| Home | General Projects | Course Outline | Downloads & Links | Glossary |Students|
Lighting Techniques

Photography is all about light. Literally translated, it means "painting with light". Having the right light can make or break your photos. When people are starting out with photography, they should start out by learning to control the available light (also called ambient light) that they have in the atmosphere to work with. Using flashes and studio lighting can really only be done effectively when you've got a good handle on what shadows do and how they affect your final photo. However, when you're working inside, and because people as subjects tend to move, studio lighting is sometimes necessary in order to get the fast shutter speeds needed for successful portraits.

Every photographer is interested in portrait lighting but most seem not to understand how to do it. The techniques that we are going to discuss can be used with either hot lights or studio strobes. You can use these same concepts with flash units, however you will not be able to see the effect until after you shoot. With practice you will be able to control the harshness of the light as well as being able to de-emphasize problem areas, such as a narrow face or a round face. The wrong lighting will emphasize these features and will not be flattering to your subject.

Natural (Ambient) Lighting or using the available light in the atmosphere produces no harsh shadows on the model's face, and the overall even lighting makes for a nice fashion portrait. On a sunny day having the model in the shade is a big help. If there is no shade to work with use the photographer's greatest friend, the reflector card. A reflector card is used to bounce light that's shining down back up onto a subject to add light to the shadowed areas, making for a much more even overall appearance. A reflector card can be made of any number of things. You can buy them in photo equipment stores, but generally white poster board, a white umbrella or aluminum foil (first crinkled and then stretched) can be used to reflect light back onto my subjects and fill in dark spots. As a side note, aluminum foil can be especially fun if you can find it in gold color. It will cast a very nice, warm light onto your subject.

If it's not a sunny day and you have a high, overcast, cloudy sky, congratulations! You've been blessed with the world's biggest softbox. A softbox is a piece of studio lighting equipment that nobody should be without. As its name suggests, it spreads a diffuse light out over your subject so as to avoid harsh shadows. Overcast skies do the same thing. If you get skies like this, grab your subject and head outdoors to snap as many portraits as you can.

Flash Light (on camera flash) There is just about no light less flattering than a bright light aimed straight at your subject that causes harsh shadows. There are studio strobe units that you set off to the side of your camera and flash as you press the shutter and those are a completely different thing. It is not recommended to use camarea's flash unless you are going to be in a dark situation where you absolutely have no choice. If you need to and your camera has a hot shoe than you may use interchangeable flash units, placed on stands as high up and far away from your camera's lens as possible. This will at least produce a more flattering light and eliminate the "red eye" effect we've all seen too many times. Several manufacturers make white plastic diffusers that go on the front of the flash to defuse the harsh flash light.

A studio flash (also called a strobe)
is an extremely bright light that comes on momentarily when you hit your shutter. Due to the light intensity, these lights can be extremely hot and uncomfortable for a subject, which is why they are used as a brief strobe instead of left on all the time.

Link to c
ommonly used Lighting Terms

Studio Lighting Techniques
There are four main styles of studio lighting.

Broad Lighting.
Broad lighting is when the main light is positioned in such a way that it illuminates the side of the face that is turned toward the camera. This technique is used mainly for corrective purposes. It will de-emphasize facial features and is used mostly to make thin, narrow faces appear wider. 

Short Lighting
is when the main light illuminates the side of the face that is turned away from the camera. This technique is used when the subject has an average oval face. Short lighting emphasizes facial contours more than broad lighting. This style can be adapted for a “strong” or “weak” look by using a weaker fill light. This narrow lighting (as it is sometimes called) is especially good for use in low-key portraiture. Because short lighting has a narrowing effect, it is great for use with subjects that have particularly round or plump faces.

Butterfly Lighting
is achieved by positioning the main light directly in front of the subjects face and adjusting the height to create a shadow directly under, and in line with, the nose. This style is best suited for subjects with a normal oval face and is considered to be a glamour style of lighting best suited for women. It is not recommended for use with men because it has a tendency to highlight the ears – crating an undesirable effect.

Rembrandt Lighting.
Rembrandt lighting is obtained by combining short lighting and butterfly lighting. The main light is positioned high and on the side of the face that is away from the camera. This technique produces an illuminated triangle on the cheek closest to the camera. The triangle will illuminate just under the eye and not below the nose.

Rembrandt, the great painter and artist, one of the "Masters" of his time used a technique of setting his subjects near a large north-facing window (so no direct sunlight would hit the subject) and turning them in relation to the window to create flattering lighting effects that really emphasized the high spots and depths of his subject's face.

Tip: If you have a large window that faces away from the sun you can easily achieve very professional looking Rembrandt lighting without studio lights.

Main Light.
The positioning of the main light is usually about 45 degrees from the camera-subject axis and should be slightly higher than the subject. A good method to determine proper placement of the main light is to look at the catchlights in the subject’s eyes. The catchlights should be at either the one o’clock or eleven o’clock position. Depending on your subject, the height of the light may need to raised or lowered to get the catchlights in the eyes.


Without catchlights the eyes look too dark and recessed; giving the eyes a lifeless look.

Fill Light.

You normally place the fill light on the opposite side of the camera from the main light. The fill light also needs to be a much lower power unit than the main light. If you use too much fill you’ll loose the effect of the lighting style. The purpose of the fill light is to add just enough light to soften the shadows created by the main light. 

The fill light is used to control contrast. By increasing the power of the fill you reduce the contrast in the photo. By decreasing the amount of light from the fill, you will increase contrast. When setting the distance of your fill light watch how noticeable the shadow from the main light is. This will be your guide to how noticeable it will be in the final image. The fill light will almost always add a second lower pair of catchlights. This is usually objectionable because it gives the impression that the subject has a directionless stare. This second pair of catchlights should be retouched from the final photo. Also watch for reflections if your subject wears glasses. You may have to reposition the fill light slightly to eliminate eyeglass reflections. 

Reflector Card.

You can use a reflector card to add a soft, supplemental light to areas that may still appear too dark. Some of these cards have a gold side that you can use to add a warm glow to the photograph. Others, have a silver side to provide more neutral fill light. The reflector cards do not need another light source, as they will reflect the light that is already there. To find the proper location for the card, just move it in and out from a spot to see the effect. It will be noticeable to the naked eye.
Hair Light.
The hair light is a lower power light that illuminates the subjects hair providing separation from the background. This is especially important when photographing a subject with dark hair against a dark background. To properly place a hair light, you should bring the light forward enough to let the light spill onto the subjects face, then slowly move it back until the light disappears from the subjects skin. 
Background Lights.
Background lights can be used to illuminate the background, gaining more depth or separation in your image. This light is usually placed low to the ground on a small stand about half way between your subject and the background. A low power light is generally used. You can dramatically change the look of the shot by adding a gel to background light. Just remember when using gels you have to use a stronger light to compensate for the illumination being lost through the gel.
It is not necessary to use all of these accessories and techniques together. For the most part they can be mixed and matched to get whatever result you’re after. Although it sounds complicated with a little practice light placement becomes second nature and you’ll develop a setup that you’re comfortable with.

| Home | General Projects | Course Outline | Downloads & Links | Glossary |Student Web Sites|