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How I Shot Portrait Nudes With (Cheap) LEDs

How I Shot Portrait Nudes With (Cheap) LEDs


After shooting with studio flashes for quite a while, followed by strobes (speedlights) and recently indoor and outdoor series with available natural light only, I decided to try a new lighting-gear-field: shooting with LEDs.

This decision was mostly based on three thoughts:

  1. Photographing with continuous lighting for the creation of a particular mood that solely develops due to the gear selection.
  2. It had to be on budget (knowing full well about all the limitations the choice would imply).
  3. And the lights needed to be very portable (= small & lightweight) because I shoot on location and have to travel all the time.

Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos With LED Portrait Lighting - Suzzie - Set 1 - Duo 2

I love Fresnel lighting , or Dedolights as my gear of choice for continuous lighting but both original brands are above my budget for testing, and Chinese knockoffs are just not worth any money in the long run.

My LEDS: Taking Compromises

BTS 5 - My LEDs - Portrait Nudes with LED Portrait Lighting

The purposes of my cheaply purchased LEDs are:

  1. To be used for indoor lighting situations only.
    The ones I bought are too weak to do anything in bright lighting conditions.
  2. To be acting as a fill-in light when mixing with available light.
  3. To be acting as key light in cases in which I want this particular lighting character to be the dominator of the mood.

I must be willing to comply with the following implications:

  1. Shooting with high ISO figures like ISO 1000 – 2500. A full-frame body with a larger chip is of advantage here.
  2. Working with rather low shutter speed like 1/30 to 1/60 = no fast movements/situations for anybody on the set (= avoiding motion blur).
  3. Composing with very shallow depth of field (DOF), caused by open apertures from f/1.8 to f/3.5. This is not a difficult “compromise” to deal with as shallow DOF is a compositional element in portraiture work anyway.
  4. Relinquish to (almost) any kind of additional light modifiers except the supplied barn doors. Any sort of softbox or the like would absorb too much light power and I would not get any usable luminosity anymore.

Putting The Shoot Together: Suzzi. Portrait Nudes. Indoor.

BTS 1 - Model Styling, Clothing & Accessories - Portrait Nudes with LED Portrait Lighting

After the 2 LEDs arrived at my place I began to put the test shoot concept together:

  1. SWP-Style: Portrait Nudes, Color + B&W.
    Creating within the realms of “portraiture” automatically shifts framing needs to rather tight framing, avoiding large scenes where LEDs could not do much.
  2. Indoor. Some place with various features that gets me inspired and lets the model and me be spontaneous and creative. I could make a deal to rent an apartment for 4 hours at a price point of $30.
  3. Model. A lovely model who I worked with in workshops several times was perfectly fitting my ideas for this shoot: Natural type, amazing hair, wonderful personality, quite a special, very graceful face, and – also important – willing to shoot 3 hours for $80 in total.
  4. Beautifying/Styling. Natural in look (not much of makeup), nude in feel (simple, translucent clothing) personal in expression (the none-pose approach: feminine, not staged): This was my briefing request (sent upfront in a “Call Sheet”. It worked out wonderfully.

The day of the shoot arrived and just the two of us – Suzzi and I – started to create…

BTS 2 - Set 1, Ambient Light & Fill-In Light One - Portrait Nudes with LED Portrait LightingBTS 3 - Set 1, Ambient Light & Fill-In Light Two - Portrait Nudes with LED Portrait Lighting

Set #1: Intimate Portraiture

This series is the very first I ever shot with Suzzi. Yes, I worked with her in private workshops but it is a different situation when performing a real shoot; things simply get real. The mood is more intimate (especially if it is just the 2 of you) and now it is me creating the photos, not some client. Having said that, let me add the following: When I am working with a new model in a real-shoot situation, I am always starting out with a short portraiture sequence in the very beginning. This is of utmost importance to me!

Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos With LED LED Portrait Lighting - Suzzie - Set 1 -Trio 1

I am trying to break into her personality. A pretty face, a beautiful body are fine – but by far not enough for me. Even when “just” shooting commercial glam, I want to get “behind the façade” in the very beginning. This provides me with two insights:

  1. I know how to steer/navigate through the subsequent shoot based on the portion of “real” personality I got from the girl in the short portrait segment.
  2. I quickly learned where I have to fake it, when to give up my attempts of getting all the genuineness I could possibly derive from the subject.

