1. Start With Soft LightIf you do nothing else when you want to make a beautiful picture of a beautiful subject, it’s hard to go wrong with soft light. Because it creates wraparound illumination that keeps shadows from being too severe, flattering portrait light is often broad and soft—the kind of light you get from a large softbox or an open window. Soft light is the safest place to start your pursuit of flattering light because it hides blemishes so well.
2. Consider Hard LightWhile it’s trickier to use than soft light, a specular source can provide just the extra pop needed to add definition and “wow” factor to a portrait. Lots of pros do it; look at classic Hollywood glamour shots. Those photographers used hard light sources and still produced beautifully flattering lighting. Part of the secret was good hair and make-up and subjects with flawless skin. But with those basics covered, don’t hesitate to add some depth and dimension by using a hard light source—even if only as a fill. To do it well, you’ll need to follow the next two tips closely to position the light appropriately.
3. Factor In Face ShapeLight your portrait based on your subject’s facial features. Start by choosing either broad or short lighting. With short light, the shadow side of the face is closer to the camera; for broad lighting, the lit side of the face is turned away. In general, broad lighting makes faces look fuller and can help soften the features of narrow, angular faces. Short lighting has the opposite effect, narrowing the look of a round face.
4. Learn Lighting PatternsClassic lighting patterns—such as butterfly, split and Rembrandt—worked very well in Hollywood’s Golden Era and they will work today, too, whether you’re using a hard or soft source. If your subject wants to look tough, split lighting (in which the light is to the side, rendering half the face in shadow) can be the perfect pattern. But for beauty subjects, butterfly lighting is an ideal choice. The pattern gets its name from the shape of the shadow that falls directly below the subject’s nose, and it’s achieved by placing a light source well above the camera. Avoid placing a light below the subject’s eye level; this is called monster lighting for a reason.
5. Keep It SimpleSome pro photographers use a dozen lights for every shot. Many all-time greats used only one. After all, there’s only one sun, and it makes some amazing light. Don’t fear simplicity. Multiple light sources can all too easily muddy the waters with cross lighting and multiple shadows. Start with a single light source and only add additional lights as necessary for specific purposes.
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