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How to set up studio lights for portraits

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Lighting is everything in photography and In this article I’ll be looking at the basic rules, from where your lights should be, to what effects can be achieved. I’ll also give you some top tips for photographing faces.

For a basic portrait photograph we’re looking for lighting that will provide good detail but is soft and flattering to the subject. Here’s a diagram of the lighting set up we’ll be working with.

We have a white backdrop, a main light known as the “Key Light” (Right) and a secondary light known as a “Fill Light” (Left)

To the cameras right:

Our key light has a modifier on it called a Softbox; Softboxes are versatile pieces of equipment. As the light is diffused over a wide area - the bigger the softbox, the more diffusion, the softer the light.They're perfect for portraits as they soften the skin, as well as, family shots as they can light everyone up easily.

If you’re shooting a subject in the studio that moves (eg. a toddler or pet) a big soft box is very handy as you don't have to be too particular with the placing, as it will still catch the toddler or dog that's running around.

Our softbox has been placed a lot closer to the subject than the second fill light. It's nice to get the light really close to the subject, especially when using one light source as it makes the light very soft.. The closer the subject is to the light, the softer the light.

To the cameras left:

This is the fill light and has a spill dish attached so there isn’t anything diffusing the light (unlike the softbox) so the light is harsher.

The portrait above was taken with just one light. The key light is on the right side of the subject. (camera right)

This style of portrait lighting is called Split Lighting, as the light is split evenly down one side of the face. Using just the one light to the side, creates a lot more shadow on the opposite, side of the face, this creates more depth and texture.

As this image is on a lighter background, you don't lose the subject to the darkness, however if this was on a black background the whole left side of the portrait would be blending in. This is one reason to bring in a fill light.

The image above shows the portrait with just the fill light (camera left). This light fills in where the other does not, (if you're using two lights, as we are) This light by itself is very harsh due to a number of factors: the power of the light, the distance between the model and the light, the placement of the light and the attachment on the light. The further away the light the harsher the light.

Split lighting is often used to create dramatic images for portraits of musicians or artists.

As you can see from both of these examples, the lighting changes the look of the photograph dramatically. This not only changes the visual aspects of the image but can also alter the viewers perception of the subject. The previous portrait is a great example as it makes the subject look dramatic.

For commercial portraits however this may not be the look that you’re aiming for!

This portrait was taken using both lights together- the key light camera right on the right and the fill light camera left.

You can see the difference on each side of the face, as the fill light is still leaving a shadow around the left eye and on the cheek bone but on the right side, our key light has every feature lit up with soft light.

This lighting set up is a lot more appealing for commercial shoots. Its much more forgiving with the softbox as there's more light, there are less harsh angles and edges.

Finally, here's a few tips for shooting Portraits

The most important thing about a portrait shoot isn't your lighting though! You can have a perfectly lit photograph, but if it is of an uncomfortable subject, you may be unhappy with the image!

1) Make a connection with the subject.

2) To help with this, ask them questions that they have to think about, get their mind running. Instead of Yes/No

3) Create a relaxed, fun, environment to ease any nerves.

4) If your just starting out, ACTORS make very good subjects. They have confidence and are able to express emotion on their faces with ease, giving a wide variety of facial expression. They're also used to being directed, which is very helpful.

Bonus Section

A favourite style of mine is Rembrandt Lighting.

Rembrandt lighting is named after the great painter Rembrandt Van Rijn, who favoured a style or pattern of light across the face when he painted his subjects. His signature technique was to leave a fairly large part of the face in shadow, but still capture detail and he always had a triangular patch of light in the painting.

Its pretty simple to set up and can be done with one light source and a reflector

In cinematography and still photography, it's all about that triangle that forms under the eye which creates depth, helping sculpt the face, and giving a three dimensional quality to it.

Here's a stripped down Rembrandt styled portrait. The light is coming from camera left, a foot above the subjects head. Normally just above eye level would suffice then you would get more detail in the eye, but here its higher, to emphasizes Rembrandt's triangle.

In the second image I’ve added a fill light just off the subjects left shoulder (camera right). Now the portrait has more texture as there's more detail on the hair, cheek and shoulder. As well as the subject no longer blending in with the backdrop. This image is taken straight on but normally you would favour the darker side of the face, it looks better and is flattering on most subjects.

Above is a diagram of the lighting set up for the previous portraits.

Everyone has their own style and personal taste, but it's good to try different techniques and experiment with your lights. You never know what you might create, and you may even find an effect that you love, that might genuinely have been created by mistake first time round!

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