And yes, even in colorful, artificial feeling, commercial glam shoots we meet girls that are genuinely having fun, meaning they naturally tease, interact and have that inner smile. And we have – of course – those who just flatly fake anything. Anyways…

When I decide to work on personal projects such as conquering new moods and composing pieces for my portfolio, I prefer not to fake personalities. I guess you can tell from the results here that I was able to shoot smoothly without having to improve (= fake) anything regarding Suzzi’s genuine, feminine, authentic persona.

Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos With LED Portrait Lighting- Suzzie - Set 1 -Trio 2Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos With LED Portrait Lighting - Suzzie - Set 1 - Standalone

Set #2: The Wall

The following set was the last one created during this little test shoot. We still had about 15 minutes left so we decided to go for something more playful, a bit more glamy in feel.

The setting was simple: One LED as a key light, some Black Cinefoil to further limit/control the light beam (spill), a wall, a chair and an allusive Suzzi.

BTS 4 - Set 2, Lighing Setup - Portrait Nudes with LED Portrait Lighting

This setup created a kind of a portrait situation too, but this time involving more of the scene yet still focusing our attention solely on the woman (which is a given anyway with such a lighting design).

One thing worth mentioning: Since we worked in a darkened room (= no additional ambient light adding to the luminosity), I had to dial the LED up all the way. While there would not be felt much impact from the small device in an ambient-lit situation, the light starts to become strong and dazzle the model in a dark room. It really gets unpleasant to have this kind of light blast straight into your face/eyes. Since the light is continuously directed at the model’s face (in contrast to shots with only short flash bursts), you have to be rather quick under such extreme conditions.

Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos LED Portrait Lighting - Set 6 - Series 1Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos LED Portrait Lighting - Set 6 - Series 2Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos LED Portrait Lighting- Series 3 - Portrait Series

Our net shooting time was about 10 minutes and Suzzi was successfully fighting her squinting urges like a real trooper all the way through this shoot. She had quite a hard time because of this lighting design. But the photos turned out well. Suzzi was brave. Some private female client could be less forgiving…

It Is Neither The Gear Nor The Model. It Is You!

Inexpensive lighting gear, a well thought-out SWP-style concept, a genuine woman in front of the lens, some spontaneous ideas on the set, 1 to 3 hours time for collaboration: That is all it takes to create a few new pieces of personal work for your aspiring – or already published – portfolio.

I bet you are now saying something like “…but with such an alluring model…” – well, forget about that! Seriously!

It is the genuineness of your subject that counts (be it a model or not). But more importantly: Your artistic eye! Your feel! Your senses! And last by not least, your confidence! It is all about you! Not about anything else.

Cheap (lighting) gear is just the icing on the cake. Trust me.

Result - Nude Portraiture Model Suzzie - Shooting Photos With LED Portrait Lighting - Set 6 - Series 4 - Quadrupple
Suzzi & Dan - LED Portrait Lighting Alluring Nude Portraits with Suzzi - by Dan Hostettler Photography

Tutorial “Contemporary Allure: Portrait Nudes”

LIVE Replay: ‘Contemporary Allure: Portrait Nudes’

5 Films. 95 Min Runtime. FullHD
Tempting & Striking, Fresh & Free, B&W, Silky Glam. Starring Nici Dee.
“Create portrayal, do not just depict a scene!” Contemporary Allure is about designing different moods/stories/emotions by building emotive situations, just like the genre of portraiture is intended to do. Dan started shooting frisky portraiture as an additional business opportunity for doing privately commissioned work, meaning Dan is taking shots of ladies that actually pay him to do so. This photo shoot is meant to push you to start doing such a style of work yourself!


A traveler at heart, inspired by women, working along Swiss precision. Dan is a mediapreneur, photographer, author of several books and founder + Editor in Chief of Being a successful photographer for more than 15 years Dan got internationally published and featured on/in GQ Online, The India Times, FashionONE TV, FotoTV, GoodLight Mag, amongst many others. Dan is currently residing and working in Prague, CZ. Dan will talk about his projects, provide insights in shootings & concepts, produce webinars, create Academy content, explain styles, emphasize the importance of working with models and any other exciting topic he discovers along the way.

Have you ever shot any photographs with LED lighting? Let’s see your take and samples please.

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Excellent article, Dan! Since my business model is moving me in the direction of video production, I have been compelled to invest in some LED lighting. Rather than the flat panels you show in this article, I purchased a Godox unit that looks for all the world like a studio monolight. With a Bowens mount, regular studio light modifiers (soft boxes, umbrellas, etc.) can be used just as with monolight strobes for either video or stills. It wasn’t terribly expensive – something around $250. Light output at full power = 16,000 lumens, plenty bright for either video or stills. When… Read more »