How to Shoot That Edgy Look

I recently came across this question: Does anyone have advice on how to shoot edgier portraits without much makeup? I have been testing with some agencies in NYC, and this is the kind of work they want. I find it really challenging because I have a gentler, commercial style. What are some ways to practice?

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Visual Reference

to what we'd like to achieve- Gathered from Muse NYC

Step One: Casting

As I’m sure you know by now from Melissa & Dana’s fantastic video series on working with models, casting is the most crucial step. No matter how good you are, if you select a plain Jane, you will be disappointed with your results. Ensure to select a model that has something unusual going for her such as strong features or a slightly exotic look.

As I was collaborating with The Breed on this test I provided Marius Troy with a number of options that were available for the shoot asking him for his first and second choice.

After reviewing the model package received from Nemesis Agency he selected Alana H as his favorite, with Jazmine as his second choice.

I always try to get a second choice because, as was the case the booker came back saying Alana was no longer available and having that second option allowed me to book Jazmine on the spot without more back and forth.

Step Two: Make-Up, Hair & Styling

The key to this look is a combination of a minimalistic-grunge makeup with a clean luminous foundation, simple hair in an edgy parting with slick (often wet) look and dark simplistic wardrobe staples such as leather or lingerie/swimwear (NO pretty frills or patterns please).

The question posed mentioned “without much make-up” but to the trained eye you’ll notice all those shots would have had a makeup artist on hand. Creating this no make-up grunge look is actually a lot trickier than it sounds, so make sure to use an MUA with experience in this minimalistic style.

Tip – If you’re going for that shimmering wet-look then using a little Vaseline along the contour and collar bone can add to the shine.

For our test we had just seen the Alexander Wang show streamed live from NYFW and were obsessed with the beauty look in that which myself and my team agreed would look great for this test, so at the last minute I fired over these examples to work from.

As often is the case with model tests we didn’t have a stylist on set, so we requested our model bring a selection of clothes that matched our theme.

The studded leather jacket which she had promised didn’t make it, but instead she brought a great sequin blazer. I’ve used these before for similar shoots and knew how well it would work with the lighting.

Step Three: Lighting

The first thing to realise about this look is that they are not overly lit commercial portraits with rim lights, fill lights, hair lights and background lights, so keep your gear lust to a minimum.


If you study these images you’ll notice that even though they appear very moody the lighting is extremely soft and flattering. To achieve this you can use a soft light source (in my case a 90cm soft box) set at a very steep angle coming down on the model to accentuate her features and really sculpt out those cheek bones.

If you are then getting unflattering shadows in the eye sockets or a deep shadow under the chin you can rectify this with a simple reflector. I use silver when shooting these type of images as I want the specular highlights and feel it helps accentuate the shimmering wet look.

Here’s the geeky bit:


I’ve not mentioned using a light meter because as controversial as this may be I think when you’re shooting tethered to Capture Pro and using a single strobe light it’s a waste of time. I’m sure I’ll get blasted in the comments for that one but this is how I choose to work.

For my exposure I set the aperture to f10 which I’ve found to be the sweet spot for sharpness on my 100mm. I set my ISO to 200. I would usually have kept this lower at ISO 100 but was using a battery powered flash pack in this particular studio and I didn’t want to stress it unnecessarily since I knew I would be adding grain later anyway.

Step Four: Directing

All smiles and pouts to be left at the door for this one. The key is to direct the model into giving you an honest, raw expression. Don’t ask them to be edgy or moody as you’ll just end up with a series of resting bitch face. What you want is to elicit a “too cool to care” attitude that’s quite cocky and blasé.

Apathetic is the best adjective for this look but I seldom find models that understand the word so you just need to work through it with them until they get it. Once they do you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how consistently they can then deliver this emotion.

Step Five: Retouching

The devil’s in the details and you want to keep as much as possible for this look to retain its edge. You want to avoid skin softening techniques like the plague (which you do anyway right?) and instead take the time to even out the skin with lots of dodge and burning which you can also use to emphasize the contouring.

Once happy with the retouch I recommend a bit of selective sharpening on the eyes lips and hair to really make the image pop. After you’re finished, a spot of desaturation in a cool tone or a gritty black & white conversion are on the cards.

Going into the specific tools and techniques I use to accomplish these are far beyond the scope of this article but if there is enough interest I may create a video tutorial explaining my workflow with an example retouch. Let me know in the comments.

And there you have it, one edgy model portrait technique to impress the agencies.

Continue the series with: Retouching for that Edgy Look a step by step tutorial.

Adam Marc Williams