Lighting Handbook: The Full Length Lighting Tutorial

Full Length Lighting Tutorial

Red background paper hangs behind a distressed wall. In front of that is a red dressing-room screen. A “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” (from the song of the same name by The Hollies) poses gracefully, presenting several lighting challenges: Lighting her beautifully and separating her form—especially the black gown—from the two backgrounds is one challenge; creating texture on the paper is another; and making the gnarly wall even redder is a third.

Light the Model

Usually, I light the background first; however, this time I light the model, Laura, first so the background stays dark. I want to see how much the spill from the lights is brightening the background. What I have in mind requires that it be close to 3 stops darker than exposure for her. I begin with a 22″ beauty dish positioned up and to her left about 10′ away. The light is harsh, casting a sharp shadow under her chin and one of the distressed wall onto the background as well.

full length lighting

The shadows, particularly the one on the background paper, are distracting, so I softened the light by adding a 42×72″ Chimera diffusion panel in front of the beauty dish. Now, the shadow on the background blends into the paper.

full length lighting

Another 42×72″ panel covered with a solid-white fabric bounces the light from the diffusion panel onto Laura’s right side, lowering the contrast on her hair, the side of her face, and her arm.

full length lighting

Next, directly over her head, we set a medium Chimera Super Pro II light bank with a Lighttools fabric grid and a Rosco 3407 gel. This brigh­t­ens and warms her head, shoulders, and extended arm.

full length lighting

Finally, a 72×24″ Chimera Super Pro II strip bank is placed behind Laura to her right. This light also has a Lighttools grid to prevent it from spilling onto the background. It adds a long highlight on her right arm. It also provides a rim along her back, along her dress, and down her calf. She’s now completely separated from the background by light.

full length lighting

The lighting could stop here or it could make the background a popping complement to the rest of the photo.


Make the Wall Redder and Create Texture

I love that old distressed wall (it’s still a prop in the studio) that’s painted Ralph Lauren deep red, but it’s too dark a shade for this photo. A 16″ reflector covered with a Rosco #25 red gel brightens both the tone and the shade.

The last step is to open up the red background paper with texturized light. A single head with a 5″ reflector shines through a 4×4′ piece of black foam core with leaf-shaped cutouts. Coming from Laura’s left, the lightest part of the effect is between her face and the wall. The pattern extends across the entire background paper and onto the floor, as well, adding depth to the photograph.

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Lighting Setup

Here’s the setup, showing all of the lights except the pattern-making cookie behind the distressed wall.

full length lighting

While the lighting is complex, the exposure is simple. Before any additional lights were added, I measured the exposure with an incident meter aimed at the diffusion panel lit by the beauty dish: f/11 at 1/125, ISO 100 is set on the camera.

full length lighting

Each and every additional light serves the main source of illumination. To make it easy to see, the rest of the lights are set to exactly the same power as that of the main light. All of the modeling lights are the same wattage, so just by looking, there’s a reasonably accurate, what-you-see-is-what-you-photograph visual representation. I refine each light as it’s added by photographing the entire session tethered to a laptop. I make another test, adjusting the power of each head until I get to, well, “pretty.” This allows me (or any photographer) to see the result, rather than calculating the exposure for every light then praying that the right things happen.


For the next step, you will want to bring your image into Lightroom for post-processing. Head over to the Lightroom Killer Tips blog to see what Scott Kelby and RC Concepcion have in store for you there. Pick up a few tips to change how you work in Lightroom!  My current favorite tip is this one from Pete Collins.