Tips + Techniques

Create Spicy Photos That Enliven the Senses with Roberto Valenzuela 

February 7, 2024

By Hillary Grigonis

Inspiring locations can add drama to a photograph, but popular locations can lose their magnetic power after being used for thousands of previous shoots. That’s why when Roberto Valenzuela scheduled a fashion shoot at the popular Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he knew he had to do something different to make the photos a little spicy to stand out from the many images shot among sculptures at the front of the museum. 

Valenzuela, an LA-based fashion photographer, describes his work as spicy and unexpected. “I like spicy photography. What I mean is to create something that awakens the viewers senses somehow. I want the composition, lighting, and posing to all come together in a combination that the viewer didn’t expect. To do that, I add something spicy to my lighting. I take two extra minutes to come up with a spicy idea.” 

© Roberto Valenzuela

For this particular shoot, Valenzuela was tasked with capturing images for fashion designer RMINÉ Bespoke. He worked with stylist Lisa Smith and two models. The team decided to shoot at LACMA in order to elevate the images over the typical studio background. “Often in fashion, it can be very effective to shoot on location to add a great deal of architectural elements into the shot,” he says. “A typical clean studio backdrop is the norm, but a well-chosen location can greatly elevate the impact the photo has on the viewer.” 

While the sculptures create a dramatic impact, Valenzuela knew he would need to add his characteristic spice to elevate the shot beyond the many images previously captured at the museum. In this image, the two biggest keys to adding that spice are the off-camera lighting and the lens choice. 

Valenzuela explains that just adding light to the subject isn’t enough — lighting shouldn’t just be a tool to get the proper exposure, but rather a tool to communicate. Valenzuela uses a framework to help determine why and how to light a scene, a system he shares in his upcoming book, Picture Perfect Flash, which launches March 19. Using that system, he pulled out two portable strobes. One, modified with an octobox, highlights the star of any fashion shoot: the clothing. The second light uses a beauty dish to create a harder light that sculpts and contours the model’s face. 

[Read: Spotlight on the WPPI Lighting Masters Summit]

© Roberto Valenzuela

“I light with the purpose of communicating something to the viewer, I do NOT light just to get a proper exposure,” he said. “I always say in my seminars, ‘Aim to light to communicate, not just to illuminate.’  If you can keep that in mind every time you are making your lighting decisions, you will be in great shape to create something amazing!” 

The other piece to adding spice to the image is lens choice. For this shot, he used the Canon RF10-20mm f4 L IS STM, at 20mm. The wide perspective incorporates more of the statues while exaggerating distances. To use the strobes without overexposing the sun flare at the center of the image, he added a three stop ND filter from Kolari to the front of the lens. The filter allows the lights to have that high drama look. 

The lens choice and lighting works with the location to create an impactful image centered on the model and her wardrobe. By using light to sculpt, Valenzuela created a photograph that won’t blend in with others captured at the same location. 

View more behind-the-scenes footage from this fashion shoot on Valenzuela’s Instagram.

5 Lighting Tips from Roberto Valenzuela 

  • Tip 1: Learn to use and love hard light. Modifiers such as a zoom reflector, a beauty dish, etc. are the perfect mods to start experimenting with.  
  • Tip 2: When shooting on location, make it a point to add light to the background with a flash/portable strobe, not just to your subject. Experiment with the lighting ratio between the light on your subject and the light on the background to get different styles of separation.   
  • Tip 3: Start incorporating ND filters such as the one I used for this photo into your outdoor location work. With ND filters, you can use your fast lenses such as f/1.2 or f/2.0 and still be able to use a flash to improve the lighting on your subject. To be clear, this tip requires the use of two things, an ND filter (3-stop recommended) and a flash/strobe.  
  • Tip 4: Learn to change the mood of an indoor location using gels. Don’t accept the location’s mood for what it is, make it your own. Add flashes with gels to create a change in the mood.  
  • Tip 5: When lighting a face, don’t simply grab your go-to modifier such as a two-foot octabox or softbox.  Instead, try to sculpt the light by adding light and shadows on the face in the right place and with the right ratio that you love. Sculpt light on faces! It’s so fun and people, will be blown away by your work.   


Canon Explorer of Light Roberto Valenzuela is a top-selling author and lecturer. His mastery lies his technical prowess and dedication to his craft. Valenzuela’s deep understanding of lighting, composition, and storytelling allows him to create images that transcend the ordinary. Learn from him at WPPI this March in The Lighting Masters Summit and his seminar, Picture Perfect Flash and Portable Strobes.

[Read: Spotlight on the WPPI Lighting Masters Summit]

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