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Archive 2013 · Portrait lighting insight
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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Portrait lighting insight

Take a gander at:


Notice how the position and character of the light and position of the subject's face can radically change the shape and perception of the subject. (View it again, pausing frequently to explore the variations.)

Apr 16, 2013 at 11:37 PM
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Portrait lighting insight

Part of the craft of portraiture is doing that.

Most people don't have naturally symmetrical faces which is obvious in a full face pose with a centered lighting pattern. But if you put the key light on the narrower side of the face at a 45 angle it creates an optical illusion that the face is more balanced because the brain of the viewer focuses more on the more highlighted narrow side. You can modulate the apparent balance with the lighting ratio. The darker the shaded side gets the more dominant the narrower highlighted side appears.

Facial angle has the same effect. If a face isn't symmetrical a way to hide that fact is pose the face obliquely with "short" lighting 45 from the nose. The combination of asymmetrical camera angle and opposite asymmetrical lighting angle highlights only the front "mask" of the face making it appear symmetrical with a similar perceptual illusion.

I learned how to analyze faces before shooting from my mentor Monte Zucker who was a master at it. It's actually pretty simple once you train your eye to spot asymmetry. First look at the face full, straight at the nose and note both sides look the same, the ears look similar, etc. Then look at both oblique views and both profiles.

By comparison of those five "prime" angles you'll see if the subject has a symmetrical face with narrow cranium that will not look as flat and oval as a dinner platter full face. If the face isn't symmetrical and you must do a full face business portrait you'll know which side to put the key light on, or which of the two oblique views -- which will look slightly different if face isn't symmetrical -- is the more flattering.

The clues about 3D shape are created with the direction of the light. Natural light usually comes from 45 of higher during the day so when key light gets much below 45 it will not create "normal" 3D shape clues. When the key light gets above 45 the brows may start to shade the eyes. Those factors can be used creatively to depict a face "normally" or not.

One of the more important aspects of mood in lighting is the control of the fill. The common denominator with lighting ratios is the fill (2:1, 3:1, 4:1... 8:1) due to the way the convention was created but the actual constant in the is the highlights which are exposed the same. It's the change in the tone of the shadow tone controlled by the fill with studio lighting which triggers the difference in emotional reaction.

Since the shape clues come from the highlight / shadow pattern created with the direction of the light what the tone of the shadows tell the viewer is the context of environment the person is in.

A 3:1 ratio where key is 1 stop above fill (1Key +1Fill : 1 Fill) seem rather unremarkably "normal". It's what I use for candid shots with dual flash and male and business female portraits.

A 2:1 is a bit lighter than typical lighting can can be used to denote a safe happy environment. It's what I'll use for young kids, and portraits of women and older subjects (lighter shadows hide wrinkles).

Ratios darker than 3:1 can be used imply the subject is somewhere other than "normal" average lit environment to create a sense of mystery, danger, etc. in a shot even when no context about the environment is seen. Seeing the dark moody lighting in a head shot on plain background the viewer will grasp the context by inference.

What makes a portrait work well or not is when the lighting and expression clues are in context with each other, e.g., a smiling face with a dark 4:1 lighting ratio sent opposite messages; happy with the expression, sad or mad with the lighting ratio.. I've seen a lot of guys with new lights do that with the wife with a Rembrandt pattern (face mostly hidden in very dark shadows) because it sounds 'artistic' but making her look like a grumpy old man. Not the most flattering strategy or one likely to convince her the lights were a good "investment".

Edited on Apr 18, 2013 at 10:48 AM · View previous versions

Apr 18, 2013 at 12:20 AM
Alex de Groot

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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Portrait lighting insight

@cgardner: Thanks for your always helpful comments ! Ever thought about writing a book? I would definitely buy it

Apr 18, 2013 at 08:47 AM

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