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Archive 2012 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces
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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

I recently came across this excerpt from a Bill Hurter book that is a good summary of basic portrait lighting strategies I thought might others. Hurter is the editor of Rangefinder magazine and the author of many books at Amherst media. I've read many of them — found at my local library — and bought a couple of them.


What I found interesting in Hurter's approach was starting from the baseline of a centered key light strategy then progressively moving the light sideways and seeing how it changes the rendering of the face. That's a very good exercise for a beginner to duplicate to understand the cause and effect of light angle vs. lighting patterns, where the nose shadow falls as a "tell tale", whether or not there is light in both eyes or not, and how those factors affect how flattering and realistically 3D the pattern makes a face look.

Curiously absent from Hurter's example is "short" lighting, which in there he refers to as "profile" lighting where the key light is 90° from the camera and 45° from the nose. One of the characteristics of placing the key light 45° from the nose and 45° higher is that it causes the nose shadow to fall along the base of the nose and over the top of the nostril.


But if you set up that pattern on the face and move the camera around the face you also get flattering oblique and full face views because that 45°/45° relationship of light to face is very natural and is our perceptual baseline for how we expect faces to look. Here's light at 45° / 45° relative to the spot between the eyes seen from different camera positions


What would you call these patterns?

What prompted me to find this site was a debate regarding whether or not you need to see a dark shadow hanging down off a nose in a centered lighting strategy to call it a "butterfly" pattern, which is how I refer to a strategy with the nose pointed directly at an overhead key light. I note that Hurter refers to the centered, symmetrical strategy as "butterfly / glamour / paramount" inter-changably, which has always been my understanding. Also note that with respect to the hard shadows in the examples that he mentions that direct sources were used for the examples and that the appearance will differ with regards to sharpness of the shadows if more contemporary modification techniques like softboxes are used. Thus a "butterfly / glamour / paramount" done with a diffuse source and a low lighting ratio where fill = key would produce a shadow but not one that would be noticed much.

This raises an interesting question. When does the nose shadow created by the various lighting pattern work to model the 3D shape of the face and when it become an unwanted distraction?

My goals when lighting a face are to make the nose shadow as light and non-distracting as possible because a dark nose shadow distracts from the more important eyes and mouth I'd rather have the viewer looking at and thinking about. If the nose in the photo causes any conscious reaction, it's usually a negative one such as drawing attention to the fact it is large or crooked.

Given the shape of human faces with recessed eyes with a sundial-like nose between them getting light in the eyes results in a nose shadow falling somewhere. One of the reasons I find placing the key light 45° above and 45° to the side of the spot between the eyes where the nose shadow originates is because at that angle the nose shadow, on most noses, will fall along the side of the nose where it meets the cheek with the tip shadow falling over the top of the nostril. In that way the shadow models the real shape of the nose accurately without hanging out sideways or down becoming a distraction or creating a shadow what is a different shape than the nose.

The centered key light strategy, what Hurter calls "butterfly / glamour / paramount" cast the shadow downward. Depending on the vertical angle of the the light, the shape of the nose, the height of the camera relative to the nose and the amount of diffusion of key and fill source the that shadow may be seen, or not. When I use a centered "butterfly / glamour / paramount" pattern I prefer not to see the shadow cast by the nose at all if possible so I adjust the lighting angle/diffusion and camera's view of the nose so as not to see it. Why? Because with that pattern the shadow is a distraction not something which helps to model the natural 3D shape of the face.

The "Loop" pattern is a variation on "butterfly / glamour / paramount" where the key light is moved slightly off center, which causes the nose shadow to hang down over the lip in a loop shape. Compared to the alternatives of "butterfly / glamour / paramount" or the 45°/45° "short" key light placement where the nose shadow falls exactly over the nose I don't find the "loop" strategy as flattering and don't use it personally.

On a dark background a "short" lighting pattern on an oblique view will make the far side if the face brighter because it winds up a bit closer to the key light placed 45° from the nose. But when that pattern is used on a white background the brighter far side of the face will seem to blend into the background rather than contrast and the eye will be attracted towards what contrasts with the background the most — the darker shaded "broad" side of the face which is turned towards the camera.

"Broad" lighting does the opposite of "short" lighting, making the the far profiled side of the face darker than the nearer side. But that's ideal on a white background because it makes the far side contrast more against the background working to pull the viewer over the brighter "broad" side to the darker far side. In terms of eye movement over the face the goal is similar, to pull and hold the viewer on the front of the face by making it contrast the more than the side of the head with the background .

