It has been said many times that photography is about light, which is true but it is also about shape, shadow and creating story, drama and emotion. Getting to grips with how you can shape light and how your camera can control light, is one of the stepping stones to unlocking more of your skill as a photographer. Here are 10 tips on how to up your portrait game using lighting.
1. Keep your lights above the eye level and your camera lower
A golden rule for me is to keep my lights above my subject’s eye line and to have my camera just below this level. This will help empower your subject and give a strong composition. It is extremely rare that under-lighting a human face will give a nice or faltering image. If you are getting in tight for a portrait, using the rule of thirds to find your eye line is a great idea. For an image like this one of Jodi Lakin, the light is aimed directly down, equidistant between me and my subject, with a large soft diffusion panel to avoid any hotspots or highlights.
2. Filters, diffusers and modifiers
Filtering light is important for all photographers. We can filter the light coming from a lighting source or the light entering into the camera, or both at the same time. Understanding how to control the flow of light and how it will affect settings and the feeling of an image is important. It can be something as simple as an ND filter to help bring down an f-stop or a grad filter to hold in sky detail like in this image.
Understanding how different diffusers and modifiers can affect your light will help you build up a complex lighting image like this one of Holly. Soft light and hard combining gives her skin a soft appearance with good highlighting at the same time. I believe that bigger light sources are not always better, unless you can control them.
3. Use High Speed Sync
When working with flash, most cameras have a shutter speed limit that works with flash. This is known as a flash Sync Speed. An X-Pro2 has a sync speed of 250th, but in real world terms this is quite slow and can limit your creative options using flash. Images like the one below are created at 4000th of a second letting me use much wider f-stops, giving me back creative control.
4. Manipulate lighting to create an environment
It is very rare that all your lights are pointed towards your subject. Try and adjust the lighting to create some added shape and composition to an image. In this image with DJ Jon Mahon, I used a light to simulate street lighting.
5. Make the most of shade and shadows
A common perception is that images should be evenly lit. Great images have character, shape, form and usually shadows. This image of Kevin Rowland (from Dexys Midnight Runners) has tons of shadow adding to the context and story of the image.
6. Be mindful of the setting and environment
Not everything has to be photographed at f1.2. In fact, that is sometime a bit too much for a portrait. This image of Snooker Champion Steve Davis was photographed at f2.8, leaving enough detail in the background which gives the image a setting. From this portrait we can tell it’s an image of Steve, not Steve the snooker player.
7. Worry less and shoot more
Creating images that pack a punch and grab attention can be a rewarding challenge. Sometimes we over complicate an image. In my opinion, worrying about sharpness and shutter speeds is less important than great eye contact and capturing the moment. Worry less and shoot more. Get outside your comfort zone and push some limits. Photograph people that have character and a story to tell.
8. Learn your go-to lighting set ups
If you are photographing people, the terms ‘Rembrandt’, ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Split’ light are probably your mantra. Everything is built around these three lighting styles and built from upwards from them. Master these three and you are 80% there.
From additive to available, and a few crossovers in the middle, are all you need to get along. You don’t need to be a master of everything or need to be lighting tech on the next Bond film. Keep it simple and master the basics that you need for your style. This being said, knowing how light works and being able to describe what you are trying to build is helpful. Could you describe the lighting on this image of Sir Bob Geldof?
Rembrandt: Named after the Dutch painter, this is a classic lighting setup that will create mood and emphasise character.
Butterfly: A go-to lighting style when you want quick way to great stunning beauty images to fill in skin detail and get even lit faces with a single light.
Split: Mostly used in conjunction with either Rembrandt or Butterfly to provide highlights, hair-lights or rim lighting. The light is usually past the right angle of the subject and above the eye line. A carefully placed light will add light to a background and help illuminate your subject.
9. Combine lighting sources
Placing your subject in context to an environment is one thing, but using the available light and adding to it is always going to be a great way to use a simple set up for maximum effect. In this example of Texan Singer-Songwriter Ryan Hamilton, I used the natural light from the window as the main source with a very small amount of studio light to give detail to the shadows. The secret is to make the overall image as natural looking as possible.
10. Let your lighting set the mood
This image of TV presenter Gail Porter was created to look like she was sitting in front of a window light source. I wanted something that was thoughtful and gentle. Faking window light can be one of the more tricky set ups to master, but looks great if you pull it off. Window light can bring about a melancholic element to an image.
On the other hand, this image of Beffy Gilmore was lit with a broad split light to look like a lower key single light source.
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