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Basic studio lighting

Create a natural outdoors look at first


Studio lighting that illuminates your subject in a manner similar to natural daylight should be mastered first.
Studio lighting that illuminates your subject in a manner similar to natural daylight should be mastered first.

Master the natural sunlit look first.
The photographer who is just starting out in studio portraiture is wise to begin with a simple lighting setup that causes the subject to appear as if photographed in natural sunlight. Mastering this basic standard will provide a good foundation for other lighting set-ups, and is a handy fall-back for when another lighting scheme just doesn't do the job.

Why does it work so well?
Because it looks natural and normal. We are used to people being illuminated from above. We see folks in this kind of lighting every day when we venture outdoors, and readily accept it without question.

How is it accomplished?
In front of your subject, place a single light just off to one side, about 45 degrees to the side of the camera, and at a height that causes the light to strike the subject's face at about a 20 to 30-degree angle. It's that simple. The illumination will highlight the subject's forehead, nose, cheeks and chin, just as sunlight does, with shadows appearing below prominent features. Your subject will look naturally-illuminated.


Not all natural-looking illumination, indoors or outdoors, however, is good for portraits. In addition to the direction and angle of the lighting source, the quality of the light is important. Contrast is a big factor in portrait lighting, and can make or break your picture.

QUALITY OF LIGHT

As with sunlight, the character of the studio light can affect your subject's appearance. Any small light source, like a spotlight or light channelled from a bare bulb, for example, will create high contrast. Highlights will be bright and shadows will be dark, with almost no transitional shading between the two, just as though the person was outdoors under a bright sun. There are two ways to reduce contrast in the studio - diffuse the light or add another light or a reflector to fill in the shadow areas.

Not all natural lighting is good for portraiture. Direct sunlight, for example, creates high contrast - harsh shadows and bright highlights.
Not all natural lighting is good for portraiture. Direct sunlight, for example, creates high contrast - harsh shadows and bright highlights.

A large softbox provides even illumination with reduced contrast.
A large softbox provides even illumination with reduced contrast.

DIFFUSING THE LIGHT

A larger, more diffused light source, such as light reflected from an umbrella or coming through the diffusion panel of a soft box, will soften the contrast, providing a more gradual change from light to dark areas. This gentle transition between highlight and shadow areas is a similar effect to the light provided by an overcast sky. When harsh light becomes soft, diffused light, the effect is immediately noticeable in the way it improves your people pictures.

Disregard color for a moment, and think of direct light from a small source as providing stark black and bright white with no shading in between. Now, think of diffused light from a larger light source as a blending of the two extremes - black, dark gray, gray, light gray and white.


TWO LIGHT SOURCES ARE BETTER

A studio portrait normally requires at least two light sources. One is the main light, also called the key light or the modeling light. The second is the fill (or fill-in) light. A single light may provide both light sources when a reflector is used, but it is more common, more precise and much easier to employ two separate lights.

THE MAIN LIGHT

This is the dominant light source for your portrait because it is the brighter light, and therefore determines the placement of shadows. The most important considerations for the main light are its direction, height and distance from the subject. When the main light is too close to the subject, its lighting is uneven, and when it is too high, there will be too much light striking the forehead and not enough on the chin.

THE FILL LIGHT

The fill light is usually not even turned on until the main light's position is properly established. It is a secondary light source that must never overpower the main light, but should fill in shadow areas so that detail is visible, but the shadow is still evident.

The fill light is usually placed just above the subject's eye level on the other side of the camera from the main light. Placing it here will cast a shadow beneath the chin, separating the head and the neck. This shouldn't be a dark shadow, but one that is soft and a little more than noticeable.

The main light, above, was carefully positioned so that the shadow under the subject's nose was minimal for this actor's headshot. The fill light was slightly less intense, resulting in a suggestion of a shadow on the side of the actor's head.
The main light, above, was carefully positioned so that the shadow under the subject's nose was minimal for this actor's headshot. The fill light was slightly less intense, resulting in a suggestion of a shadow on the side of the actor's head.

There is a lighting flaw in this otherwise lovely profile. The fill light was located high on the right side. The model's jawline shows a bright spot, with a conflicting shadow above it - that is, a shadow that points towards the main light.
There is a lighting flaw in this otherwise lovely profile. The fill light was located high on the right side. The model's jawline shows a bright spot, with a conflicting shadow above it - that is, a shadow that points towards the main light.

CONFLICTING SHADOWS

Watch that the fill light's position doesn't create conflicting shadows. These are shadows that point in the direction of the main light. Many photographers like to position the fill light quite close to the camera, near the level of the lens, to prevent conflicting shadows.

The fill light is often diffused, since its purpose is to reveal shadow detail and soften contrast, even though the main light need not be diffused when two lights are used.

FILL LIGHT INTENSITY

Fill light intensity is controlled in one of two manners - adjusting the light unit's power setting or changing the light-to-subject distance. Remember that the intensity of light decreases geometrically with an increase in distance. A light source that is twice as far from the subject will provide only one-quarter of the illumination. Moving an individual light closer to or away from the subject is therefore a very effective means of increasing or reducing its light level.

When the intensity of the fill light is adjusted in relation to the amount of light provided by the main light, it is helpful to know something about lighting ratio - the measurement of the degree of contrast between the shadow side and the bright side of your subject.


CATCH LIGHT

A catch light is not a third light source; it is a small, bright reflection of the main light in the subject's eyes, and is highly-desirable since it gives life and sparkle to a portrait. Watch that there is no more than one catch light in each eye, ideally high in the iris. More than one reflection in the eyes can make the subject's eyes appear too "watery," almost as if the person had been crying. Occasionally, the effect can be just what you want, though, adding additional sparkle or glisten. As with all the so-called rules of composition, there is nothing hard and fast that you must observe for a good portrait.

You can usually tell from looking closely at the catch light what kind of lighting source was used. The catch light may be umbrella-shaped (indicating an umbrella reflector), rectangular or square (indicating a soft box), or round (indicating a circular diffuser or an undiffused light source).

GOOD STARTING POINT

The above two-light set-up is about as fundamental as it gets in studio portrait photography, and will produce fine-looking portraits. You would be wise to practice with this lighting arrangement until you feel a high degree of confidence in your positioning of the main and fill lights. With confidence in the basics under your belt, you will quickly pick up on more advanced lighting techniques and not allow them to over-ride what you know are the solid foundations of good studio portrait lighting.

Catch lights are not sources of illumination; they are the reflection of the main light in the subject's eyes.
Catch lights are not sources of illumination; they are the reflection of the main light in the subject's eyes.
Further information...

Flash-to-subject distance

Studio flash
Related topics...

Types of studio portrait lighting