The rules of portraiture say you have to use soft light to make your subjects look their best. While it’s true that soft light (from diffused sources like windows and softboxes) is definitely flattering for faces, it can also be somewhat boring when it’s not used carefully. So sometimes I move down the spectrum, away from soft light sources toward harder ones—like bare bulb flashes and bright sunlight. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to break the rules and try a hard-light source for a portrait.
• No matter what kind of face you’re photographing, soft light will make it look good. It’s crucial, in fact, with faces that have excess unbecoming texture—wrinkles, blemishes and so on—that you employ soft light to minimize these features. But some faces stand up well to hard-light sources, and some even look better with harder sources. If you want to make a round face look thinner, for instance, the pronounced, harder-edged shadows from a specular source can visually make the face appear more angular. Split lighting, where the light is placed at the side, helps the face appear thinner since half of it disappears into shadow, though this position can be tricky as it also amplifies texture. Only try it on a subject with perfect skin. In general, when you’re faced with a subject with a model-caliber complexion, you’re likely looking at someone who can stand up to hard light.
• Specular sources close to the camera (such as a flash mounted right next to the lens) can flatten a subject because they eliminate shape and texture with frontal light. But that also means they fill in pores and wrinkles on the skin—and that can be great. The farther a hard light is moved from the camera position, the more dramatic and pronounced the shadows become. That means when working with a specular light source, if you want your subject to look good, keep the light close to the camera axis. Moving the light straight up above the camera produces a butterfly style lighting pattern (named for the butterfly shaped shadow it produces beneath the nose) is the perfect place to start.
• Unless you want drama, use lots of fill. Deep and dark shadows are where hard lights get their pop. But too much drama can be off-putting if you’re trying to make a pretty portrait. That’s the same idea behind keeping the source close to the camera. Especially if you’re going to break that rule, and even if you’re not, you’ll be well served by using reflectors to keep shadows from going too dark and dramatic.
• Consider subtle diffusion. You can use a specular source, like a strobe in a parabolic reflector, with a bit of diffusion material to take the edge off the light and soften it just a touch. This is the way photographers in Hollywood’s golden era of portraiture were able to make such consistently beautiful portraits with specular light sources. Diffusion can also be employed elsewhere in the process. Though it’s old school, diffusion like nylon or a cellophane over the lens also takes the edges off to produce a more flattering appearance without explicitly affecting the quality of light. That old-school method isn’t used so much any more because it can be so efficiently done in the computer. Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur and Smart Blur tools (found in the Filter menu) can go a long way toward softening an otherwise overly detailed portrait. Just be careful not to obliterate all the detail in the skin; that’s a recipe for an unrealistic, fake looking portrait.
• Remember that all specular sources are not created equal. Some lights and modifiers offer the best of both worlds. The Fresnel lens, which creates a focused hard light with a beautifully soft edge, works wonderfully for portraits. The beauty dish creates a broader source for a hard-edged shadow with a subtly diffused output that looks, well, really beautiful. The example above was shot with a beauty dish just above the camera with a hint of fill thrown in. While it’s not a truly soft, diffused light source, it sure does help this portrait subject look beautiful.