The two common denominators of lighting patterns are that they create contrast that attracts the eye to some parts of the face rather than others. Our brains happen to be wired to be attracted by contrast and will be naturally drawn to the lightest spots on a dark background. On med-dark backgrounds what is key lighted gets will get the most attention. On light backgrounds the dynamic flips and the darker and more colorful parts of the image will pull and hold the viewers attention.

For a subject like a blonde on a white background it will be the color contrast of the skin tone more than tonal difference that attracts the eye. This can be seen by comparing color and B&W versions of the same photo. When the color clues are eliminated just the tonal variation isn't as compelling. With a brunette on a white background the dark hair will attract the eye the most and work to frame the face. Because of that a B&W portrait of a dark haired subject will attract the attention of the viewer differently.

These are perceptual factors which need to be understood and factored into decisions regarding which lighting strategy will be most effective that go beyond the basics in most lighting texts. The best strategy for a blonde in a white dress will differ from that of a brunette, and if either of them show up in a dark dress instead that will also affect the choice of strategies if the goal is to focus the viewer's attention on the front of the subject's face.

The way I do that is to just ask the question, "What strategy will make the front of the face CONTRAST with the background the most?" The second question I ask is how can I place the nose shadow in a way that it models the shape of the nose naturally without becoming an unwanted distraction? That tends to limit the choice of patterns to those which don't have a visible nose shadow hanging down off the nose: diffuse low-ratio "butterfly" where the shadow falls down and isn't noticed and "short" lighting which casts the nose shadow directly over the nose. YMMV.

Mar 30, 2012 at 02:42 PM
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

cgardner wrote:
...What prompted me to find this site was a debate regarding whether or not you need to see a dark shadow hanging down off a nose in a centered lighting strategy to call it a "butterfly" pattern, which is how I refer to a strategy with the nose pointed directly at an overhead key light. I note that Hurter refers to the centered, symmetrical strategy as "butterfly / glamour / paramount" inter-changably, which has always been my understanding. Also note that with respect to the hard shadows in the examples that he mentions that direct sources were used for
...Show more

I think you need to read the linked article more closely. He says quite clearly that the look of the shadow is characteristic of the pattern.

For example:

"Paramount lighting, sometimes called butterfly lighting or glamour lighting, is a traditionally feminine lighting pattern that produces a symmetrical, butterfly-like shadow beneath the subject’s nose. ...Key Light. For this lighting setup, the key light is placed high and directly in front of the subject’s face, parallel to the vertical line of the subject’s nose (see diagram above). Since the light must be high and close to the subject to produce the desired butterfly shadow, it should not be used on women with deep eye sockets, or no light will illuminate the eyes."


"Loop lighting is a minor variation of Paramount lighting. This is one of the more commonly used lighting setups and is ideal for people with average, oval-shaped faces. ...Key Light. To create this setup, the key light is lowered and moved more to the side of the subject so that the shadow under the nose becomes a small loop on the shadow side of the face."

He also shows a shot with two people under the same light, and notes that because their faces are turned differently they are technically "lit" differently, even though they're under the same light.

"You can see the Paramount lighting pattern on the man produced a small butterfly-like shadow under the nose. The woman’s face, because her head was turned slightly toward the light, has more of a loop lighting pattern."

It's the shadows the define these traditional lighting patterns, and without them they're something else.

"A characteristic of the Hollywood style was the weak fill light, which enhanced not only the lighting contrast, but the dramatic nature of the lighting."

Mar 30, 2012 at 07:33 PM
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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

Lighting patterns consist of highlights and shadows.

The angle of the light casts the shadow.

How dark the shadow looks is a function of the lighting ratio and will be very light and barely noticed when key and fill are equal incident intensity.

How distinct the shadows are is a function of how collimated the light source is.

If a direct flash centered on nose with a 4:1 ratio creates a dark distinct nose shadow and you keep the lights in the same positions but change the ratio to 2:1 and put soft boxes on the lights to soften the transitions does that change the pattern from butterfly to something else? I don't think so.

Mar 30, 2012 at 10:20 PM
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p.1 #4 · p.1 #4 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

cgardner wrote:
...If a direct flash centered on nose with a 4:1 ratio creates a dark distinct nose shadow and you keep the lights in the same positions but change the ratio to 2:1 and put soft boxes on the lights to soften the transitions does that change the pattern from butterfly to something else? I don't think so.

