Tips + Techniques

Fully Lit: How to Light Bomb Senior Portraits Like Shawn Lee

July 29, 2014

By Shawn Lee

If the Motor City were a campus, Shawn Lee would be the big man on it. A photographer—as well as part-time radio personality and community leader—he opened Shawn Lee Studios in 2009, and is adept at lighting (and teaching lighting) for studio portraits. In our new how-to column, “Fully Lit,” Lee breaks down three recent concepts and setups.

All photos and diagrams © Shawn Lee

Elijah, a high school senior and marching band drummer, has very strong jaw bone structure, and I wanted to highlight that. I had him drumming in the studio and was asking him to try different things while I coached him and we looked at the compositions on screen.

With two light strips facing him at a 45-degree angle, I had him swing his head up so his dreads went in the air. He was sitting on a crate, so I also stooped down to be eye level with him while shooting.

We got this shot on the second try. The way that he looks relaxed, calm and engaged with the camera while chaos is going on was in a phrase, “very on purpose.” High contrast really makes for a dynamic and very striking image, which I think defines my style as a photographer.

With high school seniors, I make sessions an experience—I bring in snacks, we play music. Every parent comes in saying, “I’m on a budget, that’s all I’m spending,” but after this session, they ordered everything!

Shawn Lee's 3-Step Process:
1. I moved two gridded strip lights in about 3 feet from the subject.
2. I metered both lights to about f/8, which is a 1:1 ratio. This was a totally creative shot for me. I suggest you experiment with f-stops to find the contrast you personally like, depending on your subject’s skin tone.
3. I kept Elijah about 3 feet from a white background and shot at 53mm, about 3 to 4 feet away.
Keep in mind: 50mm lenses render everything as close to normal proportion as you see with your own two eyes. Zoom and wide-angle lenses cause the most distortion.

Ambur is a model I was photographing for a local boutique clothing brand. We were doing a lot of high-energy portraits, but I liked her makeup, so before she went to the dressing room to change, I asked if we could get a quick beauty shot.

With the 6-foot Octabank that you can see in her eye as a highlight, I had her facing me and used my 40-50mm lens at f/7.1. This is a one-light-source shot; remember that the bigger the light source and the closer it is to your subject, the softer the light will be. With that in mind, we moved Ambur right next to the huge Octabank and had her head quarter-turned toward the light.

Depending on varying degrees of darker skin and what you’re trying to accomplish, you may have to expose one to three stops more. It’s always a great idea to meter light to the skin (using a properly working light). Also, because of variety in skin types, a lot of skin can be oily; make sure you have a makeup artist who is experienced with all skin types and conditions.

This portrait is of my former business partner and good friend, a fashion designer who designs suits for NFL Elite players. I love creative portraiture for personal branding, and we needed to hit the world over the head for this one! He had a dream the night before of oranges, so he came to the studio with some in his hand. His suit had an orange lining, and I happened to have an orange backdrop after a company sent me the wrong color paper.

My assistant was off to the left side, throwing oranges in front of my subject as slow as she could while he posed as if introducing the suit. On the third or fourth try, we got it!

We put an unfiltered strobe on the backdrop with a gobo between it and the subject. I used a softbox to his right, and behind me to the left was a 6-foot Octabank just to throw a little fill light on the shot. I shot at 1/250 of a second to stop the oranges mid-flight and also to stop light from reaching the right side of the subject to create the contrast I wanted.

Shawn Lee started the photographic bus tour "I See Detroit," which twice a year takes 50 or so people on a six-hour air-conditioned ride to learn about and photograph the city's most iconic sights. Visit for more information.

Related Links:

6 Lighting Setups, 4 Photography Masters

Breaking Down the One Light Portrait

The Right Lights: Our Top Photography Lighting Tools