Sensual Portraits

Sensual portraits tease the viewer’s imagination. Learn why it’s best not to reveal too much, and how to feather your studio lights for super soft lighting.

I wanted to create a sensual portrait of Gina. Sensuality happens when you tease the viewer and let their imagination get involved with the image. There’s nothing sensual about a portrait with everything on show, given away to the viewer like a present that’s already unwrapped.

That’s why I’ve framed the image so that the question of what Gina is wearing remains unanswered. This brings intrigue, mystery and sensuality; qualities that come from what you don’t show, not what you do.

Super-soft lighting

I lit Gina with a square softbox, but angled away so sharply that it was almost edge-on to her. You can see the shape of the white catchlight in her eyes is thin and rectangular: that gives you an idea of how much I turned the soft box away from her.

This is a technique called ‘feathering’ the light. Using the beams from only the edge of your softbox creates light with an almost indescribable quality: super-soft with gentle shadows and highlights. It means the higher intensity beams from the centre of your softbox fall outside of your scene, and only light that’s bounced to one side and then through the diffuser makes it onto your subject.

There are two more lights facing the background to make it bright, but not completely white. When printed, the only areas of a portrait that should be pure white – with absolutely no detail recorded – are the catchlights in your subject’s eyes (and reflections on jewellery or sunglasses if they are worn). The rest of the picture should have ink across it.

The same principle applies with shadow areas. There should be gradients and dark, dark greys but very few areas of pure black with no detail. You can check this by looking at the histogram on your camera after taking a shot. If there are pixels stacked up at either edge of the histogram’s graph, that means there are areas of plain white or black with all detail lost. Adjust your exposure accordingly.

Styling and format

Gina has styled her hair so that it curls around her face. The longer strand on the left (as we’re looking at it) of her face brings asymmetry – and added interest – to an otherwise symmetrical portrait.

I’ve gone for a tight landscape crop, almost a square. This breaks away from the conventional expectation of an upright ‘portrait’ orientation. The tightness of the crop adds a contemporary, energetic feel to the image.

The hardest part of creating this portrait was for us to both to stop laughing! It’s in my nature to be silly, mess around and say what’s on my mind. That makes it hard to shut up and stay serious long enough for my subjects to stop laughing (at me, probably, not with me!).

Studio Layout

Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 145mm
  • Aperture: f/11
  • Shutter speed: 1/180 sec
  • ISO: 100