That's the crux of the matter, isn't it. You think the term "butterfly pattern" defines the light placement, whereas I say that with these traditional forms, the term comes from the shadow shape...in other words, the pattern defines the pattern.

Just using a smaller highlight:shadow ratio wouldn't change the pattern; nor would using a softbox, if its relative size was such that there was still a visible shadow. But low ratio and a large softbox used so that the shadow was eliminated completely? That's a different matter.

If there's no butterfly visible, how can it be "butterfly lighting"? If there's no loop visible, how can it be "loop lighting"?

The most important point to me, of course, is that your opening post didn't mention how this debate started: you said in the other thread that lighting a subject using the sun behind the subject and with open sky as fill was an example of "butterfly pattern" lighting. I challenged you to show me an example of a butterfly lit portrait shot that way.

Well? Can you do that? If you were to ask a random sample of photographers to look at such a portrait and tell you what the lighting pattern was, do you think any would say "butterfly pattern"?

I can say with confidence that I think none would.

Mar 31, 2012 at 12:44 AM
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p.1 #5 · p.1 #5 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

You conveniently avoid addressing the fact that even when the light sources are diffuse and shadows indistinct the highlight patten remains the same.

Without highlights there is no pattern. When lights are diffused in a centered pattern the nose will still cast a shadow to some degree where the nose is blocking the key light, but not one that will be a noticeable distraction on the upper lip, which I regard as a good thing. YMMV

Mar 31, 2012 at 01:59 AM
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p.1 #6 · p.1 #6 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

cgardner wrote:
You conveniently avoid addressing the fact that even when the light sources are diffuse and shadows indistinct the highlight patten remains the same.

But with butterfly lighting, it is the shadow, not the highlight, that gives the pattern its name. Talk about avoiding the facts!

cgardner wrote:
When lights are diffused in a centered pattern the nose will still cast a shadow to some degree where the nose is blocking the key light, but not one that will be a noticeable distraction on the upper lip, which I regard as a good thing. YMMV

Yes, my mileage definitely varies. If I'm looking for the kind of mood that butterfly lighting conveys, the shadow on the lip is no more a distraction than is the triangular highlight on the cheek when doing Rembrandt lighting; it is, in fact, the defining characteristic of that pattern.

When I don't want that kind of look, there are other lighting strategies I can use. Once size does not fit all, and having more than one tool in one's repertoire is one mark of professionalism.

Mar 31, 2012 at 02:24 AM

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p.1 #7 · p.1 #7 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

When lighting a face in a conventional portrait my goal is to flatter the subject. I don't as a rule find dark distracting shadows anywhere on the face or eyes half hidden in shadows to be flattering with regard to rendering a person as they might look ideally if you met them on the street or an office in flattering light.

The biggest variable in portraiture is the 3D shape of the subject's head. Monte Zucker, who I learned from, was a master at looking at a person's face and in a split second noticing all the imperfections which would make them look less flattering in a portrait. That informs you which facial angle / lighting patterns to avoid.

I learned to look at a face full, which reveals immediately whether or not it is naturally symmetrical. If not you'd want to avoid shooting them full face with a centered, symmetrical pattern (CS pattern). One of the more interesting optical illusions created by lighting patterns is that the highlighted side of a face on a darker background will seem larger than it actually is. That's due in part to the fact that on a dark background the brain will focus more on the highlighted parts of the face and mentally tune out the darker shaded ones. So if I see a person's face is wider on one side than the other when viewing it full face I know from experience that if use a CS pattern that will become obvious, but if I instead put the light at 45° to the side on the narrower side if the face in the full face view (FF_NS45° pattern - full face_narrow-side 45° key light relative to nose) the net effect of the symmetrical camera view and asymmetrical narrow-side highlighting will make the face seem better balanced in the photographic rendering than either a CS pattern or a FF_WS45° key light placement would.

Having done C&C on thousands of portraits it's obvious from the results I see that many photographers aren't aware of this cause and effect, or in many cases that their subject's face is asymmetrical. If you don't see the problem, correcting it becomes a hit or miss, trail and error process. If you try all three strategies, centered key light, key light on right at 45°, and key light at 45° to the left on a subject you will, by trial and error find which is the more flattering. When you learn from that experience how the asymmetry of the face predicts the outcome from those three basic strategies you will be able, like I am, to look at face when meeting a person and know where to set the key light (centered, right, left) to get the more flattering results for a full face pose, and which direction to turn the face in an oblique pose with the key light placed 45° to the highlighted side of the face with the camera shooting into the shadows.

