Portrait Lighting

Introduction

Light - Science and MagicI wrote the following at a time when I was struggling to find a good and coherent lighting overview. The information below is probably still valid… but there is a better and more coherent alternative, which I’m going to recommend you. Get this book: Light – Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting (3rd ed), by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua. It is probably the only book you will ever need on lighting. And it is very good. In fact, it is so good, that it sold out very quickly (see also here) — probably partly due to the recommendations at the strobist; such is the power of the internet.

Quoting from the “official” summary description at amazon, you can read: “This book is an amazing (and some would say magical) resource on photographic lighting that has been talked about in the community and recommended for years. This highly respected guide has been thoroughly updated and revised for content and design – it is now produced in full color. It introduces a logical theory of photographic lighting so if you are starting out in photography you will learn how to predict results before setting up lights. This is not primarily a how-to book with only set examples for you to copy. Rather, “Light: Science and Magic” provides you with a comprehensive theory of the nature and principles of light to allow you to use lighting to express your own creativity. Numerous photographs and illustrations provide clear examples of the theories, while sidebars highlight special lighting questions. Expanded chapters on available light in portraiture, as well as new information on digital equipment and terminology make this a must have update. It includes new four color art package with contemporary lighting examples. It is based on the behaviour of light. It is a theory book for serious photographers.

I highly recommend buying it — if you can find it somewhere in stock!

Basic lighting technique

Here are some links to basic portrait lighting techniques.

A particular good one is at http://tips.romanzolin.com/articles/article011.shtml (local copy of pdf: Basic Light Patterns). It gives a quick overview of most of the basic styles — sorted by angle, going from front face via side to the back, I’d list them as:

  • Butterfly Lighting (Front light, high above camera, causing a smooth appearance and a distinct butterfly shaped shadow underneath the nose)
  • Loop Lighting (Almost as butterfly, but slightly to one side, causing a small loop under the nose instead of a butterfly)
  • Standard 45 degree classroom portrait” side light (Somewhere between loop and split lighting, light slightly above head and to one side)
  • Rembrandt Lighting (Variant of above, further to the side and somewhat higher, causing a distinct triangle on the shadow cheek, and usually done in the style of short lighting)
  • Split Lighting (Full side light, lower than the others, causing full shadow on the remote side of the face, more dramatic effect and pronounced skin texture)
  • Rim Lighting (backlit, lower then the head to avoid flare)

All of the ones above have to do with the position of the main light relative to the subjects orientation. However, the camera position relative to the subject orientation also has an effect of the perceived shape. The two standards often mentioned are:

  • Broad Lighting (Camera facing the lit side, broadening the face)
  • Short Lighting (Camera facing the shadow side, shortening the face)

In addition, of course there is:

  • Front face (Camera positioned straight in front of the subject)

Often broad and short lighting implies something close to “Standard 45 degree classroom portrait” as well. Rembrandt and Split Lighting are most often done as short lighting or as front face.

If you don’t know about main, fill, background and hairlight, have a look here: http://tips.romanzolin.com/articles/article014.shtml (local copy of pdf : Basic Studio Lighting) and maybe also at http://tips.romanzolin.com/articles/article012.shtml (local copy of pdf: Portrait Lights).

If you’re really starting out from scratch, look also at http://tips.romanzolin.com/articles/article013.shtml (local copy of pdf: Basic Rules of Portraiture).

Similar to the first one is http://home.earthlink.net/~terryleedawson/id11.html, that also has a quick list of the basic styles with real examples instead of the simulated ones above. So has http://www.vividlight.com/articles/1615.htm.

Another one is at http://www.outdooreyes.com/lightingstyles.php3. This one has good hints for what to remember and also deals with posing. It is not quite as systematic as the ones above, but is more a collection of hints and probably requires some knowledge of the basic styles to be useful.

Reflections in glasses

Reflections in glasses are cumbersome, and should of course be avoided. I’ve had my share of problems with those. On strobist, the advice is to light up from behind… but I recently read somewhere on photo.net (I’ll try to find the link to credit the person giving this hint) how to do, and it is actually quite easy to get rid of: 1) Move the glasses slightly out (few mm) towards the tip of the nose. 2) Lift the glasses slighly up from the ears, so that they are angled another few degrees. 3) Ask the person to tilt the head ever so slightly downwards. Combined, this seems to do the trick in most cases.

Told you it was easy ;-)

By the way, I prefer to shot people standing. If you ask them to have one foot pointed towards you and one angled 90 degrees behind (place two strips of gaffa on the flor, if you need to shot many people in the same session), they will be forced automatically to straighten up and it will also be very easy to ask them to lean a bit forwards, if you want to tilt the head a bit — and it is preferable to tilting without leaning forward, to avoid double-chins.