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A Guide to Portrait Photography Step Seven in Home Portraits with One Light Part Two

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the key light is the dominant light and placed at a 45 degree angle to and slightly above the subjects face

The most basic studio lighting set up for shooting portraits requires one light, the key light, set 45º to the subject. See the diagram below.

The key light always refers to the dominant light, no matter how many studio lights there are in your lighting setup. The key light, in the one light portrait, is placed at a 45º angle to the subject’s face and slightly higher so that the light focuses downward at a gentle angle. The key light sets the mood of the portrait. You can add other lights to your heart’s content-fill lights, background lights, hair accent lights, etc-but the key light must always be at a 45º angle to and slightly above the subject’s face. The reason that 45º lighting is so important is that it’s the perfect angle to create modeling on the human form. The term modeling refers to showing three dimensionality using light. Three dimensionality is lost if the light is on the camera because the flat lighting create no shadows on the face.

The Fill Light if used should be the first light you set up. The fill light is a large light with a softbox or umbrella reflector position behind the camera. The fill light provides a gentle wash of light over the subject to lighten the shadows produced by the key light. The light from a properly set up fill light will not be evident in the final picture. When setting up a fill light, dial its output down until it’s one to one and one-half stops below that of the key light. If you are just starting out in studio photography the odds are that you don’t have a light meter so you can use your cameras built in light meter to meter the light from the fill light and from the key light. Simply switch your camera metering system to the spot metering mode. Once you learn your equipment, you will be able to make these adjustments without having to actually meter the light. The easiest way to become familiar with your equipment so you will be able to make this adjustment automatically is to keep a record of your setups in a pocket notebook. Sketch out your setups with all settings marked on them.

The hair light acts to separate the subject from the background while enhancing the hairs shine. The hair light is positioned on the same side as the key light. The hair light should be positioned behind the key light at a 45º angle to the subject. The setting of the hair lights output depends on the color of the subjects hair, the darker the hair the higher the light output required. The hair light should be equipped with barn doors, a snoot, or a honeycomb so the spread of the light can be controlled accurately. Start out with the hair light at the same setting as the key light and then dial it up or down from there as required.

The background light is placed behind the subject and pointed directly at the backdrop to form a circle of light around the subject’s shoulders. The background light acts to separate the subject from the backdrop and call attention to the subject’s face. The power setting of the background light is determined by the color of the backdrop much as the power setting of the hair light is determined by the color of the subject’s hair. Start out with a power setting equal to the key light and then adjust upward from there.

A few general tips for setting up for your first studio portrait

1. Place the camera on a sturdy tripod and then adjust the tripod height so the camera is pointing at the subject’s chest.

2. Check for good catch light in the subject’s eye. The catch light comes from the key light so fine tool the position and power of the key light until you have good catch light.

3. Adjust the position and power of the studio lights one light at a time. All studio lights should be turned off except for the one being adjusted.

In the next part of this series, A Guide to Portrait Photography, Step Seven: In-Home Portraits With One Light, Part Three, I will introduce you to short, broad, and profile lighting setups.


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Jerry Walch

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