High-Contrast Light

When we first learn to compose portraits, we discover how well soft light works on faces. Big, soft sources—windows, softboxes, umbrellas—deliver beautiful, diffused light that hides skin flaws like wrinkles and blemishes. The next thing we know, we’re using soft light for all of our portraits, and why wouldn’t we? Our subjects are happy and our portraits look great in that beautiful soft light. So what’s the problem?

Sometimes good isn’t good enough. Sometimes we want a little more drama, a little more edge, a little more pop in our portraits. To create this, we need to use a light source with a bit more attitude. We want high-contrast portrait lighting, and that doesn’t come from a softbox.

One of the best places to see high-contrast portrait lighting in action is to look at portraits from Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1930s and ’40s. These black-and-white portraits from icons like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull relied on hot lights to produce high-contrast lighting with hard-edged shadows, bright, white highlights and deep, rich blacks. These portraits had punch. They didn’t recede quietly; they practically jumped off the page to grab the viewer’s attention—which is exactly what these publicity photos were supposed to do.

Photographers today are still using these principles. Mary Ellen Matthews has been influenced by this old Hollywood portrait style, so she employs the same high-contrast lighting principles to add drama to the portraits she creates for Saturday Night Live. Working with celebrity actors and musicians, she uses bare bulbs, beauty dishes and ring lights to make her images really pop. Since she only has a few seconds to grab a viewer’s attention, she wastes no time with soft lighting.

To add pop and punch to your portraits with high-contrast lighting, first, eliminate the softbox as a key light. Sure, you can keep one around for use as a subtle fill, but the primary illumination should come from a bare bulb, a strobe in a silver dish (perhaps with a grid to focus the light more precisely into a tighter circle) or even your hot-shoe flash without any modifiers to soften it. The idea is simple—you want a light that’s as specular (pinpoint) as possible. Like the sun on a clear day, it will make a well-defined, hard-edged shadow with increased contrast between highlight and shadow.

With a soft light source such as an umbrella or a softbox, you have a little more leeway when you position your light. Since the source is larger, shadows have softer edges and a more gradual transition from light to dark. With a hard light, though, the shadow is precisely defined. This gives it greater graphic importance, and it means you really have to keep an eye on it. It also means that subtle movements from your subject can take the light from flattering to awful in an instant.

To position your specular light source, start with it above eye-level and slightly off-center from the camera axis. Set the light too high, and your subject’s eyes can fall into shadow. Set the light too low or centered, and you won’t see any shadows at all; the light will look too flat. Classic portrait lighting patterns are ideal here, as they’re perfect for hard light sources.

The first traditional portrait lighting pattern is called butterfly lighting, so named because of the butterfly-shaped shadow it creates below the subject’s nose. To do this, center the light above the subject and adjust it until the symmetrical shadow falls between nose and mouth, without ever disappearing completely or touching the upper lip.
Move that light off-center a bit, and you’ve discovered loop lighting, where the nose shadow makes a long, looping shadow down to the side of the nose. It’s a flattering light that looks good without being overly dramatic. Move the light too far, though, and that loop shadow can grow and take over the subject’s face. This might be a little more drama than you had hoped for.

Ultimately, when working with hard lights to make high-contrast portraits, the key is in the position of the light. Too high, and shadows (and amplified texture) will obscure the face, while a too-low or full-frontal source can eliminate shadows altogether—which will look flat and harsh.

Remember the softbox fill light? It’s important because if your main light is too close to the subject and you expose correctly, you could have some really dark shadows devoid of detail. To maintain detail throughout, ensure that you’re not blowing out your highlights and add a frontal fill (from a small softbox, a reflector or even a huge octodome placed behind the camera) to bring up detail in the shadows.

When working with a high-contrast lighting scheme like this, losing detail in shadows and highlights can be a big problem. To help prevent this, shoot RAW. Not only can you slightly overexpose to prevent the loss of detail in the shadows, but you’ll retain detail in darks and highlights that can be redistributed in RAW postprocessing. When working with a high-contrast lighting ratio, extremes of exposure can look really bad, really fast. With a RAW exposure that doesn’t blow out highlights and uses a fill light to maintain detail in shadows, you’ll be all set.

The Ring Light

Perhaps no light source has more dramatic high-contrast potential than a ring light. Originally designed as a way to illuminate macro subjects when the lens and photographer are so close as to cast a shadow on the subject, ring flash systems grew to be larger and more powerful, and gained a "must-have" reputation for fashion photographers.

With a ring flash wrapped around the front of a lens, visible shadows are almost completely eliminated from the subject. The light is coming directly from the lens, after all. But because the light literally wraps around the lens, a halo of shadow is also created that separates subject from background. What the source lacks in directionality and subtlety it makes up for with in-your-face, high-contrast drama.


Paul C. Buff

Working with a ring flash, you have a few options. The first, and perhaps ideal, approach is the use of a specialized ring light designed to work with a studio strobe system. The biggest problem with this approach, aside from bulk, is the cost. The lights are big and powerful, and all but require a fashion photographer’s big budget to afford them.

The second option is to adapt a macro photography ring flash for use in portraiture. This approach suffers primarily from a flash that isn’t powerful enough for portraits. This is why many photographers have turned to a third option—a light modifier that creates the look of a ring flash by channeling light from a hot-shoe-mounted strobe through a reflector that wraps around the lens. The nice thing about this approach is a TTL flash that still works as it normally would, but with the added benefit of a ring flash’s lighting pattern.

Perhaps the most subtle way to use a ring flash (actually, it’s the only way to use a ring flash subtly) is to use it as a fill light. When used as a key, the ring light has a harsh, in-your-face look, which can be great in the right circumstance. But dialed way down in relation to another source that’s providing the key illumination, a ring flash’s subtle fill can add detail to the darkest tones without adding a whole new set of shadows to the scene. Best of all, you never have to worry about positioning of the fill, as it’s always right on-axis with the camera.

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