Lighting techniques for fashion shoots

Social media favourite and fashion photographer Ian Hippolyte shares his favourite studio setups for bringing drama and depth to your imagery.
A portrait of a model illuminated in red against a dark background. The model is wearing an extravagant top made of what looks like fluffy cotton wool.

Fashion photographer Ian Hippolyte employs a range of expert lighting techniques to ensure his images stand out. "I wanted to do something dark and moody for this shoot," he explains. "Red is my favourite colour to feature. It's a thread that I carry through in a lot of my photos, even if it's just in a small detail. I love the way it looks on camera." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 34mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Ian Hippolyte

"When taken back to its Greek roots, the word photography means 'drawing with light'," reveals Ian Hippolyte. It's an apt comment, as light craft is a vital component of the photographer's work. Ian's stunning fashion shots – typically glossy and dramatic with a high-art aesthetic – have earned him 73,000 YouTube subscribers and 21,000 Instagram followers looking to both emulate and enjoy the striking end results.

Ian's YouTube guides span the breadth of the craft, but it's his recent lighting tutorial – How To Use Light, Four Different Ways – that has sparked the most interest, with more than 400,000 views and counting. Lighting has the ability to change your image's outcome entirely: back lit, front lit, hard or soft light. But many photographers – even experienced pros – are often intimidated by the technical requirements.

Don't be put off, advises Ian, who is based in London, UK. "It's very important to know how to use light, whether it's natural light or artificial light, and how to manipulate that," he elaborates. "A lot of people start off with natural light because it's what's available. Once you start to experiment with artificial lighting, you realise the same principles apply: you're just replacing the sun with a flash or a bulb."

A long-term Canon shooter, Ian has previously favoured the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV paired with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM), but he recently tried out the Canon EOS R5 with Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM and Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lenses for the first time.

Here, Ian shares his top tips and techniques for creating luminous fashion images and reveals how the move to mirrorless helped expand his skill set even further.

A model with a gloved hand pressed to her forehead against a dark red background. The model is wearing a short black skirt with an elaborate double train.

Ian was impressed with everything about the Canon EOS R5, from its compact design through to AF speeds and reliability. "With kit, anything that you don't have to think about helps, because if you're trying to concentrate on your camera settings, your lighting, your lens not working or your slow autofocus… that's all going to distract you from just taking the picture," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 44mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Ian Hippolyte

A close-up of a model with large hoop earrings and slicked-back hair. The collar of a silk red blouse can just be seen.

The light trail effect in this image was created using flash, continuous lighting and a slow shutter speed. When he was first starting out, Ian found inspiration in the glamorous articles he saw in fashion magazines. "I'd look at the photos, the lighting, and ask myself how they did that… how they created it," he says. He would then use YouTube to "research the technical side of things", before attempting to replicate the looks he so admired. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 0.8 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Ian Hippolyte

1. Accentuate facial features

Ian is an advocate of experimenting, particularly early in your career, but he does have his own favoured lighting setup: "I like lighting from above with a hard, more specular light that's quite direct. I think it has a cinematic quality to it."

To achieve this look, he'll position the light just above but in front of the subject's face. "If you put it right over someone's head, you're going to get a lot of unflattering shadows, but if you put it just in front you get that same cinematic quality, it's still flattering, and it helps with carving out the bone structure of the face."

Add fill lights for any unwanted shadows, and catch lights in the eyes to finish the setup. "Catch lights are really important for me," says Ian, "because if you light-up someone's eyes, they look more alive."

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This isn't a lighting setup that works for everyone, however: "You have to know the effect that the light is going to have on your subjects," Ian explains. "If you're working with an older face, you probably want softer light sources, and light in front of them to fill, as low-key lighting will create shadows that can be unflattering."

Fashion photographer Ian Hippolyte standing in a studio holding a Canon EOS R5 camera and flanked by two studio lights.

Ian always shoots handheld as it enables him to move around the studio, and he found the Canon EOS R5's electronic viewfinder to be a real benefit. "Although you can shoot using the screen on any camera, I like holding the body to my eye," he explains. "The EVF shows me an image closer to the final product. I also like the fact the EOS R5 is smaller and lighter than the EOS 5D Mark IV." © Ian Hippolyte

2. Experiment with settings

"In the studio, I often start shooting with flash and strobes," says Ian. "My shutter speed is 1/200 sec, because that's the flash sync speed. I usually start at f/8, because I want most things to be sharp, and I try to keep ISO quite low. But then as I'm shooting, I might lower the shutter speed so that I can play around with exposure and add a bit of blur to the images. I'll also play with aperture with something in the foreground that's a bit blurry.

