On Location PhotographySubmitted by Michael on Thu, 2010-05-13 18:52

Speedlights Top-Down Make For A Dramatic Beauty Light

One of the rather dramatic beauty lighting setups is the one where light comes soft but directed right from above the model. That’s the light which makes a colorful punk hairdo really glowing. However, in the video below I use it for a slightly different purpose: It throws dramatic light onto my model and at the same time it lets the rest of the dizzy hotelroom that we are shooting in sink into dark black shade.  Ain’t that handy?

Like always I refrain from using a huge professional boom stand or anything. Speedlights, an Umbrella and a piece of twine are all we need.

See yourself:


Have a look at the lighting diagram of this shoot:

(1) Two Speedlights, GN58, 1/4 power, 50mm, Group B
(2) Model sitting on the floor
(3) 10 ft./300cm distance from camera to model
(4) DSLR, zoom [email protected], 1/200s, f/8, ISO200, Speedlight GN58, 1/128power, Group A


I wish you good light!
-- Michael

Models: Ajiao, Linxi and Sasha
Location: Jingguang Apartments, Beijing
Photos: Michael Zelbel
Postproduction: Gina Hernandez


Hey Michael,
you are really crazy (in a positive sense). I definately like your ideas an inspirations. Continue like this an success will be yours!

Cheers from Germany,

Hi Micheal
Did the speedlite 580 EX not influence the lighting from the camera point? Is there an option sync without emitting light?

This a good example of light weight gear on location shoot. Thanks for sharing.

Hi Inder,

Thank you so much for this excellent question.

> Did the speedlight 580 EX not influence
> the lighting from the camera point?

In fact, it did influence the lighting. With 1/128th of its power. And I made it so on purpose.

You know there are two schools of lighting such portraits: One is about maximizing contrast, the other is about preserving details.

On the one hand there are photographers, who let dark shadows sink into complete black, with no detail at all in the shadows. And those photographers like, that the overall contrast of their photos is pretty strong. The great Helmut Newton comes to mind. Or nowadays the awesome Moshe Brakha, who says “I am a dirty light - that's what I call myself.". Their photos look contrasty, powerful, crisp and often really dramatic. They please our eye even at the first glance.

On the other hand there are photographers who are lighting in a way that even on the darkest shades of their subject there is still enough light so that you can see details if your are looking close enough. Sasha Hüttenhain is a great example of somebody doing this with excellence. I also saw a lot of examples of this lighting in Albert Watsons work. Photos lightened like this sometimes look like they lack a little bit of contrast. Especially when you see them online in low resolution or on a mediocre screen. But if you see them printed big hanging in an exhibition, boy, they just shine. They are super interesting because they offer so much details that the viewers eye can explore and find when looking at the photo long enough.

Both schools of lighting are great. However, in my photography I always go for the latter one. I am preserving all the detail of my subject. Even in their darkest shades. That’s why I quite often I use the on camera flash to throw a tiny little bit of light onto my subject. This light then fills in the dark shades of the subject in a way, that they are still nearly black (around RGB 30/30/30) but in fact, the detail is still recorded. So in a way I am then using the on camera flash to dial the contrast of my exposure down to a healthy value. Masters like David Hobby alias The Strobist use a ringflash adaptor to perfection this method. However, for me this adaptor is too bulky. If I just want a little bit of fill in light from the on camera flash, then I really don’t need it.

In this particular shoot, I had my two main speedlights working at 1/4th of their power. The on camera speedlight was going at 128th of it’s power. You see, it could only add a tiny little bit of light. And chances are that it’s not even visible in low resolution online versions of the images. But it’s all I need in case I print the images big.

You know, if I want parts of my subject to be really really black (which I very rarely want), then I can easily do that in postproduction with Lightroom or Photoshop. To make something that is nearly black completely black is a piece of cake.

But the other way round, to bring back detail into a shade that is completely black (RGB 0/0/0) – well, that is impossible. At least for me.

> Is there an option sync
> without emitting light?

Yes, there is. Like so often with Canon, the way to set it up is not very intuitive. This is like you do it:

Use the zoom button on the speedlight in order to toggle through your settings. You have to press the button a couple of times and watch the display of the flash. Usually when you press zoom for the 4th time the little “Light ray symbol” in front of the “speedlight symbol” starts blinking. Now you can use the dial wheel of the speedlight in order to switch the light emission on and off. The feedback in the display tells you whether it is on or off.

