makeup for natural light and flash photography

Today I thought it would be fun to talk about makeup for natural light and flash photography. 

I previously touched on the different makeup techniques for colour versus black and white photography, and how colour and contouring can be used to define the features. Today I'd like to talk about how different kinds of lighting interact with makeup, and share some tricks for applying makeup for these different lighting scenarios.

First of all, let me introduce the lovely Sophia, who you may recognize from her portrait session with her partner Mike. I met with Sophia last summer when I was working on some photos for the makeup section of my new website (coming soon!). I created three different looks for her, but kept the setting and outfit consistent. I wanted to show the transformational power of a few adjustments to a makeup look.

I shot each look with both natural window light and with flash. I use the Gary Fong Light Sphere Cloud to diffuse the light from my flash, however, which results in a softer, warmer light than you would usually achieve with a flash.

Look I: Natural

We started with a very subdued, romantic look. As you can see here, I kept Sophia's makeup very minimal. I used all nude and rose tones, with a bit of very soft white for highlighting. As a natural beauty who wears very minimal makeup, this was the closest to her day-to-day look.

In this case, it was all about enhancing her natural beauty and adding a bit of a glow. I did this using highlighting products such as Benefit's High Beam. This photos were shot using natural light.


See how her skin just glows?

A note about highlighting: the reason for adding lighter tones or products with light-reflecting properties is to emphasize the high planes of the face (e.g. cheekbones) and to bring forward certain features. As my friend Jenn recently described it brilliantly, "highlighter should be the colour of light when it hits the skin." This means there is generally no one size fits all highlighting product. And, mother of pearl, this means that women with any skin tone above medium-fair should never be subjected to the horror of frosty white eyeshadow underneath the brow. Although favoured by bar stars and adult film performers, the frosted brow is just not flattering for most people. Use a highlighter that is essentially your skin tone with a bit of shimmer.

Now, let's take a look at how the same look works when a flash was used:


As you can see, the look is pretty similar, except the shimmer on her eyelids is much more apparent and the colours appear more saturated. Because my flash was set to low, it's actually less bright than the natural light, so the colours are less washed out.

You can see here why a very light hand should be used with anything shimmery or glossy when using flash. See how much more obvious it is that she's wearing eyeshadow and lip gloss than in the previous photos? Since about 90% of my photography is done using only natural or ambient light, I can go a bit crazy with highlighter and gloss. But, if one day I were to switch to using studio light or flash, I would have to adjust my technique and use more matte colours.

Look II: Pops of Colour

I built this look on the foundation of Look I. To change it, I added a bronzy brown shadow to her crease, added a bright aqua liquid liner to her top lashline, contoured her cheekbones using a matte bronzer, added a bit more nude blush to the apples of her cheeks, and added a creamy peach lip colour. Here's the look in natural light:



Though I do think it's pretty in this light, I find the style of makeup appears a bit unnatural in this scenario. Few people would choose these bold colours for daytime. Now, when we see the look in flash photography, on the other hand:

I personally find this looks a bit more appropriate, as if she was photographed at a party. The dramatic blush/contouring also looks much more natural in the flash lighting too.

Look III: Classic Smoky Eye

I would say this is the second most requested makeup look (next to the glowing, natural look) from my clients. If done right (read: without the frosty highlighter), it's pretty timeless, and always lovely. Here it is in natural light:


To adjust this look from the last one, I added false lashes, removed the bronzer, used a softer, pinker blush, and chose a velvety, almost bare, pink lip colour. Again, it's kind of strange to see a full evening look in daytime lighting, but it's classic enough that it works. 

But, when you see it in flash lighting, it too looks much more normal. The smokyness defines her eyes and creates a sultry appearance, instead of looking like a whole lotta black. Usually I prefer to do a coloured or gray smokey eye on ladies with pale skin, but I wanted to go full carbon black to show you how extreme it can look in natural light, but now hot it looks in evening light. Again, I do think this look works best with matte products, or ones that have only a slight shimmer.


I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you have any questions at all, leave a comment or email me.

Sophia, thank you once again for your time and patience. You're just lovely!