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Five Classic Lighting Recipes

Five tried-and-true lighting styles for effective portraits
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Fort Collins, CO. portrait in old town.

As much as I like to experiment when it comes to lighting, there are times I need a sure thing, and that’s when I reach into my bag of tricks and pull out one of the five lighting techniques that always work and that create a variety of looks? These techniques are ones that a beginner can master in a short time with minimal gear, and should be part of any photographer’s lighting skill set.

Lighting styles have varied through the years, but over time a few techniques and principles have stood out as timeless. These proven lighting techniques have produced some of the most iconic photographs in history. The next time a client calls with a big job—or you need to photograph the neighbor’s kids—have these lighting recipes in your back pocket.

1. Soft Lighting

Lighting all starts with one light, and sometimes that is all you need—but not all single lights are equal.

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Soft lighting.

First, let’s review a few characteristics of light. All light has direction, quality and color. Altering these aspects for one light radically changes your image.

Changing the light direction in a portrait produces different highlights and shadows on your subject’s face. Aim your light directly at your subject and you get very few shadows. Put your light source to the extreme right and one side of your subject is lit, while the other side goes dark.

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Soft lighting.

The quality of light, or how soft the light is, relates to how large the light source is relative to the subject. A large light source close to a subject produces soft, wraparound light. A small light source at the same distance produces hard shadows and is more directional.

Finally, colored gels can be used with lights for various effects. Some gels correct color, others add creative effects.

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Soft lighting.

One lighting style that is simple, effective and can be mastered in minutes is using a single large light, slightly off-center and above your subject. A large light source produces flattering, soft light with minimal shadows to worry about. Any skin blemishes are nicely filled in, and the skin takes on a healthy tone. Using a large light allows your subject a little room to move around while posing, giving you and your model more flexibility to get the shot, instead of stopping the shoot to reposition your light.

Remember one important principle when using one large light: light gives illumination while shadows create dimension. Or, in other words, shadows are not a bad thing. A soft light source looks great when positioned high and slightly off-center to your subject. The soft “butterfly” shadow under the nose adds dimension and contrast to your image. Use white reflectors to soften the shadows, or black reflectors to increase shadows (and contrast).

Soft Lighting.
Soft Lighting.

For the best results, and the most forgiving light, use a softbox or umbrella at least two feet in diameter. Today, there are many softbox options for speedlights. All you need is one flash, a softbox, a light stand and either a cord or wireless trigger to fire the flash. I use a Lastolite Ezybox II Switch that can change shape from rectangular to square, and is large enough to produce smooth soft light. Placing this light high and slightly off-center to my subject produces flattering light with soft shadows under the nose and chin.

My favorite light to use for this technique is the Elinchrom Octa, or any similar octagonal soft box,  placed about three feet away from my subject. This light is over six feet in diameter, and produces the softest light I’ve ever seen. Part of the magic of this light is due to the flash head aiming back into the softbox, diffusing the light before it travels through the diffusion panel on the front. Shadows are almost nonexistent, and skin tones look luminous. This light is expensive, but worth it for those shooting commercially.

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