Home How-To Tip Of The Week Build a better portrait with a hard-light kick—05/03/10
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Monday, May 3, 2010

Build a better portrait with a hard-light kick—05/03/10

Go against the soft-light trend to add punch to portraits

This Article Features Photo Zoom

I recently had the opportunity to interview photographer Mary Ellen Matthews, and she taught me a thing or two about making portraits that pop. Mary Ellen is best known as the photographer responsible for the dramatic portraits of hosts and musical guests on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live, and there’s one simple trick she uses to make sure her portraits jump off the screen in an almost 3-D effect. She bucks the convention that says soft-light sources are ideal for portraits, preferring instead to use hard-light sources to enhance dimension and give her portraits a lively shape. Using hard-light sources for portraits isn’t easy, though, so these five tips are crucial for specular portrait success.

1. Mary Ellen’s subjects are rock stars and celebrities—beautiful people with great features and a crew of professionals providing makeup, hair and wardrobe to help them look their best. Unless you’ve got access to your own celebrity, be sure when using a hard-light source to start with an attractive subject with good skin, and utilize makeup and styling to help them look their best even before you begin.

2. Focus the light. A simple grid-spot, or a light focused by way of barn doors, can help to center the light on your subject’s face, allowing it to drop off in intensity on shoulders and their torso. That makes the face appear brighter, which partly helps create the drama that pops.

3. Don’t blind your subjects. Shine a bright light in your subject’s face and they’re bound to squint. For that reason I don’t often use continuous sources (like bright tungsten ìhot lightsî) for hard-light portraits. With studio strobes, after aiming the light, appropriately turn off the modeling light on your strobes to help keep your subject looking, and feeling, comfortable. Alternatively, use portable strobes that don’t have a modeling light so it isn’t a concern.

4. Rely on traditional portrait-lighting schemes. In classic Hollywood portraiture, hard-light sources were common. Examine the work of George Hurrell, or look at old black-and-white film noir movies, and pay attention to how the faces are lit. Often, they’re based on a handful of traditional lighting patterns such as butterfly or Paramount lighting (which creates a butterfly-shaped shadow beneath the nose), Rembrandt lighting (which casts a strong shadow on one side of the face with only a small triangle of skin illuminated on the shaded cheek), or Loop lighting (which is one of the most common approaches to hard lighting, as it creates a loop shaped shadow down to the side of the nose, never connecting to the mouth or shadowed far side of the cheek). These traditional portrait-lighting schemes ensure generally flattering lighting as a starting point, and they all can be used in positions where the important catchlight—the sparkle in the eyes—can still be seen.

5. Add some soft-light fill. Unless you’re going for a very dramatic and hard-shadowed look, deep-black shadows aren’t often flattering for portraits. A soft-light source—such as a softbox, white card, or even bright window light—can provide just enough fill light to soften hard edges and make the photograph less "extreme" without completely eliminating the hard-light kick. This balance is tough to achieve, but a little experimentation will soon show how to provide just enough light without overdoing the fill and flattening the scene.

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