On-Axis Lighting

lighting for photography
Plop a flash on top of your camera and start firing away, and you’re not likely to be accused of masterful lighting. I’ve always thought of an on-camera flash as dumping a bucket of light on a subject—not exactly the most nuanced lighting approach. But not all frontal illumination is quite so bad. In fact, sometimes full-frontal, on-axis lighting is quite nice. Here are three instances where placing a light source as close to the lens as possible makes for a great lighting look.

Butterfly Light

This portrait lighting approach has been a standby for beauty photographers for a century. Hollywood’s golden era of glamorous studio portraits, for instance, relied on the butterfly lighting pattern to accent the positives and eliminate the negatives of a cavalcade of actresses. Everyone from Judy Garland to Hedy Lamarr was photographed by the likes of Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell, in each case with the photographer relying on the on-axis “butterfly lighting” technique to accentuate strong cheekbones, minimize blemishes and ultimately set off the beautifully illuminated face from the rest of the frame.

While butterfly lighting is on-axis lighting (meaning that it comes from the camera position rather than to one side or another), the light is raised high above the camera. How high depends on its distance from the subject. This makes all the difference in the world, as instead of producing no shadows on the subject’s face, the shadows are very deliberately placed: under the cheekbones, subtly; under the nose, in the characteristic butterfly shape; and under the chin, with a very pronounced dark shadow that helps the neck recede into the background while making the face pop—in a good way. The next time you want to make a beautifully flattering portrait with a bit of old Hollywood glamour, try the butterfly lighting pattern.

lighting for photography
Portrait using on-axis lighting with a softbox

Ring Light

Photographers looking for a unique, instantly recognizable portrait lighting approach should consider using a ring light. These strobes, like the affordable AlienBees ABR800, are round with a hole in the middle; through that hole you stick your lens. This way, the right light wraps around the entirety of the lens, and it comes straight from the lens axis, left and right, above and below. This means the light produces no shadows visible to the camera—at least no typical shadows. What a ring light does produce is a sort of “halo” of shadow all around the subject.

lighting for photography
AlienBees ABR800

If the subject is close to the background, the shadow will be darker and narrower; farther from the background the shadow will be wider and less pronounced. In each case, though, this type of frontal lighting is fairly “slick” and lends itself to showy, glossy or otherwise bold portraits. It’s not the right look for warm and fuzzy family portraits; but it is appropriate for high fashion or when you want to upgrade the glamour. And it’s easy: step one, get a ring light. Step two, use the ring light!

lighting for photography
Portrait using a ring light

Fill Light

Both of the above techniques are fairly specific and produce distinctive, if not downright limiting, lighting looks. But there’s another on-axis lighting technique that can work with almost any style of photograph. It’s using a fill light directly behind the camera—which of course, means it’s directly on-axis—to add a hint of detail to every shadow the camera can see. I like to use a large, 7-foot octabank for my on-camera fill, but any large, diffuse source positioned at the camera (or, if big enough, right behind it) works great. I like the on-camera fill light rather than a bounce card reflector simply because I think it adds a bit of production value when you use an on-camera diffuse fill light. It adds a hint of detail to the deepest shadows without interfering with the lighting pattern you’ve otherwise created with your key light. When I want to add a bit of production value along with the fill light, I turn to the on-axis fill.

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