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Photography Portrait Lighting Basics


Classic Lighting Portrait Lighting Techniques

The generally accepted and expected lighting for portraits have been established even before photography came along. We can learn to use these standard portrait lighting guidelines as a kick-off point to try out more creative portrait lighting arrangements that set you apart from other photographers.

Light Positioning

The positioning of your key (main) light corresponds directly with the face position of your subject. The camera position will not have any influence to the lighting pattern, even if you move the camera around, the way the light lands on the subject’s face remains constant. If the subject moves and we wish to retain the same lighting pattern on the subject’s face, the light has to move in relation to the face as well.

Short Lighting

In short lighting, the camera’s position sees the shadow side of the face first as it gradually gets brighter to the illuminated side.

Short Lighting Portrait Light Diagram

This lighting pattern is very popular due to the slimming effect it tends to create on most faces. Unless the subject’s face is very long and narrow, short lighting can almost always enhance the shape of the subject.

Broad Lighting

Broad lighting is exactly the opposite of short lighting where the camera sees the lit portion of the face before gradually fading to the shadows at the back. Broad lighting highlights the face directly to the viewer and often portrays a brighter and cheery disposition than a mysterious short-lit portrait.

Broad Lighting Portrait Light Diagram

This lighting pattern works very well with subjects with narrow or long faces or those who wish to hide facial imperfections such as wrinkles as shadow detail can be minimized.

Split Light

The split light ‘halfs’ the subject’s face right in the middle where the nose bridge and forehead vertical lie. The split light is a very dramatic and striking light pattern best suited for male subjects. It is one of the best lighting pattern for featuring detailed facial features such as beards, wrinkles, etc.

split_light

You can achieve the split light pattern by positioning the light 90-degrees to the side of the subject.

Light Height

The height of your light directly affects the angle of your shadows that fall on your subjects’ face. As you change the height of your main light, features such as cheekbones, nose length, eye socket depth, catch lights in the eyes, all change dramatically.

If you position the light near the same height of your subject’s head, the lighting becomes flatter and the shadows appear more linear (left-right/up-down). As you move the light to in-between angles, you can instantly see each angular feature of the face getting more defined and depth is created by the shadows.

Subject Positioning in Available Light Situations

The light positioning mentioned above applies whether you’re using a movable light source such as a table lamp or studio flash, or natural daylight. The key difference between using the artificial movable light vs. natural sunlight would be the latter requires you to move the subject in relation to the fixed light as opposed to moving the light source around the subject.

If you’ve noticed, most light patterns will have the light height at least on the same level as your subject as the sun will rarely be below your feet level. In most cases, your main light will always be higher than your subject.

In our next article, we’ll finish off by discussing the classic lighting styles most used for portrait photography. Stay tuned!

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