Keys to Portrait Lighting

Every face can show a multitude of personality and individual

characteristics. It is up to the portrait photographer to bring out

the subjects best features with interesting conversation and good


The photographer’s first task is to evaluate the facial features and

decide which ones to emphasize and which ones to minimize. Long

noses look best from a low angle for instance, and double chins

respond well to a high camera angle, but this article will be aimed

at the effects of lighting on the human face.

It is easier to gauge the proper lighting by watching for key points.

A flattering main light produces a definite shadow that extends from

the crest of the nose to the cheek and includes all of the unphotogenic

area next to the nose. The height of the main light is determined by

the angle of the shelf under the eyebrow. Cavernous eyes are well

served by a low main light and protruding eyes can benefit from a

high main light. A second consideration is the appearance of a noticeable

catch light on the eye since a too high main light will not show a catch

light. The lower edge of the nose shadow should not touch or obscure

the upper lip line. A proper shadow is the key to a flattering ‘loop’ light.

This lighting shows most faces to good advantage, appearing both three

dimensional and youthful.

If a face seems round or heavy, side or split lighting is called for. While

a three to one lighting ratio is good for loop lighting, a softer two to one

ratio is best for split lighting. Bring the light source close to the face at a

ninety degree angle from the camera. The short side of the face will show

a shadow line that travels from the bridge of the nose down to the center

of the chin, dividing the face into a well lit half and a shadowed half. The

Fill light should be placed close to the lens and slightly above it in order

to produce a clearly defined chin line and to minimize unsightly wrinkles.

The key to watch for is the proper exposure in the highlights and enough

light in the shadow areas to give a good skin tone.

Hair and shoulder lighting is important and sets the mood of the picture.

All hair absorbs light disproportionately and must be adjusted in strength

according to the tone of the hair. Black hair may require three times the

amount of light that blonde or gray hair requires. Be careful not to allow

the hair light to spill over on the nose for obvious reasons. A broad source

is to be preferred over a spot source because the latter emphasizes the

reflective qualities of the hair rather than the true color and tone.

If an edge light is used for a character portrait, make sure that the light is

Well goboed and placed as close to being in the picture as possible without

showing. Some photographers place their fill lights well above the lens for

reasons of safety and convenience. But this placement produces undesirable

neck lines, eye pouches and glaring foreheads. The fill light or lights work

best at eye level or just below, filling in neck lines and almost eliminating

pouches under the eyes.

So called Rembrandt lighting shadows the eyes completely, highlighting the

upper cheeks with a triangular shape. Special care must be taken so as not to

darken the eyes too much. While some studio photographers work with wrap

around general lighting with a one to one and one half lighting ratio, no model-

ing is present to enhance the features. The only benefit is that the studio will

never get complaints of too dark shadows.

Background lights when set at the same power as the main light will produce

a background color and density the same as it appears to the naked eye. The

purpose of the background is to supply a pleasing distant contrast that does

not compete with the subject, but enhances and separates the subject from

the distance. A darkening of edges is a time-honored way of keeping the eye

on the center of interest.

Lighting and its many variations is the most important tool in helping the portrait

photographer reveal people at their best.

Article Source by Kenneth C. Hoffman

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