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How to Create Bold Beauty Lighting

Posted by on November 7, 2017 | Gear, Photographer Interviews

Once upon a time, world-renowned Nikon Ambassador Matthew Jordan Smith was just a student at the Art Institute of Atlanta trying to find his way. Now, some 30 years later, this highly sought-after celebrity, beauty and portrait photographer’s A-list clientele includes Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry, Jennifer Connelly, Jamie Foxx and makeup leaders L’Oréal, Olay, Pantene and Revlon.

Smith describes his lighting style as “crisp, sexy, bold lighting, and every part of it is intentional.” It’s a style perfectly suited for beauty and fashion models such as Tyra Banks, whom he worked with on test shoots before she was discovered and continued to shoot over the years (Smith even appeared as a guest photographer on America’s Next Top Model five times). “I believe a photographer’s lighting style is more important today than at any other time in the history of photography,” he says. Smith advises young photographers to do as many test shoots as possible to discover their unique style. “Nothing can be left to chance when it comes to lighting.”


Japanese television star Becky in the sunlight. Photo © Matthew Jordan Smith

Smith recently relocated to Tokyo, but before he left Los Angeles, he had a beauty shoot with Japanese television personality Becky. Becky, who is enormously famous in Japan (so much so that she arrived at the studio in disguise), had just cut her long hair, so the portraits were a rebranding of her new look. 

All of the portraits were made with just a monolight or the sun. In both cases, Smith measured the light using a Sekonic L-858D-U light meter, which he highly advises: “Nothing takes the place of using a light meter. I believe in being precise when it comes to lighting and you can’t do that by just reading the histograms.”


Becky and her sister, JJ. Photo © Matthew Jordan Smith

To make the image of Becky alone and Becky with her sister, JJ, Smith placed a monolight head with a beauty dish on a C-stand with a C-stand arm in front of his subjects, and a reflector on a mini C-stand with a C-stand arm under his subjects to create a reflection in their eyes.


Becky lit by a monolight. Photo © Matthew Jordan Smith

To achieve the shadows on Becky’s face in the first image, Smith used good old-fashioned sunlight, plus a large white V-flat placed behind him to open up the shadows. “The shoot was actually over and we were about to break down the set, and she was on her way to take off her makeup and get dressed again when I saw the sunlight come through the window.” Smith recalls. “At that very moment, I screamed: ‘Stop! Don’t change,’ and brought her back and we got that shot.”

What You’ll Need:

Cameras: Nikon D5

Lenses: AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4, AF-S NIKKOR 58m f/1.4G

Lights: Monolight, natural light

Other Equipment: Beauty dish, reflector, light meter, C-stand and C-stand arm, mini C-stand and C-stand arm, large white V-flat

— Amy Touchette

This article has been excerpted from “How to: Bold Beauty Lighting” (PDNEdu, Fall 2017). Read the full article in the digital edition.