Classic Portrait Lighting

The following tutorial will illustrate the use of portrait lights in a classic studio setup. The role of each light will be described as well as being shown. Please understand that the tutorial is not a set of rules, but rather a starting place for learning.

Great lighting can be done with fewer lights, and the lights are listed in order of importance. This tutorial applies to all kinds of studio lights - photofloods in reflectors, studio strobes and now fluorescents.

Here are a couple of views of my virtual studio, with model Melissa in residence. The Main light is to the right of the camera, between the camera and Melissa. Beside the camera is the Fill light. Behind her to the left of the picture is the Hair light, and directly behind her the Backdrop light. Finally to the right of the picture is the Kicker.

In this shot, the overhead lights in the studio are turned on to see the whole setup. For the shoot, they are all turned off. As we go through the tutorial, we will see the effect of each light by itself and the quality it adds to the image. The sequence mirrors the sequence a photographer would use while turning on and setting the lights, from the most to least important.

Here is Lissa lit by only the Main light. It is the only light of the five that is absolutely necessary. It creates the modeling of her face and sets the overall exposure. Every other light is just an enhancement. The basic starting point when setting the main is to place the shadow of the nose just above, and near the end of the mouth. This will vary from face to face and needs to be done with a photographer's eye.

The fill light is set near the camera - as close as possible to the optical axis - and is used to illuminate shadows. It is generally -1.0EV to -2.0EV less than the Main light. In this case it is -2.0EV. Light falls off on the square of the distance and this light is twice the distance from Lissa compared to the Main. If more contrast is wanted, the light is set on the same side of the camera as the Main. If less, it is on the opposite side of the camera.

The Hair light is an enhancement light - generally on the opposite side of the subject from the Main. It puts highlights into the dark side of the hair and can be used to put a highlight along he shoulder to separate it from the backdrop. Again, the combined view on the right. The hair light is usually either a spotlight, or a narrow floodlight with a "snoot" to concentrate the light into a narrow beam.
The background light produces a halo to separate the subject from the background. As with the hair light, it is a narrow beam unless the whole background is to be lighted as for a high key photograph. The light unit is hidden behind the subject and pointed down to an angle that uses just the soft edge of the beam around Lissa's shoulders. Dramatic portraits against black backgrounds obviously don't require it.
The final enhancement light is the Kicker. It does much the same job as the hair light, but on the same side as the Main. It is generally placed beside or a little behind the subject and must be set by eye.

As a final comparison, here is Lissa's portrait in colour and in black and white.

All these were shot with simple photofloods with inexpensive reflectors - no softboxes and no umbrellas. If one uses photoflood bulbs, one can see the lighting exactly as it will appear in the photograph. There is no simpler, more inexpensive and effective way to learn.

Softboxes, diffusers and umbrellas do not automatically improve the light - they only change it. Avoid them until you can actually see a need for them. When you add an umbrella or a softbox, start with the Main light and work through the whole tutorial again. There are many instances where a diffusion device will absolutely ruin what would otherwise have been a powerful portrait. In other cases, they will absolutely make the portrait. Only with a lot of experience and the ability to see light well enough to visualize it on the subject will you be able to choose what is best.

If you do not have a live subject who is willing to sit for exercise after exercise, get a mannequin. Or practice lighting in the virtual world like in this tutorial. Melissa was created starting with the Jessi object in Poser 6, given a sharper face and long hair. The studio was built in Shade8.2.1 where virtual light acts exactly like real light.

Note: An update has been added covering High Key Lighting.

©2010 Larry N.Bolch