When it is off, then the on camera flash is supposed to emit the ETTL trigger impulses that makes the other flashes go off. But it should not emit any flash that contributes to the exposure.

I personally have used this option quite a lot of times. But it did not always work. Even in cases where I had a lot of other speedlights doing the actual exposure and where I had the shutter speed set to a pretty fast 1/200 of a second, I sometimes could spot that the lighting was influenced by the on camera flash a little bit.

So what I do when I really don’t want the on camera flash to contribute is these two things.

I set it up not to emit light during the exposure like explained above.

I turn the flash head away from the subject. If the little bit of light that the flash still contributes has to bounce off the ceiling or a wall, then it really does not add to the exposure anymore.

If you trigger with a flash that has not such a sync option, then simply set it to it’s lowest possible emission value (1/64th or 1/128th usually) and turn it’s head away from the subject. That should do the trick.

I hope this helps a bit.

I wish you good light!
-- Michael

This set up is a brilliant idea. Thank you for sharing!

genau was ich fuer heute gbraucht habe...sind da cto gel auf den strobes? Echt klasse diese idee! danke !

Hey Miro!

Excellent question (he said while switching back to English). Is it fine if I answer in English? I promise to weave in some German accent. With that said, yes there are CTO gels on the speedlights. It's Lee 204 filters that I got from eBay. In Germany Musikhaus Thomann might be a nice and groovy alternative, as they offer the complete Lee sample packs at a very reasonable rate.

The reason I used the filters are on the flashes in the above photo shoot is ... well, actually...to be perfectly honest... there is not much of a reason.

The complete exposure of my image comes from the flashes. I am not mixing tungston light with flash here. So having the flashes geled and using tungston white balance on my camera, provides me with the exact same images that I would get if I would leave away the gels and use the flash white balance setting.

However, there actually IS a reason. I will speak about it in my next video. But as a "preview", the reason is simply this: I did a couple of different photo shoots on the day we recorded the above shoot. Some of them involved mixed light with tungston. If I would take the Lee gels on and off for those scenes, sooner or later I would forget the one or the other gel on a flash. Or I might forget to adjust the white balance or something. Or adding and removing the gels a number of times might wear of the scotch tape so that the gel falls off the flash while I am shooting. So many things that could fuck up the exposure.

So I decided to put the gels on in the moring, set the wb to tungston and stay with this setup for the whole day.

There's a lesson to learn here: If you are lazy (like myself) or if you tend to forget a lot of things (like the strange photographer in that video, I forgot his name), then choose settings that work for you in all the situations that you are going to shoot. Try to go with a lighting and with settings that you don't need to change and adjust too much. It makes life a whole lot easier.

I wish you good light!
-- Michael

hi michael I've been very impressed about your creativity!thank you and good luck!!!

lovely shoot!very innovative this will certainly come in handy, Thank you!^^


I must agree with some of your other reviews that yes you are barking mad but in the most positive way. I am quiet new to photography and just getting all my kit together and learning on the way. I just loved your work and how easy you made it look setting up the lights. I am currently working away doing my day job but will be home soon and you can bet will be taking some gorgeous pictures of my fiance upon my return using ideas I have gotten from your video's. I feel truly inspired now and cant wait to get shooting.

Thanks for the video's and sharing. I am sure to be a member of your site and look forward to seeing all your new posts etc.


Hi Martin!
I hope you can make some really cool photos of your fiance so that she and you can be really proud of it!

Hey Michael---I love your creativity. It inspires me. Question about wireless triggering. I see you are using the Speedlight on camera as a trigger. Did you have a problem with the remote flashes hidden away from view of the master flash on this shoot? Frm my viewer's eye, it looked like they were hidden, but you must have had the back open so the master can see the remotes?

Keep up the good work!


Excellent question Mark! The situation was like this: while I shielded the back of the umbrella completely, I still left a good portion of the front open. That was not because the shield was not big enough to go completely around the umbrella.

However, the line of sight between the master and the slaves was not very direct. There was at least a bit of the black wrap in the way and furthermore the slaves sensors where pointing straight down to the floor.

But they still picked up the master signal absolutely reliable. I had no drop outs or anything. That's because we were in a simple, not too big and not too bright hotel room. The master signal is bouncing off everywhere in the room. Even if I had hidden the slaves completely they would still work reliably because they can get enough trigger signal through the shoot through umbrella.

