I ran across some UV/black light portraits not long ago and was intrigued by them. I decided to do some research to see if I could produce similar black light portraits on a reasonable budget.
When it comes to black light photography, you need two things – something that is fluorescent under UV/black light and a product to emit the light.” Searching for “black light makeup” on Amazon left me with dozens of options to choose from. I settled on an 8 tube set of water-based face paint. Next up, the black light.
Searching Amazon again I found a myriad of black light products available for purchase including flashlights, dance club lights and the run-of-the-mill black light bulb that many of us had in high school and/or college. After weighing the options I decided to get a couple of black light CFL bulbs that I could install in a three bulb floor lamp that I already owned (similar to this). The UV bulb reviews warned that the light emitted wasn’t terribly powerful, but I hoped that using two bulbs positioned relatively close to the subject would do the trick.
And speaking of the subject, I was aware of a model here in Savannah (Kim) that was looking to expand her portfolio with “creative ideas.” I contacted Kim to see if she’d like to try out some black light photography. I explained to her that I was completely inexperienced with this particular field of photography but I thought it might be fun and yield interesting results. She readily agreed and we set a session date.
After receiving the face paint and bulbs, I set up a small test in my studio to see how well the UV face paint glowed under the black lights. My initial tests were a little disappointing. It was early in the evening and I still had some ambient light coming through my studio windows. Considering that Kim was only available during the day, I knew I would have to limit the amount of ambient light that would be flooding into the room under broad daylight conditions to maximize the effect of the black lights. Thankfully I already had a couple of blackout curtains that I use to eliminate glare on my living room TV produced from a large pair of windows behind the couch. The blackout curtains allowed me to turn my studio nearly pitch black in the middle of the day.
For the background, I used the black side of a collapsible black/white background supported by a light stand and a Lastolite Magnetic Background Support.
When Kim arrived for the shoot she was carrying a box full of makeup. While the makeup she brought was superfluous in this case, it was comforting that she knew how to handle her own makeup needs. I handed her the bottles of face paint and the brushes and sponges I had purchased for application needs. I said, “Have fun with it! But from what I’ve read, the blue is more fluorescent than the other colors. You might want to use it sparingly.”
However, working with the UV face paint proved problematic as it’s quite watery (making it challenging to apply) and it doesn’t show up very well in regular light, so it’s difficult to judge exactly what the final results will look like. Kim simply had to deal with the first issue the best she could. However, the second issue was easily remedied by her applying the face paint in the darkened studio with the black lights illuminating her face.
Even knowing that blue was the most fluorescent color, we were still a bit surprised by just how much brighter it was compared to the other colors. In fact, Kim ended up washing off her first application of the blue paint so that her face wouldn’t be overly bright in those areas.
With the face paint applied and my tripod mounted 5D Mark III and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM (precursor to the version II) ready, we started shooting. I don’t usually use constant lights for portraiture, so it was a little challenging finding the right balance of relatively slow (but fast enough) shutter speed without pushing the ISOs too high. Even wide open at f/2.8, I still needed shutter speeds of 1/30 – 1/40 second at ISO 6400 – 8000 with the black lights positioned just out of the frame.
After figuring out the exposure and shooting a few images, I quickly noticed that because there was very little light hitting the background (which is what I had intended), the photos lacked punch; it needed some light. I reached for a Canon 580EX Speedlite (precursor to the 600EX II-RT), added a deep blue gel, a speed strap and a 1/8-Inch Universal Honeycomb Grid. Even with the gel in place and the flash set to its minimum of 1/128, the light was too bright for my exposure settings. Adding a 1-stop ND gel to the mix helped bring the background light down to a tolerable level.
My favorite image from the shoot appears at the top of this post. Following are two more images from the session that I liked.
What I Learned
First off, UV/black light photography is really fun and quite economical. The black light bulbs I purchased have an 8,000-hour life expectancy, so their cost is very reasonable considering their life span. However, I wish I had gotten just one more bulb so that I could have shot with a higher shutter speed (for more keepers) or lower ISO (for cleaner images). The amount of face paint I received will likely be enough to cover 2-3 sessions, so the cost is relatively reasonable as well. Using a full frame camera (the 5D Mark III in this case) proved extremely beneficial in producing satisfactory results at my exposure settings (though I still applied some noise reduction in post-processing).
If you have any UV/black light specific recommendations (products / techniques), please leave them in the comments.