A factor in the relative size illusion in asymmetrical (key light to the side) lighting patterns is the ratio of key vs. fill. Shadow tone is a function of fill intensity. The fill is under the highlights. If you where to set your lights by turning on and adjusting fill first you'd set the f/stop you wanted to shoot at, then adjust the fill light strength until the shadows were as light as you wanted them the be in the final result. If the reader were to actually try this some time they would notice how the fill, placed at chin level under the lens of the camera, models the face. Not sideways, front-to-back. The gradient you see from cheek-to-ear is caused in large part by the directional fall off of the fill front>back. If instead placed to the side aimed at the ear the gradient will be reversed and become back>front. Both work, they just produce different modeling of the face with the fill.

Natural skylight has two components due to the way the sun bounces off the sky and the ground surrounding a subject. The downward component will usually be brighter, which is evidence by shaded eye sockets seen in open shade. That's the "key" component modeling the face. You won't see any distinct shadows because the "fill" component from all the other directions is nearly as strong. But if you want the eyes in your portraits as bright as the cheeks if you see the eyes are shaded the first step is to have the subject raise their face so the "key" vector of the skylight reaches the eyes.

Natural light bouncing from the sky is so far way in terms of apparent source that here is no little visible fall-off front-to-back unless something is blocking the light from the sides. So the lighting you get on a face standing in the shadow 40' in front of the north side of a building will be different than the lighting you'd get on the front porch, doorway, or inside by a north facing window. The "key" light angle will be the same but the amount of side fill will be less. That's what is known as "subtractive" lighting.

If you were to shoot the person standing out in the open shade 40' from the building with nothing blocking the side fill there would be a pattern created by the downward direction of the skylight. By aiming the subject's nose at that brightest part of the sky you can get a variety of lighting patterns just when moving a face around under a fixed artificial source. But the lighting ratio will be very low.

What happens if tilt the face up into the light to get it into the eyes at a 45° angle then add flash so it also hits at a 45° angle as the brighter part of the skylight? SInce the modeling vector is the same the flash will create the same geometric pattern on the face. What the pattern will look like will depend on how the face was being modeled by the natural light, but it's character will be different because: 1) the flash source is smaller and will create more distinct shadows, and 2) the flash being much closer to the face than the sky will fall off much more rapidly.

For example when shooting a full face pose with a single speedlight on a bracket I will first note how the natural light is hitting the face, turning the face so the nose is pointing towards the brightest part of the sky. At mid-day where I live that means point the nose north because the sky is brightest opposite the sun high in the southern sky, then get the subject looking up. Seems perfectly logical to me to use the natural light to model the face in a flattering way by getting it into the eyes with CS_pattern BEFORE adding the flash.

No, you won't seen a dark shadow hanging down from the nose, in part because with the light at a 45° angle relative to the nose the nose, which projects from the face as about the same angle, winds up parallel to the key light's angle //. The flat front of the face and cheeks are modeled at 45° relative to the key light, but the ridge of the nose? That's at the same angle so unless the tip hangs down below the base the key light angle will not create a long downward shadow. A slightly upturned nose may not create any shadow at all.

What happens when flash is added AT THE SAME 45° RELATIVE TO THE EYELINE is that it will fall off more rapidly front>back than the skylight. The fall off of the flash creates greater contrast in the lighting pattern because when exposure is adjusted to keep the highlights correctly exposed it makes the sky lit shadow areas darker in the recorded image. Also because the size of the flash source is smaller than the diffuse skylight it will create more distinct and specular highlights which will make the lighting seem "harder" perceptually and change the perception of 3D shape from being more rounded in the flat skylight alone, to being more dimensional. Adding flash to an open shade shot will enhance the 3D modeling the lighting creates. Whether or not that 3D modeling flatters the face in front of the camera depends on how the face is turned into the combined sky and flash modeling vectors hitting the face at the same angle, small source in front of larger one.

Using a single flash to enhance the 3D modeling via highlights can create a new problem of shadows which are too dark and harsh looking. If the flash is hitting at a 45° downward angle relative to the eyeline there will be places it does not reach. The difference between using centered flash in open shade vs moving it to the side is that when centered the raised flash on a bracket hits 90% of everything that is seen in the foreground. The 10% that is seen shaded has dark sky-only filled shadows, but they aren't noticed much. The same is true for single flash shots taken with a bracket indoors. The perceptual cause and effect is the same — making the lighting more flattering by hiding the distracting shadows.

