A Quick Review of Portrait Lighting Terms

I shot this portrait as a demonstration to discuss lighting ratio and contrast effects in a workshop that I hold once a month. The point that I was demonstrating happened to be exposure values versus perceived tonal values in various parts of the image depending on local contrast. More on that subject another day. During the demonstration I used a couple of terms that were either unfamiliar to the participants or were perceived in a different way than I perceived them. In any event, a discussion followed that I thought was very useful and thought I would share a summary. First a couple of terms that are widely used when communicating a lighting setup, especially regarding portraits. They have been around for eons. The terms themselves are only useful in describing a general setup of the main or key light but I discovered they can actually be useful as a guide in variations on a theme. I would absolutely recommend against using terms as a hard and fast set of rules or formulas, instead using some of the concepts embodied in the terms as starting points. Hollywood or butterfly lighting - describes a main light directly in line with the camera and above the subject. The butterfly term comes from the shape of the shadow cast by a subjects nose. Paramount or loop lighting - describes a main light that is 15 to 30 degrees off axis from the camera (depending on who you ask) and above the subject. Generally this set up is extremely versatile and easy to deal with. It lights most of the subjects face with a shape defining shadow on one side. Rembrandt lighting - describes a main light that is about 45 degrees off axis from the camera and above the subject. Rembrandt lighting casts much more shadow on the face of the subject and creates a telltale upside down triangle of light on the subjects cheek under the eye on the shadow side of the face (seen in so many Rembrandt portraits hence the term). So far so good. Notice that I described the position of the light in terms of it's relation to the camera not the subject. I did that to emphasize that the terms are about light position relative to camera position assuming that you are shooting the subject pretty much strait on. Now obviously you can move and the subject can move and turn their head etc. More on this in a minute. Now a couple of terms that are a little bit askew because they deal with camera position relative to subject position and main light placement. Broad lighting - means that you are shooting the subjects face from the side closest to the main light and farthest from the shadow. Short lighting - means that you are doing exactly the opposite, you are shooting the subjects face from that shadow side. Now you have some new words but more importantly try each one and some variations on the theme with your willing subjects. Even if you have one light and a reflector you will be amazed at how different a subject looks with each of the main light setups the terms represent or shooting from the shadow side or the highlight side of each. Try them with different lighting ratios as well. As an example let's take the portrait at the top. A softbox was used as the main light and I set it up so that it would give me that little Rembrandt triangle on the shadow side of the subject's face. I used a reflector to provide a little fill in the shadows so they didn’t go black but are still really dark. I shot it “broad lit” from the highlight side of the subjects face.

Here is the exact same softbox, the exact same reflector the same shadows values, the same model. This time with the main light set to more of of a Paramount/loop position but almost at the Rembrandt position and short lit - shooting from the shadow side. One of the things I do in the workshops is to use somewhat extreme lighting ratios to emphasize some concepts but the same concepts apply to more moderate lighting ratios as well. In fact one of my all time favorites is Rembrandt lighting at very low lighting ratios for beauty shots. It adds some nice pizzaz to otherwise the same gigantic flat light source beauty shots we are so used to seeing. If you want to try extremely low lighting ratios you may want to work backwards - setup your fill first and your main last. Just a hint, I'll show you why in another post.

RB

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