How I Got That Shot: Versatile Beauty Lighting

May 25, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes


For a shoot for Sunday Riley skin care, Mark Leibowitz created a strip of lights on each side of the model using Profoto heads bounced into V-flats, providing more spread than regular strip lights.

CLIENT: Sunday Riley Skin Care

CREATIVES: Sophie Vaucher, Addison Cain; Sunday Riley, owner

Clients call on Los Angeles-based photographer Mark Leibowitz to shoot both fashion photography and portraiture, often with a crisp, dramatic look. He regularly applies the technique and style he’s refined in one genre to another. “I think that the idea of controlled, dramatic lighting is relevant across lots of kinds of photography,” he says. He enjoys experimenting, and notes, “Having the ability to take that technique from one area of your work to another is a great way to go beyond the default photo you might easily take.”

He notes, for example, that the arrangement of lights he uses to make a soft, pretty beauty shot can also be used to make a brooding, serious celebrity portrait by tweaking the light ratios of his sources. Recently, he says, he’s been hired by athletic apparel companies that like the look of his editorial and commercial fashion images.

Some recent assignments demonstrate Leibowitz’s versatility.


On a shoot for Sunday Riley skin care products, Leibowitz had to photograph model Tamara Zsilinszki and “show the beautiful glowing skin” the products create. The company’s marketing team commissioned the images, which would be displayed in about 100 Sephora stores around the U.S.

At the shoot were Suzy Gerstein, makeup artist; Dante Pronio, hair stylist; and manicurist Parbati Shrestha. Stephen Wallis of modprop in New York City brought in the bed and props for the set.

Sunday Riley’s Sophie Vaucher and Addison Cain asked Leibowitz to shoot some variations and wardrobe changes, so he needed to have a main light source that he could adapt to each setup. The shoot took place at Milk Studios in New York City. Riley, Vaucher and Cain previewed the shots on a monitor while Leibowitz was shooting tethered.

Whether working with celebrities or advertising clients, Leibowitz likes to make sure he has the shots the clients need first, then he’ll experiment. “If you can show them that you got it on the first couple of frames, they’ll trust you and then let you push it a little more.”


He set up one light in front and above Zsilinszki: a Briese Focus 220 with a silk on the head for diffusion. “It’s a big source that allows you to still focus the light,” he explains. Unlike a bank that locks the head in one spot, “the Briese light source is moveable along the center axis of the light which allows you to change the focus of the light.” Leibowitz was able to adjust the light for the different setups.

On either side of the model, he placed two Profoto heads that bounced into V-flats. Leibowitz wanted to “create a strip of light” on each side of the model, but with more spread than he would have gotten using standard strip lights. “The side lights were positioned well behind the model to light her back and hair without the light from those sources hitting her face. Their purpose was to the keep the skin bright and clean,” the photographer explains. The side lights were half a stop over the frontal light. He also used four Profoto heads just to light the white background.

Mark Leibowitz used strip lights on either side of the model for an image for sports apparel company ROKA. While the look of the shoot is quite different, “the side and back lights were of a similar ratio as the side lights in the Sunday Riley shoot,” says Leibowitz. Image © Mark Leibowitz. 

In contrast to the bright white set of the Sunday Riley shoot, Leibowitz photographed a model in a black wet suit, posing against black seamless, on a recent shoot commissioned by the ad agency Radley Studios for ROKA Sports, the sports apparel company. Shooting in an outdoor space, he set up two front lights: an Elinchrom six-foot Octabank and a beauty dish. “The beauty dish was used to light the model’s face and the Octabank was used as a general front fill,” Leibowitz explains. To create light on the sides of the model and make him stand out from the black background, Leibowitz placed strip lights on either side of the model, hanging vertically. He finds that strip lights are easy to direct, and they create little spill. All the lights were on Profoto packs.

Throughout the shoot, Leibowitz’s assistant was spraying the model with water from a hoze. To freeze the motion of the flying water, Leibowitz set up his strobes to fire at 1/8000th sec. He triggered them with Pocket Wizards, synced at 1/200th sec.

He notes, “The black wetsuit absorbed quite a bit of light in front—even as it was repelling all the water—but the material did pick up the highlights quite well on the edge lights which we needed to separate the subject from the background.”

He adds that while the mood and palette of the shot are different, “the side and back lights were of a similar ratio as the side lights in the Sunday Riley shoot.”


On the Sunday Riley shoot, the photographer used a Phase One 645DF+ with an IQ160 back. He used an 120mm AF Macro f/4.0 lens, and shot at 1/100 sec., f/16, at ISO 50.

Working with a constantly moving model and splashing water in the ROKA Sports image, he chose to shoot handheld with a Canon 5D Mark III. Having shot many portraits of athletes as well as models who are asked to perform actions in front of the camera, Leibowitz says, “I love the responsiveness of the Canon cameras when shooting athletes.”


“I have a full-time retoucher, Christine Hilberg, who is amazing,” Leibowitz says. After she completed initial work on the images selected from the Sunday Riley shoot, the client’s in house team finished the post. For the ROKA images, art director Antonio Cicarelli—who, along with Radley Studios creative director Kurt Spenser, oversaw the campaign—took care of the final post production.

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