In other videos on this blog you will often see me hiding the slaves completely behind diffuser material and they still work like clockwork. The important thing for the slaves is that they see a clear difference between "ambient lightl" and "flash master signal". They don't decode the "absolute brightness", they decode the "delta" between flash and no flash. Thus, the darker the ambient light of your set is, the more you can hide your slaves from your master.

I loose control over my slaves the moment that the area is getting very bright. I had to switch to radio in cases where we had a room with a glass roof, letting in bright daylight. Another occasion when the optical triggering failed was when we filmed a photoshoot on bigger video cameras and threw 3000 watt of tungston video light into the scene. That sort of overpowered the master signal.

I wish you good light!
-- Michael

I have done shoots with one slave wedged between a black backdrop and a dark wall and that always fired.

I believe though that it did not pick up the master strobe signal, but the signal from another slave flash, a bit more to the side.

I seldomly have a slave not firing coz of the secluded position it is in

Yes, that's an excellent idea! Use another slave a "relay station". As long as you don't go to short on your shutter speed the speedlights should fire fast enough so that you can even "chain" their firing sequence. Excellent!

You are a lighting genius! I don't have the reflector cover, but i will go to the local discount store and buy black flat sheet. I think that will work almost as well, and if it doesn't, I will have my background for my low key lighting! LOL

How simple can it be :)

Hi Michael, excellent video, I just have one question with the light coming directly from above how come there are no shadows under the eyes especially with the model wearing the riders cap.
Many thanks

Excellent point Phil! I directed the models in a way that they turn their faces into the light. I tell them something like "This is your sun, please turn your face towards the sun whenever possible."

The modelwith the riders cap is the one that is closest to the lightsource. That makes the lightsource (the umbrella) quite big relative to her face. So in her case there should be the least problems. But still, she has to look up and point her nose "high into the sky" - otherwise her eyes would sink into complete darkness. See the harsh shadow that the riders cap is throwing onto her forehead? If she lowers her head just a tiny little notch, then her eyes turn into black holes.

Awesome shots. Can I come visit!! Such wonderful models too:)

Hi Joreri!
Sure you can.
Good light!
-- Michael

Fantastic the images so crisp love the idea.


These are wonderful lightning and the pictures are awesome. I think I will start taking basic photography class to try some.


I really enjoyed this how to video. But one question, are the models directly under the light or are they slightly off to the side?

Thanks a lot, Johnny! The models are pretty centered, a little bit backed off. Have a look at the cone of light on the ground, it reveals their exact position in relationship to the light.

The thing that makes this light interesting is, that the light is very close to the models. So the light rays falling onto the center of the model are coming from another angle than let's say the light rays reaching her feet.

The shoot was great. The concept of the photo shoot is horse woman. Thank you.

Yep. I guess that's something for a pet lover like you, Cathy, right?
Thanks a lot!

You are brilliant and I can't wait to try this. Your plan uses a 580EX but I have a 580II EX. Can you explain the difference to me?

No difference. Both versions of this speedlight emit the same light :-)

What if you hang two 430II EX instead? What would the diagram data look be?

The 430 EX is less powerful compared to the 580. you would have to do a little adjustment to the diagram. Either you crank up the ISO of your camera to ISO400, or you dial up the speedlights to 1/2 of their power. Either way is fine. In reality you will anyway have to finetune the light to your models, your location and your exact setting. The settings in the diagram are in order to give an example of what to expect. But you will always need to have a look at the histogram of your cam and check at what setting your light starts singing the way you like it.

I think that was nice. I like the capture of the photo's that you share. It get more attraction in the photo. Thank you.

You've done a great job making the shots so dramatic. It is indeed a good experiment, because it feels so professionally made photos with a lot of edits but yours where normal yet amazing results. Great job.

I like all the photo's that you share. It look realistic the capture. Thank you for sharing on it.

Thanks a lot, cousin Scott!


Excellent creative work, the light is silk smooth well done.


Peter Vooijs

Thanks for your compliments, cousin Peter!

It was a nice idea of using the black side of the reflector as a flag. I was previously using the black side of the 2 in 1 umbrella but yours is even better.

I'm bookmarking your site as one of my references. Keep them coming and again, our gratidue for sharing your knowledge with us.



Thanks a lot for the nice comment, cousin Jon!

