Lighting a Wooden Mannequin

Winter is on it’s way out and I couldn’t be happier. I hate to admit it but I’m a fair-weather photographer so I’ve spent these cold months experimenting with lighting indoors. Unfortunately my wife and oldest daughter are not fans of flash, maybe due to the sensitivity of their blue eyes. My youngest daughter loves the camera, but at 5 she’s not the best at sitting still for an hour while I make constant lighting changes. Instead I’ve employed this wooden mannequin my wife found while cleaning out our attic.

In the photo above I’m using 2 softboxes, one camera-left in front of the subject, and one camera-right a little behind. My concern with experimenting on such a small subject was the relative size to the light sources. Will the lighting have the same effect on a larger subject like a person? After taking a few self-portraits for comparison I found that the effect is generally the same regardless of subject size. The best example of this is the human nose: If you use a direct speedlight or softbox on a nose you will get the same shadows as a larger object like a jawline, sharp shadows or soft shadows.

Here we have a similar setup but the softboxes are removed. The difference is clear, not only in the shadows but in the mood or atmosphere of the shot. The first photo has a slight dreamy quality, compared to the second which has an increased level of clarity; the result of the specular highlights and sharp shadows coming off the bare speedlights.

Here the softboxes, and the camera, are inches from the subject in order to push the feathering of the light. That, plus the tight depth of field and I got that soft window-lighting look I was going for.

This last shot is a mix: I have a bare speedlight camera-left, and a softbox on the right. You can see the difference in the shadow under the “chin” which is very sharp going from left-to-right but the light moving in the opposite direction is very feathered.


Working through the very basics of lighting is much easier for me this way, and the fact that my wooden mannequin doesn’t move an inch really shows me the intricate differences from shot-to-shot with different light setups. I know I’m not getting exactly the same lighting as on a human-scale subject but the general principles still apply. Plus, it’s given me the confidence of predicting where to place my lights/modifiers to get a look I want, versus constantly experimenting while my family poses patiently. It’s worth a try if you have one of these lying around.


My only post-processing goal for these shots was to get them on a pure black background. The setup was a floor and backdrop of black foam-core. The lights hit the backdrop a bit and on a few I picked up some glare from the second light. A small adjustment to the curves and black-point got the backdrop back to pure black without crushing the shadows on the figure.