The Quest for the Perfect Portrait

Portrait Photography Lighting Basics

Without a doubt, light is the most vital tool any photographer has at their disposal. Through the manipulation of light, it’s possible to convey ideas and emotions as well as emphasize select compositional elements. Capable of completely altering an object’s appearance, the placement of highlights and shadows becomes especially pertinent when taking into consideration portrait photography lighting.

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Despite its importance, it often takes time for beginners to learn just how to utilize light properly. For most, lighting in itself is an art that requires years of practice and experimentation to master. However, illuminating a subject doesn’t have to be a complicated, arduous chore.

In the following segments, we’ll go over some of the most basic lighting set ups photographers employ and discuss how they impact portraiture.

1. STUDIO TECHNIQUES

✔ LOOP LIGHTING

The loop light is one of the most commonly used studio lighting techniques, named as such for the distinctive “loop” that’s formed by the shadow of the nose. A flattering look in almost all situations, loop lighting is attained when an overhead key light is placed just above eye level at a 30-45° angle. This sufficiently fills the face in with light, while retaining some shadows to define the subject’s chin and cheeks.

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✔ BROAD LIGHTING

Broad lights are easy to spot – it simply refers to a situation in which the side of the face closest to the camera is catching the majority of the light. Depending on the distance between the subject and the light source, it can be dramatic and sharp or soft and subtle.

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Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting, and refers to a situation in which the side of the face further from the camera is catching the majority of the light.

Each scenario has its own set of pros and cons when employed in the studio. For instance, short lighting is incredibly effective at slimming down a model’s face. However, broad lighting is a much better choice for minimizing wrinkles and flattering damaged skin.

✔ BUTTERFLY LIGHTING

Also known as paramount lighting, this set up screams of old Hollywood glamour.

The name itself refers to the characteristic butterfly-shaped shadow that forms underneath the nose when in use. Attained with a simple overhead light placed in line with the camera, this type of portrait photography lighting is desirable for its beautiful catchlight and ability to highlight bone structure. Using a strobe or flash can produce harsh results, however, prompting some photographers to employ reflectors to soften facial features.

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✔ SPLIT LIGHTING

Perhaps the most distinctive light of all, split lighting technique is pretty self explanatory. Dividing a subject’s face down the middle, one side is shrouded in shadow while the other is flooded by the main light source, which creates dramatic results.

Split lighting can really bring out certain angles in the face and can prove to be incredibly effective in certain situations – however, it’s by no means a catch-all lighting solution. Luckily, with a bit of diffusion and reflection, it can be adjusted into a more pliable Rembrandt light.

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2. UTILIZING “NATURAL” LIGHT

Having complete control over the lighting in your portrait session can certainly be comforting. However, some of the most evocative and interesting lighting scenarios occur outside of the studio.

The sun itself is powerful and accessible, and when used correctly, creates stellar results. However, the artificial lights of neon signs and street lamps can be equally compelling.

While not exactly ‘natural’, they still present a challenge in that they can’t be managed or manipulated directly in the same way as a studio light. Instead adjusting the light to compliment their model, photographers  must instead adjust their model to compliment the light.

When using natural light, it’s important to take into consideration the weather and the time of day in which you’re working. While there isn’t a best or worst condition to shoot in, these factors seriously impact the look of a photograph.

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As the day goes on, the sun changes positions, shining light and casting shadows at different angles (tip: use Suncalc to find out the sun position, sunrise and sunset).

Likewise, clouds and other environmental conditions determine the amount of diffusion present in the light. For instance, a clear day is going to provide clear, crisp highlights and shadows. An overcast day, on the other hand, will scatter light beams and essentially act as a massive softbox.

WHICH LIGHT IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

The answer is simple; different types of light are best for different scenarios. But just because there isn’t a best singular setup doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider portrait photography lighting carefully.

No matter how you slice it, an exaggerated butterfly light evokes very different thoughts and feelings than the flat sunlight that pours through a window on a cloudy day.For this reason, light should be more than an afterthought.

The key to nailing lighting, more so than anything else, is to identify what it is that you’d like to communicate through your images. From there, photographers should adjust highlights and shadows accordingly to convey that message.

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