Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview hundreds of master photographers and learn from all of them. One topic that comes up time and again is the illumination of the human face. Whether it’s a wedding photographer focusing on a bride, a fashion photographer working with a model or a portrait photographer shooting a kid, they all echo the same sentiment over and over: the importance of illuminating the face. While the topic is filled with nuance and there are a million different ways to light a face, one thing remains constant: master photographers tell me the most fundamental part of their plan is to simply ensure that the face is the brightest element in the scene. To that end, here are three techniques to make a subject’s face the focal point of your photo.
Turn The Subject’s Face Toward The Light
Whether it’s an outdoor shot with sunset light from the side or an indoor shot made with a softbox from above, simply positioning the subject such that her face is toward the light source is a great start. This doesn’t have to mean, however, that the subject’s entire body must face the source. Nor does it mean that the entirety of the face needs to be illuminated. At its simplest, it means that if the key light is camera-right, the subject’s face should aim camera-right. You can still create a Rembrandt lighting pattern, split lighting effect or even just a sliver of rim light illumination, but by ensuring the subject is fundamentally facing toward the light source, the face is on its way to being the brightest element in the frame.
Avoid Bright Spots In The Background
Sometimes I’m composing a portrait and I notice the window light behind the subject is awfully bright. If it’s too bright, it will compete for attention. This is part and parcel the reason we want the subject’s face to be the brightest—because our eyes are drawn to brightness in the frame. Something as simple as a reflection, highlight, light bulb or even a white element in the background can draw the eye and compete for attention. This is particularly true if it’s a spot that’s noticeably brighter than the rest of the scene. Recomposing is a great way to fix this, hiding the bright spot behind the subject’s head or out of frame if possible. But, sometimes, no matter how we try, we simply can’t get that spot to disappear. In that case, I find retouching it away during post-processing is quite effective. A clone-stamp of another, darker area of the background can eliminate it completely or simply painting with a similar background color at a low opacity can take the spot down enough to blend in. It may not disappear, but by taking down the brightness, it’s less likely to compete for attention.
No matter how successful you’ve been in-camera with the above suggestions, there’s almost always room for improvement once the image is imported into the computer. Such RAW-based post-processing is the equivalent of darkroom dodging and burning and should be de rigueur for photographers who want to maximize finished image quality.
With regard to making faces the brightest area of the frame, my retouching workflow includes a few simple adjustments. First and foremost, I’ll often use a graduated filter in Lightroom’s Adjustments bar and set it to a slightly lesser exposure level. I’ll sometimes set it to bring down highlights and white levels as well. That graduated filter is then simply clicked and dragged from the bottom of the frame up toward the subject’s face to ensure the area below the chin is darker. This could include everything from the ground up on a wide shot or just the few inches between neckline and chin on a headshot.
On the example here, it starts to bring down the brightness of the subject’s shirt and neckline. This step is particularly important when lower areas are bright, but it’s useful regardless of the tones in the foreground.
The next step I apply to almost every portrait I shoot is a vignette, found under Lightroom’s Effects heading of the Develop module. It need not be dark and dramatic so much as a subtle way to darken the edges of the frame and drive the viewer’s eye toward the face. You can do it dramatically to shift bright tones from white to gray as in the example here or simply make middle tones and highlights subtly darker to help prevent them from competing for attention. The Amount slider controls how dark the vignette will be, while Midpoint moves the vignette from the edges toward the center of the frame. The Roundness slider can make the vignette rectangular to match the frame or rounder to fit the face, while Feather makes the edge transition of the vignette very soft. The Highlights slider allows any bright areas within the vignette to show through.
On this last point, I like to keep the Highlights slider low to knock down highlights since that’s the point of all this, after all, but the slider exists because sometimes too much of a good thing can look overcooked.
In my own vignette process, I start by setting the Amount to a very low number so it’s an obvious, even obnoxious vignette, then I drag the Midpoint and Roundness sliders until the effect looks correct to my eye. Feather I almost always want very high, in the 80s or 90s most often, to ensure it’s a very soft transition from highlight to shadow. A little goes a long way with a vignette, so the last step in my process is to dial back the Amount into the 20s at most. Even an Amount setting of 10 or less can subtly drive attention from the edges toward the center where the important stuff—like the subject’s face—will be.