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Over/Under Lighting Technique Smoothes Skin

Note: We teach this photographic lighting technique at some of my photography workshops. (more info)

Over/Under Lighting Technique

Eleya is illuminated with the Over/Under Lighting Technique at Playboy Studio West.

Smoothing Skin With Lighting In The Camera

I’ve noticed ring flash units are becoming more popular over the years, though it’s being used better today in glamour and portrait photography than the faddish years where the ring flash was often found in fashion photography. The best technique, often used by Playboy’s top photographers and other pro photographers is called the “over/under” lighting technique. I myself used it last year while photographing the Sacramento Kings Dance Team 2011 calendar.

The lighting set-up itself is simple, three lights to form one main light. First, you have your main light modifier, the largest of the three, placed higher than your secondary light modifiers, pointed slightly down toward the subject. This light modifier basically lights your entire subject and is best done with at least a five-foot octagonal shaped light modifier, like a Chimera Octa57. While you can substitute a medium to large softbox for the main light, the octabox provides for more brilliant and pleasing catch lights in the eyes than a square or rectangle softbox. At my photography workshops, we’ve used both methods as sometimes the location, where the ceiling height limits the overall working distance from floor to ceiling, can dictate the use of a smaller softbox.

Over/Under Lighting Technique for Photography

Playboy”s top photographer, Arney Freytag, shows photographer, Dr. Cesar Aristeiguieta the Over/Under Lighting Technique at Playboy Studio West.

Beneath your main light, or box, the second light source is a ring flash with the camera attached to it so the lens is shooting through the ring flash itself. Since the camera lens and ring flash are on equal axis, this light uses the physics law, “The Angle of Incidence is Equal to the Angle of Reflection” to “wipe out” shadows in the micro pores of the skin and the larger shadows in textured areas of the face. This makes the ring flash a “fill light” in this technique, not the main light.

Underneath the ring flash is another studio flash, with a beauty dish or small softbox as its light modifier, often called a kicker light. This light also acts as another fill light, but since it’s off camera axis, it softens the harder shadows created by the main light, such as the shadow underneath the chin. Though the kicker light doesn’t really affect the micro pore and skin texture shadows created by the main light and filled by the ring flash. The kicker light does create some upper shadow inside the skin’s pores and some skin textures that are eliminated or filled by the ring flash.

In reality, the main light creates micro pore shadows and skin texture shadows from top down, while the kicker light creates micro pore and skin texture shadows from bottom up—both shadows are reduced or eliminated by the ring flash, thus resulting in smoother skin. Any “halo” shadows, like the type created with the fashion photography faddish use, are reduced or eliminated by the main and kicker lights.

The settings recipe is simple, but tweaked during the shoot for variations in your subject’s skin color, taking the 90-percent Rule of Reflection into account.  Basically when working in an indoor location, your top light, the Octabox, is set at F/4 or F/5.6 light output, the preferred apertures for photographing women. The ring flash output is set from 2/10th to a 1/3rd of an F/stop less with lighter skin and 2/10th or 1/3rd stop more for darker skin. Then the bottom light is set for 1/3rd to half-stop less of an F/stop than the Octabox. Note: Normally the fraction 2/10th is rounded off to 1/5th, but since light meters and high-end flash units work in tenths and thirds, we’ll use tenths as the unit of measure.

Over/Under Photography Lighting Technique

Mari is illuminated using a modified version of the Over/Under Lighting Technique where I did not use a beauty dish to soften the hard shadow underneath the chin. Lighting directed by Playboy”s top photographer Arny Freytag and set up by his first assistant, Joel Flora during my Phoenix, Mansion photography workshop.

Basically what is happening is that the Octabox is truly the main light source and at it’s overhead angle, causes shadows to appear normal on the face, as light is normally above us, not directionally in front.  The ring flash, a more concentrated form of light, targets the face and skin dead-on, not off axis, thus while also illuminating the rest of the subject’s body, it concentrates on the face. Because the ring flash is powered up or down, depending on the model’s skin, from the Octabox, it fills the shadows created in the pores and textures of the body since the lens and the light source are at equal angles, no other shadows are created on the body—this subtle connection of the concave form of the pores with the skin surface forms a smoothing affect—in essence, keeping the pores and skin surface two-dimensional.

When the ring flash is properly adjusted for skin color (absorption/reflection), the face seems to have a “pop” or more brightness to it than the rest of the body. This is a “reflection of light off the skin” because the skin reflects all the light illuminating it. Like a canvass of a painter, it’s flat in dimension, but not flat lighting, as the specular size of the ring flash adds contrast to the image and the overhead main light adds shadows.

The shadows underneath the chin and in other areas of the entire image caused by the stronger Octabox or minimally affected by the ring flash, thus keeping necessary shadows intact to help keep the third-dimensional illusion created by chiaroscuro. It is very important that the ring flash is adjusted only to fill the pores and skin texture and not to totally eliminate other facial structure shadows. This is why there is a kicker light, to only slightly soften the remaining, larger “facial structure/feature” shadows.

Outdoor version of photography lighting technique, over/under.

While shooting the Sacramento Kings Dance Team 2011 calendar, I utilized a modified version of the Over/Under Lighting Technique. Joel Flora, Playboy”s top assistant ensured the lighting was exactly the way I needed it.

In fact, a modified version of this over/under lighting technique, especially when working outdoors, is to remove the kicker light. I used this technique very successfully when photographing the Sacramento Kings Dance Team 2011 calendar—shadows are good and only bad when they create rough facial texture. I also knew that the water from the swimming pool in those shoots acted as a natural reflector, thus providing that soft fill found in a kicker light. The key to all this is knowing that the ring flash is not your main light, it’s your “fill the skin’s micro pores and skin texture shadow light.”

While the over/under lighting technique is easy to recreate on location, it’s not a must technique. It’s more of if you’ve got the time, the equipment and want to reduce postproduction, especially with less flattering skin complexions, an effective photographic lighting style for women. A photography style that smoothens the skin in the camera, not in post production.

A word of caution, ring flash popularity has increased due to the recent availability of cheap units, most might work OK indoors, but lack the power to work outdoors at comfortable distances with great lenses. A great ring flash unit normally has the capability of at least 1200 true watt-seconds in order to overpower the sun with flash and at least match the exposure (think Sunny 16 rule), something not found in the cheaper units.

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3 Comments

  1. Cool idea to use the ring flash as fill to smooth out skin only. If works great for that, tho I am a little concerned with weird catch lights from all the flash units.

    Do you have an example of of the eyes lit using this setup?

    Thanks.

  2. Actually the catchlights are nice from a ring flash. Here’s a photo shot with the Leica S2 medium format camera, http://www.lensdiaries.com/blog/photo-diaries/calendar-shoot/ thanks!

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for your post!

    I have a question. If you measure the three lights separately (one by one), the Octa (main) gives let’s say 5.6, the ring flash the same 5.6 (+/- 1/3), while the kicker light is half stop less. Did I understand this right?

    Thank you 🙂

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