Monday, June 24, 2013
One-light Portrait Lighting
Make several different looks with just one light
|This Article Features Photo Zoom|
The things you can do with a single light source are simply amazing. If ever you doubt this, walk outside and take a look at the sun. Don't stare at it, mind you, but consider the variety of beautiful lighting scenarios created by that single source up in the sky. It can act a specular source on sunny days, a giant softbox on cloudy ones. It can be warmer or cooler, depending on atmospheric conditions and time of day, and it can even be a directional lighting coming low across the landscape. The sun is, quite simply, a great model for amazing single-source lighting.
If you're working with only one light, whether that's sunlight or a strobe, you can also do amazing things. Here are some suggestions for awesome one-light portrait setups.
Starting with a bright background—say a white seamless or a light-painted wall—you can keep the background bright by placing the subject close to the background and the light far away. Let's say you've got your subject standing against the white wall. Placing the light 10 feet away from the background and exposing normally for the subject will create a background that looks realistic—relatively light and bright. Use a broad soft source (like an umbrella or softbox, or even a slightly overcast day outdoors) and you'll create wraparound light with relatively soft shadows containing more detail than if you use a bare-bulb specular source. With either source, you can overexpose slightly to keep skin tones bright and make a true high-key portrait—assuming all of the tones in the scene are already fairly light to begin with. This same effect, by the way, can be achieved outdoors with sunlight, whether it's direct light on a sunny day or open shade for a softer look.
With the very same light-colored background, the same subject and the same light source (well, unless you were using the sun) you can change the look and feel of the photo from light and bright to dark and moody, or anywhere in between. If you move the subject 10 feet from the background, so now the light source is only one foot from the subject, you'll have to change your exposure. If the correct exposure with the light 10 feet from the subject was 1/125th at f/4, then with the subject 10 feet from the background and only one foot from the light, then the correct exposure for the subject to be properly illuminated will be considerably different—say, 1/125th at f/16. So, what is the consequence of this new exposure? Because the difference between f/4 and f/16 is four stops, the formerly white background will now be four stops underexposed, or very dark gray. And, the only thing you've changed is the relative distances between subject, background and light. When you adjust the exposure so that the subject is once again normally exposed, the background goes from light to dark in an instant. Pretty impressive, huh?
Changing the light from a soft source to a hard, specular one will change the look of a scene pretty dramatically. With a soft source, shadows will be more filled in because the light bounces around and wraps around and creates softer transitions from light to shadow, with more detail in those shadow areas. A hard source, however, will make harder-edged shadows that are deeper and darker. Position that hard-edged source close to the camera—like a flash on the camera, for instance—and suddenly you've created a fashionable snapshot-style lighting look. A focused hot spot in the center of that scene exaggerates the effect, and can be achieved with a grid spot or a beauty dish light modifier, or just a highly focused speedlight. Move the subject close to the background and suddenly the look has changed again. Not only will the background get lighter, the hard-edged shadows from the subject on the background add another graphic element that can add interest to the scene. And just think, you've made all of these different looks, from light backgrounds to dark, high-key to dark and moody, all with a single light.