But when a single flash is moved off to the side and more of the face winds up in shadow the fact that shadows are darker than seems "normal" will be noticed and seen as a defect. The solution to that problem? Add more fill.

One of the differences between a raised 45°V flash assisted shot in open shade vs. the same shot taken in backlight is that the sun hitting the area surrounding the subject bounces much more fill. The environment becomes a variable. If you are shooting a backlit subject on a parking lot you will get less bounced fill than when you shoot at the beach or on a concrete sidewalk. At the beach or sidewalk you may get too much bounced up-fill. On grass the bounced fill will take on a greenish cast creating a new mixed color temp problem.

The point being that when shooting outdoors you need to have situational awareness of the direction and character of the natural light and then use that to guide the placement of any artificial lighting or reflectors you decide to use. If you like dark shadows hanging off noses and where shooting a portrait outdoors in open shade you'd need to know how to create that dark visible shadow by adding flash because you won't see it with natural light.

To me it is really irrelevant what a pattern is called. What matters most to me is:

1) There light in the eyes and on/in the mouth?

2) The nose shadow is not creating a distraction from eyes and mouth.

Keeping the key light at a vertical angle of about 45° —regardless of whether it is natural, artificial, or a combination of both — and using chin level centered fill to control the tone of the shadows and create front>back shadow gradient on the face accomplishes both. Dark nose shadow hanging off the nose aren't flattering so I avoid key light placements that cause it. When using a centered key light I try to angle the nose to the light so it reaches the eyes and the nose casts no shadow at all, or one that is hidden from view below the nose by keeping the camera above the nostrils. When using my key light to the side I position it so the nose shadow fall over the nose rather than hanging out (not possible with all noses, the goal I try to achieve). My centered fill strategy is based in part on physics — the closest thing to the fill will have the lightest shadow on it. Centered fill makes the nose the closest thing to it, so the nose has the lightest and least distracting shadow on the face.

My decisions are also based on the look I want, I just don't like dark distracting nose shadows in my portrait lighting.

Mar 31, 2012 at 02:25 PM
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p.1 #8 · p.1 #8 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

Most people aren't afraid of shadows on the face. Monte Zucker was trying to sell pictures to people who would return prints with shadows on the face. It makes sense the he would try to avoid dark shadows from the nose, but most of us are not selling prints to customers, or have a recognizable style that customers appreciate.

Contrary to what you like, not everyone needs or wants to eliminate all shadows from the face. Besides that, only ever seeing 45 over and 45 up is incredibly boring. No one wants to take the exact same picture for 40 years. It's how you become hidebound to a technique.

Mar 31, 2012 at 02:36 PM
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p.1 #9 · p.1 #9 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces


With all due respect (not that much is due) you have no clue about Zucker or his clients. Back when I worked for him 100% of his formal portraits where illuminated by a north facing window on medium- and dark-toned backgrounds with fill from a relatively small silver Reflectasol square reflector, which allowed the fill to be feathered selectively. The result was similar to the look of "Old Master" oil paintings because the same lighting was being used. Based on appearances compared to flash-set numerical metered ratios the lighting on the faces was typically 3:1 to 4:1 - average to slightly darker than average.

It is quite difficult to achieve lighter 2:1 ratios with window lighting because a 2:1 reflected ratio requires equal incident key and fill lights (1Key+1Fill : 1 Fill incident = 2:1 reflected ratio). Window lighitng also limits lighting options. If one's goal is to highlight and draw attention to the front of the subject's face with a "mask" pattern of highlights then the geometry of a human face dictates that the face must be turned so the nose is pointing at about a 45° angle to the window so the light reaches both sides of the face but not the side. The vertical angle of the light needs to be 45° to get it past the brows of most faces. When the light gets much below 45° it begins to look unnaturally "flat" in terms of 3D modeling clues.

The 45°/45° baseline is just a starting baseline dicated by the shape of the face and the goals of getting light in both eyes and placing the nose shadow over the nose without it hanging out and becoming a distraction. A 0° (centered) / 45° (downward) strategy accomplishes the same goals by virtue of not creating a nose shadow that is seen much. As with sideways key light placement the angle the light winds up at varies with the shape of the face.

