Keys to a Good Portrait (Part 2)

May 19, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Last time we talked about natural light portraits. You can review that post here.

In this post we are going to continue discussing lighting by, first talking about artificial light.

In absence of natural light you must provide your own artificial light. I could write volumes about lighting your subject, but let’s talk about the basics. There are three principles of light that you should consider for any scene, particularly portraits. First is the direction of light. This was introduced last time when we discussed natural light. As you probably know, the direction of light has a direct impact on the mood of the image. We will expand on that here as we discuss artificial light and talk about the effect of putting the light in different areas around the subject.

Putting the light behind the subject is called “Backlighting”. The effect of this will tend to put a halo around the subject with the front of the subject being dark because no light is falling on it. You may want this direction of light to get a silhouetted subject, or you may light the front of the subject as well and use the backlight for accent.

Backlighting added an accent or "glow" around the hair

Side lighting tends to show a more dramatic look and it also brings out texture. Lighting the subject at 90 degrees can be very powerful, however most side lighting tends to be more of 70 to 80 degrees to add a little light in the front. All subjective, but the idea is to light one side and let the other side go into shadows. The degree of shadows depends on how far to the side you have the light. Side lighting can also be used to add additional drama to another technique. In the image below I added side light to give the image some more punch. In this case it didn’t add a lot of drama, but it did add a different look.

Side lighting added punch to the image

Front lighting tends to have very little or no shadows. This is called “flat lighting” and what you will get when the flash is on your camera. Since there are minimal shadows you lose the ability to show depth, making your image appear to be two dimensional. This is why most photographers want you to take your flash off of the camera. However, there is a time where flat lighting is exactly what you want. Makeup manufacturers spend a lot of time getting great makeup to look just right. If you were shooting for an advertisement for makeup the agency would want you to show every bit of the face possible to promote the wonderful product. To do this, their photographers shoot very flat images. As a photographer yourself you may want to have your image emulate this look. I do it all the time. However, as a rule, flat lighting should probably be avoided for shooting portraits of individuals.

Flat lighting sometimes works well

The only other time you should shoot with flat lighting, as a rule, is when you shoot groups of 3 or more. This is because any kind of side lighting will cast shadows from some members on other members of the group. You have probably seen this when you have shot groups, or seen them shot, where the light is coming from the side. Right? This could be families, or friends, or sports teams. You see it all the time in snap shots. Flat lighting will avoid this problem.

One of the most used methods of lighting for portraiture is what is called “45/45”. This puts the light at a 45-degree angle from the camera and high enough to point 45-degrees down at the subject. With this you get a nice inverted triangle below the eye opposite of the light. This is called “Rembrandt Lighting” after the famous artist that showcased it in all of his portrait paintings. This lighting also gives you a nice catch light at 2:00 if the light is on the left side of the camera and at 10:00 if the light is on the right side. If the catch light is not in the right place the inverted triangle will not be correct. This lighting method is not a must, but is fairly easy and always gives you a very nicely lit portrait. In the image below notice the Rembrandt triangle under the left eye and the catch lights at 2:00.

45/45 Lighting

All of these lighting methods I have described have assumed a single light. Adding more lights to these basic lighting techniques can refine the lighting even more and help you attain your vision. We’ll talk about adding lights later, but for now we will concentrate on single light setups and move on to other elements of the basics on good portraits.

The second principle of light is the quality of light. This refers to the softness, or how gradual the light goes from highlights to shadows. You usually want softer light for the romantic or creamy type image. It goes especially well with females looking for the beautiful magazine fashion look. Harder light is usually used to show more drama or texture in the image. I typically don’t use hard light for my family and female senior portraits, although I do use it for some of my male seniors and athletic posters.

There are two things to think about when creating hard or soft light. The first thing is the size of the light source in relation to the subject. Bigger light sources in relation to the subject will be softer than smaller sources. To test this take an ordinary flash light and shine it close a subject. Notice how the light looks relative to the highlights and shadows. Then slowly move it farther away and see how the gradation from highlight to shadow becomes much sharper. Moving the light source away from the subject makes it a smaller source and creates the sharper light. This tells us that if we want to soften the light we need to move our light source closer to our subject. Of course, when you do that you will also have to adjust the intensity of the light.

