Using Light to Create Separation Between the Subject & Background for Portraits

One of the fundamental principles of lighting is creating separation between the subject and background. There are many ways you can do this using one or more lights simply by changing where you direct the light. Here, Jay P. Morgan of The Slanted Lens gives a great tutorial on how to easily create separation using light:

1. One Light to Light Model and Background at the Same Time

With a single light, you can light the model’s face and the backdrop behind her. Place the light in front of and slightly off to the side of the model and pan the light until it is lighting both the side of the model’s face and the background. The light on the background will be brighter on the opposite side of where it falls on the model’s face. Basically, on the highlighted side of the model’s face, the background is darker; on the shadow side of the face, the background is lighter. This technique works best when your model is close to the background. You can pan the light as much as you’d like to create more or less separation.

light background model photo

2. Add a Second Light to the Background

This is a better option when you want distance between the model and the background. This way you can control both of them separately. Keep the key light on the model and add another light directed at the background. Now, you’ll have a strong separation all across the image.

two lights studio photo

3. Add a Rim Light

This is probably the most common way to separate the subject from the background. Place it directly behind your model or off to the side. Move it higher or lower, depending on which parts of the body you want to add the rim lighting to create more separation.

add separation rim lighting

4. A Combination of Different Lights

To add even more separation, you can keep the key light at the front, have the rim on the model, and turn on the background light. This gives the viewer the impression that the light on the model’s hair (from the rim light) is coming from the background, which makes sense and makes the viewer comfortable.

You can also add more people to the frame and place them so that the highlight of one is in the shadow of the other, creating great separation between them.

separate highlights shadows photo

5. Create a Silhouette

You can create an awesome silhouette by flooding the background with light and turning off the key light.

photograph silhouette studio

6. Add a Colored Gel to the Background Light

Another easy trick is to simply add a colored gel to your background light. This will give the image a sense of depth. If you let any white light break through, it will diminish the color, so you can play around with that a bit by moving the gel.

color creates depth photo

These techniques work with any lighting source, whether spotlights, LEDs, softboxes, anything. Try them yourself with whatever lighting you have and see what happens. Then let us know in the comments below.

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