Beautiful light. A bit dangerous having light from above with the models wearing caps, but it turned out fantastic

Yes, I had to ask her to hold her head up high in order to get light into her eyes.

Hi Michael,

this is totally awesome tutorial! I love the way how you have used the disc light reflector to disable the light from hiting the furniture. I enjoyed it very much, so much fun! Thanks for sharing with us!

"no black holes over here!" Hehe!

Cheers from Czech republic

Hi Michael
As you shot at F/8 what would the F/stop be for the flash on camera and the overhead flash if I used studio strobes to create these shots.
Great photos.

Simply brilliant! I carry all but the grass skirt, and never thought to use a hanger. Well done.

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

Dear photography friend. Hi!

I’m Michael Zelbel. I'’m so lucky I’m over here in city of Beijing.

With me I’ve got my friends Linxi, Sasha and Ajiao.

We are in an apartment hotel which is a very simple apartment hotel

but we still can use this room

to make some really rocking photos.

I'’m going to show you how we are doing this, so keep on watching.

When I was a teenager which is roughly 100 years ago,

I was heavily into horsing riding can you see that? Ok.

Nowadays photography not into horse riding anymore but why not use this horse riding props

to spice up our photos over here in the apartment.

It's about Asian models with western horse riding stuff in an apartment.

Really crazy really weird. I think it's going to work beautifully.

So let’s give it a try.

I think those thinks will look much much better on our models let’s reserve it for them.

Let’'s make the light.

It’'s going to be a bit complicated but don'’t fear we will get there.

I want the light to come from on top to the bottom.

I want the models to pose on the ground and the light to come from on top.

For that I prepared this thing which is just a simple multi clamp.

I put a second hotshoe into the multi clamp so that I can attach two speedlights

and this because I want to hang it and the only thing I’'ve got to hang it

under the ceiling is a piece of a twine.

I thought if I add a 2nd speedlights to the multi clamp then at least in theory it should be somehow balanced.

I think that's hanging pretty stable.

Under the ceiling over here we have this air condition thing.

What I can do using this clothes hanger from the hotel to hang this little sucker over here.

Good! This will give us a cone of light but the light would be very hard.

I want to soften that. For that I’'m going to use like pretty much always a shoot-through umbrella.

Put it into the multi clamp, there we go.

Now we have nice and soft light but the umbrella will spill it everywhere.

The whole room will be enlightened and I don'’t want that.

I want the room to be dark. I want to give just a hint that this thing is

happening in a hotel room but I don'’t want to enlighten any of the furniture over here.

So I have to shade it somehow so that the light just goes to the ground and doesn'’t spill anywhere else.

For that I’m using the black material of my reflector.

Don'’t know how they call it but this is what I mean.

I attach it with clamps to another clothes hanger. Let's hang it the other way round.

Hang it in front of the umbrella and wrap it around.

So, now you cannot see the umbrella anymore which means

the umbrella, or the light from the umbrella cannot see you anymore.

I mean we learned light always travels in a straight line unless you are close to a black hole.

We are over here in Beijing. There are no black holes over here.

So the light will just go down and not hit any of the furniture and this is what we want to achieve.

To make the area over here, the ground, a little bit more interesting and crazy

I got this special thing and now this is where our German carnival tradition comes in very handy.

You know, we German people once per year we are running around

in the most crazy costumes like for example this skirt.

But now this skirt will double beautifully as "straw", which matches the horse riding theme.

I put the straw over here and I will give the light a try.

This is now very far away from the light source but it will give us an idea about the light.

We set the two flashes to the umbrella to 1/4th of their power.

We fill in with 1/128 of power from on-camera just to fill in the shadows a little, little  bit.

I go to f/8, ISO200. That should do the trick. Let’s give it a try.

Beautiful! Really charming light and concentrated to the straw.

Great! Now we are ready to pose the first model.

[Claps] Attention! Yeah! The photos were really really beautiful

and the setup was not complicated after all. It was quite simple.

If you find this inspiring if you like this video please give me a feed back.

Please come to my website www.Zelbel.com. Go to my blog and tell me what you think about it.

Until then I wish you a lot of fun with you shoots, with your top light situations

and I wish you really good light!

Subscribe here and don't miss any video!

Simply subscribe to "Photo Talk" and be the first one to receive a notification whenever a new video is added here. No spam. Every eMail features an unsubscribe link in it's footer in case you don't want notifications anymore.