The second concept regarding light quality is that you can soften light by diffusing it. There are multiple ways to diffuse light. Bouncing light off of an object is one way. This could be a wall, a floor, or a reflector (including an umbrella). As the light hits these and bounces it spreads in all directions creating a nice soft effect. The other way to diffuse light is to shoot through a diffusion material. Soft boxes, shoot through umbrellas, Octa boxes, and other modifiers are examples of this.

Soft Diffused Light

So to summarize, when you want to soften the light you can choose a bigger light source, or move the light closer to the subject, or bounce the light, or diffuse the light by shooting through a diffusion material. You can also use a combination of these to make the light even softer.

Finally, the third concept of lighting that is important is the color of light. Yes, we are talking about white balance. This is more important in shooting portraits than with landscapes because of the color of skin. Nothing looks worse than the portrait of a beautiful woman with green skin. It’s extremely important to get the skin tones right. My advice is not to shoot portraits with the camera set to Auto White Balance. This is especially important if you want to display a series of photos in the same setting, like a photo array or collage. The white balance in this case may not be the same in each image and the skin tones will show it. Instead, shoot a gray card if you can. Set your white balance on the camera to a preset like “Sunny” or “Cloudy” and keep it there. In postproduction, use the gray card to correct your white balance on all of the images in the series. If you don’t have a gray card image to use in postproduction, you can adjust the white balance in one image the way you like and then set the others to the same white balance so they are consistent. This will be easier if they all have the same white balance to begin with and is the reason for using a preset instead of Auto White Balance. Take the time to get the white balance right. You’ll thank me for it later.

If you are not shooting an array of images and you don’t have a gray card you should still color correct your images, if you want the skin tones to reflect reality. You can do this in post processing by selecting the White Balance Correction tool (in either Lightroom or Camera Raw, or whatever) and selecting a neutral color in the image. Neutral colors are any black to white tones that are suppose to be void of any color. If the white balance is incorrect these tones will have a little tint of color that needs to be removed. Using the White Balance tool and clicking on these areas will remove that tint. Color toning your images is always an option and you won’t have to worry as much about white balance, but even if you color tone them it’s always best to start with an image with corrected white balance.

Suggested Practices:

Take an object and place it on your dining table (or any place convenient). Place a flash light in each location (back lighting, side lighting, front lighting, and 45/45) to see the effect of the light. This should help you see how each different lighting location has a different effect on the subject.

Now get a volunteer to sit in a chair. If you have off camera flash use it to light your subject in each location (back light, side light, front light, and 45/45) and take a picture of each. If you do not have off camera flash use a flashlight or any kind of constant light that you can fix on a stand or table. Be careful with the your back light not to have it visible to the camera or you will have flare. You may want to place it a little low to avoid this. Also, take extra care with the 45/45 lighting and adjust it until you get the inverted triangle under the eye opposite the light and the catch lights in the proper position. This will help you understand exactly where the light should be to get that look.

Next, get a piece of cardboard (letter size or bigger) and tape or paste a piece of white paper on it to create a bounce card. Clip your bounce card on a stand or lean it against something. Now place your light source (flash or constant light source) in front of the bounce card and try to bounce the light on the subject. This will help you see the diffused light, but it will also help you see how to angle the bounce card to get the light to fall on the subject. When you get it bouncing the way you want take a picture. Compare this with the pictures you took in the previous exercise. You should see a huge difference in the quality of light.

Choose a subject that has a neutral tone in it. It doesn’t have to be totally neutral, but just have somewhere on it that you can take a sample from. Put your camera in Auto White Balance and shoot a picture. Now change your setting from Auto White Balance to Flash. Now shoot another picture of your subject but with flash this time. Take both images into LR or PS, or whatever your post processor is. Open the first image and place your cursor over the neutral tone in the image. If you are in LR you need to click on the Develop tab. With your cursor on the neutral tone look under the Histogram at the RGB values. If the White Balance is correct each of these values should be the same. Now open the second image and look at the values. Notice how the values of the same neutral tone in each of the images are different, but neither is absolutely correct. This is because Auto White balance uses algorithms based on the color and luminance of the scene to determine the white balance to apply, where setting the white balance to a preset of Flash applies a specific white balance of 5,400 to 5,500 degrees Kelvin.

Next Time

In our next segment we will discuss posing and depth of field.

Bob Woodfin
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