Keys to Portrait Lighting

portrait-lighting1Every 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 lighting.

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 guage 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.

portrait-lighting2If 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 undesireable 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.

I am a retired portrait photographer of thirty years.

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