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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.

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