How I Got That Shot: Close-Ups of Beauty Products in Action

April 25, 2014

© Arthur Belebeau

Arthur Belebeau gets his "signature, poppy lighting" by mixing hard lights with softer, more flattering lights.

Client: Glamour

Photo Director: Suzanne Donaldson

Beauty Editor: Michaela Buratti

Fashion and beauty photographer Arthur Belebeau likes to create “clean, graphic and dynamic images.” “When I look through the camera I always try to find the most graphic way to do it, either by filling up the frame or leaving negative space,” he says.

For a Glamour magazine story about favorite beauty products for nails, lips, eyes and hair, he wanted to shoot tight close-ups of the models, which meant the compositions couldn’t be overly complicated, but he also needed to show the products in use. Belebeau says, “The hardest part was to create something graphic and poppy, and use all the tools and props that they gave me.”

He wanted to keep the lighting fairly consistent for all four images, but made adjustments for each subject. For his tight shot of fingernails, Belebeau, who is based in New York City and shoots for clients like Saks Fifth Avenue, Dior Beauty, Dasani and L’Oréal Paris, decided to shoot macro shots, with his camera on a tripod about five inches from the hand model’s fingertips, rather than shooting wider and cropping the image to get the composition he wanted. “For the quality of the image, I try not to crop,” the photographer notes.


Belebeau photographed the story at New York City’s Sun Studios in a shooting space with a white cyclorama. Along with Belebeau and his assistants, Michaela Buratti, beauty editor at Glamour, was on the set with the models, stylists and a manicurist. The hand model rested her arm on a beauty table to keep it from moving, Belebeau recalls. “If she moved two inches, she was out of the frame.”

Before any shoot, Belebeau typically sketches out ideas for each composition. Once he’s begun working, he’ll experiment: “Then I try for an accident.” In sketching the nail polish image, he wanted the hand model’s fingers to be crossed. “I started with just the fingers, and then I started to add one element to it at a time—the product, the dripping.” The nail image was the last shot of the day. “I remember I had to shoot about 400 frames until something started happening in the image,” he says. An assistant put too much nail polish on the applicator, and it dripped. Belebeau recalls that at the moment it happened, Buratti, who was watching on a monitor, screamed. “I thought: That’s what I’m looking for,” Belebeau says. He had the assistant duplicate the drip ten to 15 more times, letting it fall just short of the end of the model’s finger so her French manicure wouldn’t have to be redone. After several more shots, he recalls, “We all went and had a drink.”

Belebeau planned to use the same basic setup for all four shots. He photographed his subjects about eight feet from the cyc wall, which he lit using strobes with umbrellas placed on light trees—“basically c-stands with lights pounding on the background,” Belebeau explains.

To get what he calls his “signature, poppy lighting,” Belebeau combines soft lights, either diffused or bounced off of white foam core, which flatter the skin, and hard lights, “so it looks poppy,” he says.   

On all the shots, he used Profoto lights on 2400 watt-second packs. His diffused light was a large softbox that was usually behind him. “It was the same lighting throughout the day but I had to adapt the angles,” he says. “Because I was so close to the subject with my camera, sometimes I would create a shadow with my head or my camera.”

To add contrast to the image of shiny nail polish, he also used a single bare head that was placed three to four feet from his subject. On larger beauty shots, he notes, “I’ll use more than one hard light. I’ll put one behind the model, for example, to add highlights to her hair.”

Another image from Belebeau’s Glamour shoot. © Arthur Belebeau

Belebeau shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III tethered to two monitors: one for the digital tech, and one for the beauty editor. He photographed the fingernails with a macro f/2.8 100mm lens. “It eats up a lot of your light so you have to open your lens maybe a half-stop or a stop,” he says. To catch the motion of the drip, he shot at 1/160 of a second.

When he was shooting the lips, he experimented with macro extension tubes that allowed him to try different lenses while focusing closely on the model’s mouth. He took the image that ran in the magazine on a 50mm lens with a macro extension tube.

Belebeau has worked with Denise Ierardi at 451 Imaging Ltd. in New York City on almost all his assignments for the past ten years. “When you work with someone so long, communication is easy,” he says. “She knows what the client is looking for, and what kind of direction we’re aiming for.” Because the retouching on the images was limited to “color and a few small things,” Belebeau says, he first sent Glamour’s editors his selection of five to six favorite takes for each of the four photos, then had Ierardi clean up and color correct the images they chose to run.

Belebeau adds, “I loved it because they picked my first choices.” The four images were published last year in a four-page layout in Glamour.