A lot of people just use soft, bland lighting for headshots. It’s easy, the success rate is extremely high (in the sense that nearly all soft-lit shots work) but the results are frequently flat and boring. Personally, with the right subject, I tend to use hard lighting, it brings out the qualities of the person.
Why do so many people go for flat lighting? I think that what happens with a lot of people is that they go out and buy a hotshoe flashgun, stick it on the camera and discover that they can suddenly take photos that they couldn’t take before. OK, the photos are terrible, with harsh shadows, no sculpting etc. Then they discover that they can bounce that light off the ceiling, and suddenly the lighting has become much softer, much more flattering, so they adopt the belief that soft light is good, hard light is bad.
Then they buy one or two extra flashes, or a studio flash kit, they now have lighting stands and umbrellas, so they can get the lights away from the camera and produce really soft lighting. They’re really happy with the improvement, so they stop experimenting and stop learning. They think that all that really matters about lighting is avoiding shadows and having enough light to shoot at f/11. They look on t’interweb at tutorials on lighting from people who know no more than they do, they read camera magazines written by people who often just regurgitate an old article by someone else who doesn’t know better, they read books on posing and so on, and most of that info is telling them to use a formulaic approach to lighting that always produces an “acceptable” result but which will very rarely produce a good one.
A limited number of people go beyond that, and experiment to see exactly what can be done when the light is harder. They think about where most light comes from in the natural world, they realise that they can use backlighting in the studio as well as outdoors, they realise that soft lighting produces bland results, makes everyone look fat and so their lighting becomes progressively harder, when they have a subject who has qualities that benefit from that kind of treatment.
They come to understand that good lighting is really about creating the right shadows in the right places.
They come to realise that the “Soft light good, hard light bad” mantra is just as flawed as the “4 legs good, 2 legs bad” mantra of Animal Farm.
ANY method or system is inherently flawed. My model Dani is outstanding, and soft lighting on her would have been a total waste of her qualities, but if I was photographing someone older or with poor complexion then of course soft(er) lighting would have been a much better choice – but it would still be harder than most people would use.
Add into the mix the fact that the harder the lighting, the greater the failure rate, because a slightly wrongly positioned light, a slightly wrong shooting position or a slight movement of the model will usually ruin the shot.
In this first series of shots, the key light was a Lencarta fresnel spot attachment. It’s a bit of a specialised tool, I use it for this type of shot, and for cosmetics and jewellery adverts mainly. I also use it for some still life shots.
What the fresnel spot actually does is to create a light that’s bright in the centre and which fades out towards the edges, there is literally no other accessory that produces the same result. The effect is adjustable, so the gradation from light to dark can be intense, or gradual. It is also fitted with barn doors, although I didn’t use the barn doors for these shots. You can see it in the shot on the right, directly above the photographer’s head, and directly in line with the model. And, on the left, this is what it produced, on its own with no fill. The light is high so that it creates strong shadows, emphasising high cheekbones, creating a little shadow under the bottom lip and leaving the chin in shadow
Often, that’s the only light that’s needed, for example in this jewellery advert, but for the shots on the day, I added a fill light.
As I said, a fresnel spot is a pretty specialised tool, so the next blog will cover the use of a beauty dish instead.
A lot of people believe that a fill light is just a second light in a different place to the key light, but it isn’t. There are in fact only two possible places for a fill light to go, one of them is directly on axis with the camera lens (on axis fill) and the other is directly in line with where the model is facing. You can see the fill light in the setup shot above right, it’s the white shoot through umbrella. Literally any kind of lighting modifier can be used as a fill light (including the pop up flash built into some cameras) but I tend to use either a large shoot through umbrella or a large softbox, and I choose one of those because I can place it behind me, it’s big enough to still do the job when my body is blocking some of the light from it.
Mostly, I work completely without any kind of “system” – for example, with me, there is no such thing as a standard lighting arrangement, or a lighting/contrast ratio – these methods are about as creative as painting by numbers – but with fill lighting, I do have a set way of doing things.
1. I start off, always, with just the key light. That’s the light that does 90% of the work and I always set up with just the one light. Often, nothing else is needed.
2. If I feel that a fill is needed, I often use a reflector. A reflector is often great for fill, but of course it can only reflect “spare” light that has gone past the subject, it wouldn’t work for this shot because the fresnel spot directs all of its light onto the subject, there is no spare light to reflect back.
3. I then add my fill light, set to the lowest possible power. Quite often, the lowest power setting is all that’s needed.
4. If more power is needed, I turn it up slightly, take another test shot, and then repeat this as necessary until I’m happy with the result – but usually, the power setting is very low.
And here’s the shot with the fill added. By the time I had taken this shot, I had changed my own position and had also asked Dani to slip off her strap, which was distracting. With the fill, there was still enough shadow to draw attention to the shape of her face, but the level of fill was low enough for her eyes, hair and forehead to be brighter, and more attention-grabbing, than the rest of the shot.
You’ll see that the shot without the fill has an almost black background, and the background has lightened a lot in the shot with the fill added. It’s the same background, a white wall, but when shot with just the fresnel spot, virtually no light fell on the background, so it was virtually black. The fill light changed that.
You’ll see that Dani has her lips apart. This kind of pose draws attention to the size of the lips, and to the teeth. There are obvious sexual connotations here, and it’s usually good to have the lips parted, where possible. But a lot of models simply can’t do it well, and the shots look contrived and false.
So, if the model doesn’t look right with her lips parted, how can you overcome that problem?
We’ll cover that in the next blog.