"While shooting with the EOS R5, I took a set of light painting photos. I mixed flash and continuous light with slower shutter speeds to get the blurry shadow effect."

Ian paired the EOS R5 with Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM and Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lenses, commenting on their "noticeably increased quality" compared to older lenses. "Kit isn't everything, but I think the better your technology is, the easier it is to do your job," he says.

3. Improvise with props and modifiers

Ian favours low-key lighting because of the "moodier" edge it brings to his work. "For these images, we used more hard light sources, put grids on lights, and went for a spotlight effect," he explains. "In one of the photos [below], there's a strip of light down the model's eye and then the rest of it's quite dark – we just wanted to emphasise the makeup, and used lighting to do that."

Nowadays, Ian employs a modifier to alter the look of his light, but in the past he's relied on a range of props to achieve the aesthetic he desires – from plastic sheets sprayed with water to imitate a window to two large pieces of cardboard positioned to create the aforementioned "light strip" effect.

A simple setup, Ian suggests, is often just as effective as an elaborate one. "When it comes to social media, there's one look that people love to see. The more dramatic it looks in terms of styling and lighting, the bigger response I get," he says. "But sometimes, my most simple photos are the ones that I like best, so I don't always try to shoot for what's going to get the most response on social media."

A close-up portrait of a man with short facial hair, long curly hair and a woolly hat.

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A model in a shiny black jacket and long red gloves poses against a red backdrop with one hand holding up a few strands of her long auburn hair.

Experimentation is huge part of fashion photography, Ian believes, but so too is connecting with the person you're photographing "I think one of the biggest things I overlooked at the beginning is having a good connection with the subject. You can have great lighting and a great camera, but if you don't build a rapport or you're not on the same page, it's just not going to work." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 53mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Ian Hippolyte

A strip of light falls across the heavily made-up eye of a model wearing a chunky chain necklace in this close-up portrait.

"I've always received a lot of compliments on the skin tones in my images," says Ian. "When I tell them I shoot Canon, they're like, 'Of course – Canon has really good skin tones.' That's something that I've always found. In terms of capturing good skin tones, I think shooting RAW always helps. I shoot RAW for everything anyway, but it allows you to adjust and have more control over the white balance – in post-production as well." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 70mm, 1/200 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Ian Hippolyte

4. Capture movement and never miss a moment

Movement is one of the ways Ian creates "feeling" in his photographs, but his favourite images are often not the ones he planned. "It's those moments that you capture in-between, where everything lines up," he explains. "I tend to shoot fast and with flash, as well as a fast, continuous shutter, so that we have a range of options."

To ensure he gets the shots he wants, Ian always uses autofocus, even in a studio setting when he's got more time. "We're trying to capture a movement, someone walking, jumping, kicking – and I want to know it's going to be reliably sharp, which I find Canon's autofocus always is. On the Canon EOS R5, it's even better, because it also tracks the face and eyes.

"I tend to shoot with a zoom lens as it allows me to make quick adjustments," he continues. "The Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM goes down to f/2, which is really nice. It lets in a bit more light than f/2.8 – I noticed that straight away."

Ian's way of working means that he has a lot of images to sort through when it comes to the edit – "sometimes 1,500 pictures when you're only going to use eight". But, he insists, it's better than "missing the one frame where everything comes together".

5. Find your identity in the edit

Post-production is where Ian finds images really come together. "It's where you can really add character to the image," he explains. "How you edit really makes a difference to your style."

The Canon EOS R5 is a 45MP camera – "that's 15MP more than my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV," Ian says. "With my beauty shots, that extra detail to work with makes a big difference when retouching. If I'm shooting a shoulders-up portrait, I can just crop to the face because it's got so much detail and I'm not losing quality."

Ian typically uses a macro lens for beauty work, as it allows him to get a lot closer and capture the detail he's after in the edit. "The Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM is really sharp, light and easy to use," he comments. With it, he can move closer to the subject, but always leave some width for flexibility.

"I never know exactly what I'm going to use the image for," he explains. "You don't want to get to Instagram or somewhere, and not be able to get the composition that you want because you can't crop."

Emma-Lily Pendleton

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