For many faces if you set a direct centered key light which creates the characteristic "butterfly" shadow under the nose the angle of the light will be so high relative to the face that the eye sockets will find up shaded. Move the light angle down to the point where the brow isn't shading the eyes and the shadow under the nose move upward. Raise the camera posiition to the point where the camera isn't looking at the bottom of the nose and the shadow is hidden from view.

So whether or not the source is direct creating a butterfly like a hand-puppet in a spotlight, or diffuse as northern skylight if the face is angled to the light to get it past the brow and into the eyes and the camera is looking at the top of the nostrils seeing this - v - instead of this o|o more than likely the shadow the nose is casting, be it distinct and dark or fuzzy and light, will not be seen.

What got me thinking about conventional patterns and shadow clues was watching TV newscasts and observing how the face on the sets are lit. Conventions are formed by what seems "normal". Back in the 14th century when painters started to explore lighitng gradients to model 3D shape — where most of the lighting pattern conventions originated — the norm were the patterns seen in natural light. What is different about TV set lighting is that it manges to model the shape of the faces without any of the shadow clues seen in the conventional patterns.

It occured to me if a 45°/45° natural lighting pattern was put on a face as with my snow head illustration and the only variable changed was the the lighting ratio from light shadowed 2:1 to 6:1 is really doesn't change perception of the physical 3D shape of the face much. It does to some degree, but what the darker shadows also tell the viewer is the enviroment the person is in.

The brain makes comparsions to a "normal" baseline. The contrast you percieve when looking at a face in natural light is the baseline the brain will use when looking at a photo of a person and deciding if the lighting ratio seems normal or not.

What makes this complicated is that "normal" is a moving target. What looks normal at mid-day is different than what looks normal an hour before sunset. The brain knows from memory what faces look like at both times of day, or for that matter at night under moonlight or the corner streetlight.

If you were to show the set of portraits on a plain middle gray seamless background to subjects with the same pose, expression, etc. but lighting ratios set via meter from 2:1 to 6:1 and ask them which looks more "normal" the majority would likely pick the 3:1 ratio. But if you did the same test and changed the background to white or black the answers would likely differ because the perception of the lighting ratio on faces is influnced by the background context.

Whereas a 3:1 numerically metered ratio seems normal to the point of not really taking note of it one way or the other on an average toned background it the shadows will seem darker and "heavier" on white by comparison and lighter and overfilled by comparison with a dark one. It has nothing to do with the physics of light or the pattern, and everything to do with the psychology of human vision and how it translates lighting clues into an impression of the lighting clues seeming "normal" or not give the overall background/foreground context in the photo. I find that on white background the shadow tones on faces created with a 2:1 metered ratio looks more normal compared to what I see under the lights with my eyes and expect the faces to look light in the context of a brightly lit space. On med-dark backgrounds a 3:1 ratio seems more "normal".

The 45° downward angle of light seems normal of the context of the photo makes the viewer expect mid-day or average indoor lighting which typically looks similar (but will usually shade the eyes to some degree if the lighting fixtures are on the ceiling).

When lighting ratios get darker than 3:1 it tells the viewer the enviroment is darker than average for some reason. From that the mood a person can be inferred to be more reclusive, reserved, thoughtful.

When the key light angle dips below 45° the lighting, compared to the natural baseline, looks more like morning or afternoon light. If the background clues don't say that it's that time of day it will not seem "normal".

Apr 01, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Mr Kris
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p.1 #10 · p.1 #10 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces


Two questions- 1. How do you personally judge the success of a portrait? 2. How do you personally judge the success of a photographer's body of work?

Apr 02, 2012 at 01:14 AM
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p.1 #11 · p.1 #11 · Basic Portrait Lighting Set-ups and goals in modeling faces

Mr Kris wrote:

Two questions- 1. How do you personally judge the success of a portrait? 2. How do you personally judge the success of a photographer's body of work?

1. What type of portrait is it? What are the goals for that type of portrait? What are the criteria for successfully meeting the goals? Did the execution of the photograph meet them?

Often when critiquing a photo I'll first define what I consider the critiera for the type of portrait being critiqued, then use those criteria that as framework for the critique of whether the execution of the photo met them or not.

Goals and criteria are different for conventional portraits (focus on the face with good light in the eyes and mouth and mininal distractions) versus an environmental portrait where there needs to be a balance between the focal point of the face and the context of the environment, or a character study with dark shadows and diverted shaded eyes used to convey a different message than a "here I am come engage" conventional portrait.

