Flattering a Subject: The Art of Directional Light

directional light wedding portraits

In portraiture, flattering a subject involves controlling the quantity, quality, and direction of light.  For today, let’s focus on direction. The direction of light refers to the main light’s position and height as it relates to the subject.

Rather than just placing a light source (flash, studio light, sun, reflector) in front of your subject and calling it good enough, think about what you want to accomplish. Do you want to broaden or thin the face? Are there facial features you want to downplay? Would a more dramatic look create the emotion you want? Use the direction of your light to make your pictures artistically correct.

Here are some traditional light patterns to consider using:

Short light is when you present the shadow side of the face to the camera. This creates thinner, more symmetrical looking faces.

Broad light is usually NOT the best choice. It is where you light the side of the face that is turned toward the camera. It can be used to make thin faces appear wider or to take the emphasis off of undesirable facial features. I can count the number of times a client has asked me to make their face look wider in a picture: zero. That’s why I said broad light is usually not the best choice.

Butterfly lighting is a term to describe lighting from above so both sides of the face are evenly lit. This creates a shadow under the subject’s chin, in line with the nose. This is not good for a person with flat features or a broad jaw line. This style is generally considered to be best for women rather than men because it has a tendency to highlight men’s ears (unless you’re really into ears, then go for it).

Split lighting is usually flattering. You light from the side using a large light source. This makes one side of the face almost completely shadowed. This type of lighting is also nice when you don’t have a background because if you block the light from hitting anything behind your subject, you will have a black background.

Rembrandt lighting is a combination of short lighting and butterfly lighting. The light is placed high and on the side of the face that is away from the camera. It will create a triangle on the cheek closest to the camera that will light up just under the eye but not below the nose.

In all situations, your main light source is called the key light.

The general rule is to position your key light at a 45 degree angle to the subject-camera axis (except for split lighting, of course). You can check if you have a good angle by looking for catch lights in your subject’s eyes. Catch lights should be either at the one or eleven o’clock position in the eyes. Catch lights make eyes seem alive. Without them, you get a dull, lifeless subject. I especially love aiming for great catch lights when the sun is my key light – it makes for dazzling eyes in portraits.

If you want to add some pizzazz, spice, sugar, or whatever you want to call it, consider using a secondary light source. You don’t even have to go get another light – a reflector could be a secondary light source.

A fill light is not as strong as your key light, and takes the harshness out of the shadows your key light doesn’t affect or creates. A reflector is a great fill light.

You can try a hair light. Position it close to the background. It will separate the model from the background while making her hair have a pretty glow.

The bottom line is that by moving the light source, or changing the subject’s orientation to the light source, you can control the direction of the light so that it flatters your subject and creates the mood you desire. Just put the direction of the light within your control!

3 Replies to “Flattering a Subject: The Art of Directional Light”

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