If you want to know the best technique for taking great portraits, it's no great secret - lighting is the key. You can get this spot on using natural window light or the diffused light of an overcast day - but that won’t get you by for all your work. You need to know how to set up artificial lighting to give amazing results too, whether in your studio or other locations.
You’re going to want to know about continuous light sources, like floodlights or spotlights, or alternatively instantaneous light sources, like strobes. Then there are the accessories that complement and extend the use of these - like umbrellas, reflectors, diffusers, and an assortment of light stands so you can position and aim everything just right. The main advantage of using continuous light sources, is that you can see the effects of your lighting and lighting changes easily, especially great for those new to taking portrait shots. If you also want to use strobes, you may then want to use modelling lights to help you pre-visualize the lighting effects, so you can position them for the lighting you want.
Ultimately, the key concept is that all the main lighting effects are set up how they are to copy the look and feel of natural light. If that is not what you are going for, then you can disregard the traditional advice and go for your own unique and creative spin. Just bear in mind that some of the effects will be unflattering and a bit strange to the eye of others who are looking for that more natural effect. But before you go off on your own individual track, it is wise to master the basics first, then understand how and why your tweaks will work.
Let’s start with defining some of the main terminologies you’ll hear around the lighting components:
The “Key Light” or “Main Light” In any lighting set up there will be one light that functions as the main source like the sun. For a classic glamour lighting look, it should be positioned high and rotated at roughly 45 degrees to the subject from the right of the camera. It can be moved lower and further to the right of the subject to produce more extreme directional lighting effects that are generally flattering and slimming to the face. However, this Key Light should not be positioned lower than the subject’s head unless you are wanting to produce an “unnatural” effect with the shadows that will result.
The “Fill Light” This is weaker than the Key Light, so it is essentially a secondary or supplementary light. In most cases, this is placed on the opposite side to the Key light (e.g. to the left of camera, or aimed at the subject from the shadow side) to soften out the shadows and shadow lines. In general, this is flattering to the face and will produce better highlighting of the subject’s contours. In terms of settings, the Fill Light is normally set to deliver between ½ and 1/3 of the level of illumination from the Key Light. For a classic glamour look, another option is for the Fill Light to be placed directly below the Key Light, and both lights directed at the subject, (eg from the right of camera) and a reflector positioned opposite (so left of the subject) to fill in the shadows.
The “Hair Light” or “Kicker” This goes where the name suggests, above the subject to throw highlights on the hair only - but not to add light on the subject’s face. It is generally pointed in the opposite direction from the Key Light.
The “Background Light” This is one of the last lights added to a kit and used less frequently in the studio. If you use one, it is best placed low and behind the subject. It should throw a semi-circular light effect on the background - lighter in the centre and getting gradually darker toward the edges of the shot. If you have a seamless single colour background, this technique is especially effective.
Soft Light or Diffuse Light These light sources are much easier to control. An experienced professional might use parabolic reflectors on their light sources to create striking effects, but for a beginner pr intermediate level photographer, a diffused light source from a softbox, diffusion disc, or made by bouncing the light into an umbrella, are much easier to control. Another advantage is that the placement is more forgiving and less critical to the success of the shot. Many professionals that shoot studio portraits today rely on these diffuse light sources, and some would argue that it has become the dominant style. If you decide to go the more traditionalist route and use a harder light source, mastering softer lighting first will definitely help refine your skills.
3 Basic Portrait Lighting Setups
Butterfly Lighting, or Glamour Lighting: Place your Key Light high and aim it directly from the front at the subject’s face. Place your Fill Light right below the Key Light, as suggested earlier, and use a reflector opposite both lights and close to the subject to fill some light into the shadows. If you do it right you’ll see a small butterfly-shaped shadow just below the subject’s nose. Optional: Add a hair light directly above the subject which is aimed at the hair, and also a background light aimed at the background from a low angle.
Rembrandt Lighting: This gets its name from the lighting style found in many Rembrandt paintings. Place the Key Light at just under 90* angle and slightly to the front of the left side of the subject’s face, and then place the Fill Light on the opposite side of the camera from the Key Light, close to the line between the camera and the subject. Kickers are also used in this technique to bring out the sides of the face and define the shoulders. If you do this right you will see a small triangle of light on the subject’s cheek.
Split Lighting: This technique draws its name from the effect - the Key Light illuminates just half the face, and it gives a dramatic effect when no Fill Light at all is added. The Key Light is aimed at one side of the subject’s face (typically the left) again, at nearly right angles but positioned slightly behind the subject. If desired, a weak fill light can be positioned on the other side, close to the camera. This should minimize any facial defects, and if you choose to use hair light and background lights, remember the placement advice given above.