Haely is Miss DC and getting ready to compete in the Miss America pageant. She came to me to photograph her photo submission for the Miss America competition and wanted to do something that would stand out from the other competitors. Since the photo is being used for a submission and isn't her official Miss America pageant photo we were able to be a little more creative.
Pageant shoots are a little different than portrait shoots as everything has to be flawless. From the lighting to the retouching there is a very specific purpose - to highlight the subject's confidence, character and of course their beauty.
Sometimes I ask clients to show me some images they're inspired by or really like. This is a useful tool to get the creative juices flowing for a shoot and helps me get an idea of what a client or subject is looking for in a final image. Haely showed me an image of Julianne Moore that she wanted to re-create for her submission picture, a very dramatic and sexy photo, shot black on black creating practically zero separation between her and the backdrop.
One of the easiest ways to reverse engineer the lighting used in someone else's photo is to look at the catch lights of the subjects eyes. You can usually see the type of light modifiers used in the photo, as well as where they were placed relative to the subject. Unfortunately, when I tried to find the catch lights in the image of Julianne Moore, the resolution was too low to make anything out so I looked at the light shaping along her face and dress and decided to create a clamshell lighting setup for Haely's portrait. Clamshell lighting involves a high-flying key light placed right over the subject with a soft fill below. Check out the diagram below to get a glimpse of where I placed my lights.
I really wanted to avoid any shadows on Haely's face but chose to not flat-light it completely like in the original Julianne Moore shot - so I bounced light off of a white foam core panel to open up the shadows a bit on her face. I used a black seamless background which was muted (into perfect black) by the light fall off (inverse square law, read about it :). The light subject/dark background combination makes Haely's portrait literally jump off the deep black background!
Before getting the "crowning" shot above, we tested the lighting with some other looks. They were all great - it was hard to choose just one.
Haely's inspiration photo made for a knock-out image. Clamshell lighting is a really flattering way to light a subject - just watch for any shadows on the face that you might not want and be sure to keep a good power ratio between your key and fill lights.
If you have any questions, ask them in the comments below!