

I mean, how many times you read in a forum that you should use a lightmeter, which is an utter waste of time and money nowadays. In the digital age it's not only unnecessary, it's really a waste. OK, someone who perfectly learned how to use a lightmeter might get happy with that instrument, but in the forum, do they tell you that you have to take your subjects surface efficiency into account when using a lightmeter? No. That's a tiny but super important detail that most of grumpy pro's won't tell you. Result: You buy a lightmeter, you use it correctly, your results are poor. Frustrating!

However, I think you won't fall pray to all of that because you are smart enough to ask questions. Thus this answer might be much more for other readers than for yourself. But anyway, thanks a lot for asking :-)


Awesome Michael. Thanks for all you do!

Thanks a lot for your feedback, Joe!

great tutorial and cool picture's thx again for a great tutorial!

Amazing low key lightning!

Always enjoy looking through your photos... these are especially dark and sexy in a very lucrative/subtleway... wonderful job with the fashion.

thanks a lot, cousin!

Hi Mr Zelbel, I love your work and as a newbie to photography i now know what area i would like to pursue, as i so far only own a speedlight with an umbrella is there anything i can achieve with this limited setup.

Many Thanks


Hi Cousin Chris,

> i now know what area i would like to pursue,
Awesoem. And good choice!

> i can achieve with this limited setup

Absolutely! For starters, check the one light setup for bodyscapes room and the one light setup for full length portraits shown here on this blog. Try out both of them and from there on start exploring, what else is possible. It's amazingly a lot.

Hard to get my thick German accent? Here's the transcript!

Michael: Hey fellow photographer how is it going? I am Michael Zelbel and with me today I have cousin Kate. Kate got the tattoo of a Chinese dragon on her wonderful lower back, yeah exactly and we will shot photos of that tattoo, of that dragon. Kate one question, does that dragon have a name?

Kate: Yes her name is Lucy.

Michael: Lucy! Okay Lucy today we will shot portrays of yourself will be low key portrays. Kate, when you got Lucy was that painful this tattoo?

Kate: Yes a little bit pain

Michael: A little bit pain! Okay we will make it very pain free today, at least for me as a photographer because we will do very simple lighting. The lighting set up is like this. Our model is standing in front of a grey backdrop, probably 6ft / 2m or something away and there is light coming from camera left, which is angled, 45 degrees towards the bottom and it is going through a big shoot for umbrella. Then on the camera right, there is also a big shoot for umbrella and both speed lights are on TTL minus 1 to have the low key effect. In old school photography you might have learnt to expose it on plus minus zero and then later on in photoshop, turn down the exposure 1 f-stop in order to get better quality however when I tested that I didn’t find any difference in quality so I don’t care and I directly go to minus 1 and have low key photo straight out of the camera. There is an additional speedlight which is standing in front, directly close, in front of the great back drop, it’s zoomed back to 14mm and it is on TTL minus three, this is to get a little bit of vignett effect into the grey background.

Then the camera settings are 1/200 of a second, just because it is the fastest zoom speed of my camera with the flashes. It’s at f11 in order to have a bit of depth fo field. It is on ISO100 because it is just good value for my camera and on 5600 Calvin just to match the flashes. That is already it!

Okay I’m really really loving these low key photos and what I think is a good take away from this is low key lighting is introducing a little mystery, a little mystery which is going on well together with such a bright tattoo. I think it is also matching a lot of other subjects. So whenever you have a subject which you can amplify a mystery, low key light is your friend. I hope you found that useful and I hope to see you on the next video on Thursday and until then, I wish you a lot of fun for photo shoots and good light!

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