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
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 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.

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