There's no right or wrong way to render a face with angle and light, but the clues need to match the intent if the message. If the subject is looking directly at the camera and smiling but the brow has shaded the eyes and they are dark it's not as effective in my view as the same shot taken from a higher vantage point with the subject looking up with the same expression but brighter, better lit eyes. But if photo shows the subject in a dark corner reading a book or working on something then I wouldn't expect there to be eye contact with the viewer, or the need for light in the eyes. Different goals, different criteria for success.

In my attempts to guide beginners up the learning curve I observed that a problem they have starting out is a lack of clear goals when shooting. They grab a camera and capture what is in front of it without giving much thought to what they think makes a person look happy, sad, sexy, demure, happy to meet you, wishing to be left alone and translating those emotional reactions into conscious actions like making sure there is light in the eyes, nor not, depending on the desired reaction to the face in the photo.

What I suggest as a training exercise is to sit down and make a written list of the criteria they find flattering in photos they look at. That forces a beginner to think about things like how facial angles, whether or not the camera is high enough to hide the nostrils, whether there is light in the eyes, how dark the nose shadow is and whether it falls over the nose perfectly or hang out and distracts. The goal in that exercise is to make the beginner more consciously aware of the clues they've been reacting to sub-consciously all their life. Once there is a conscious understanding of the connection between light in the eyes and the reaction the viewer will have when attempting to make eye contact in the photo they are more likely to not shade eyes unintentionally it a portrait where their goal is to have good eye contact. They might for the first time realize that creating eye contact or not with the viewer is a goal they could consider before raising the camera.

Photographers who relate naturally to people and are sensitive to their body language clues don't need that type of "paint by numbers" coaching. But beginners are often so narrowly focused on the technical aspects like getting the eyes in focus they miss the fact the brow is shading them, especially when using flash in backlight or open shade where the fact the eyes are being shaded from the skylight is difficult to see for the untrained eye. So if I critique a photo were the subject is smiling with their mouth but not their eyes because they are shaded it's an indication to me the photographer isn't naturally perceptive or far enough up the learning curve to know to add "check the eyes to make sure the brow isn't shading them" to their mental checklist.

As with anything new that is learned with practice you don't need the checklist because actions become instinctive with practice. I don't think about whether or not there will be light in the eyes I know when there will be or not and when I want light in the eyes of my subject I just find a higher vantage point (chair, rock, ladder) and tell them to look up at the camera knowing that's what will put light in the eyes and keep the camera / face plane orientation the same as on ground level.

The same it true for posing. I know what postures create aggressive/confrontational/confident, stereotypical "masculine" body language and how the clues for more passive/submissive/insecure, stereotypical "feminine" body language differ. I can create either look in seconds simply by showing a subject how to place their feet and shift their weight. I didn't figure that out all my myself, people much more intuitive and sensitive to body language clues than I am taught me what what clues create those reactions photos. Once consciously aware of the cause and effect of hip, shoulder and eye line angles it was easy to understand how to create the various looks by controlling those body angles with the foot placement and weight shift — a trick devised and taught to my mentor by Joe Zeltsman, a NJ portrait photographer in the 1960s.

If in a photo the intent is for the person to look relaxed and confident but the body language clues are sending the opposite message it's a less effective photo than one in which all the clues are in sync with each other and the environmental context and goals of the photo. I'd pose a female athlete differently depending on whether she is performing the sport or not, and whether the sport is stereotypically feminine and graceful or masculine and tough.

2. I don't generally judge bodies of work because I rarely see complete bodies of work. When critiquing a photo I just comment on what I see in that photograph which might have been done differently. Whether that would produce a result that was more successful is for the person posting the photo to judge for themselves by trying the suggustion and comparing the results with what they got previously.

But I will say that in my experience the best received and understood critiques are those based on a number of portraits of the same subject taken from different facial angles with different lighting. Many photographers starting out just shoot randomly without any regard to things like shooting distance, facial angles and lighting patterns and ratios because they don't consciously understand what clues in photos trigger emotional reaction in the mind of the viewer. By comparing the appearance of the face in one shot they took vs. the other I can help the photographer better understand from their frame of reference of having shot both what they failed to see in one frame that they did in the other and be more consciously aware of those factors next time they shoot. That works much better than critiquing a single photo based on me seeing ways it could be improved without any way to show the what the improved version would look like.

Apr 02, 2012 at 02:30 AM

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