Light Control; The Key To Good Portraits
Monte Zucker
• Posted Feb 1, 2005

All Photos © 2004, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

Good portraits need to be created with controlled light. You just can't bring people out into open spaces--where light is coming in from all around--and get good results. There are many ways to control light for portraits both in a studio environment and outdoors. I illustrated several of my techniques for a class recently in Whitewater, Wisconsin, at Michele Gauger's studio. I think that the examples are worth sharing with you.

During the lighting demonstration I realized that our models, Elizabeth and Jason, were a perfect couple to illustrate how to handle a couple where the man is much taller than the woman. Notice how I've positioned them with Elizabeth covering much of Jason's body. By placing her in front of him you see much more of her than you see of him. Makes sense, doesn't it?

I selected a location for the picture that had light coming through from behind trees. I kept them as far from the background as possible. Even with bright, direct sunshine coming almost straight down from above, I was able to turn them so that the light came from behind them. Then, to light their faces, I positioned a bare-bulb flash (a Quantum digital flash without the reflector on it) to light them from my right side.

I chose to light it from my right, so that it would cross over both of their bodies and keep detail in their white shirts. I exposed for detail in the background using a 28-135mm lens on a Canon EOS 10D digital camera. The flash was equal to the f/stop, giving me great detail throughout the entire image.
In a more secluded area I posed them on a bench, again backlighting them. He's seated on his right leg to keep him slightly higher than his fiancée. This time I had someone hold my Westcott silver/black Monte Illuminator in a spot about 10-15 ft from them. The reflector picked up direct sunlight and bounced it back onto their faces. I'm using just the edge of the reflected light. If I were to angle the reflector too directly onto them they wouldn't be able to keep their eyes open.
Not far from the bench was a gazebo. I posed them on the outside rail, just under cover of the rooftop. Standing inside the gazebo I photographed their profiles, shooting from the shadowed side of their faces out toward the open light. The light on his profile was from the natural light, but the light on her profile was reflected light from my silver reflector outside the gazebo.
Just to show what you can do out in clear open spaces, I had Jason lie down on his back in the middle of the lawn. Elizabeth laid down on her left side, facing in the opposite direction. She put her head on his shoulder and I had them both look at each other.

Above them two photographers held a 4x6 ft Westcott translucent panel, softening the direct sunlight to what appears to be open shade. Flat lighting like this works well when you have two faces going in opposite directions.
Always a favorite shot in a wedding coverage is this silhouette of the bride and groom toasting with a single wine glass.

It's created by lighting just the background and turning off all the other lights. I overexposed the background by three f/stops, changing the dark green background to almost white. This, by the way, is the ideal way of lighting a glass. That is, lighting the background and letting the light bounce back through the glass. The "wine," by the way, is mostly water with a touch of coffee blended into it.
I've been creating bridal portraits for years with studio lighting. It's only recently, however, that I've gotten more specific about how I place the main light when I'm photographing one person's profile over the 2/3 view of the second person. I light for the profile, split-lighting the face of the 2/3 view.

By lighting for his profile I'm able to keep his ear in shadow and hold the viewer's attention on both faces. The left side of her face and the shadowed side of his face are opened up by both a reflector, camera left, and a fill light that is two f/stops under the main light. I'm always exposing for the main light, since exposing for digital imaging is pretty much the same as exposing for slide film. You can't afford to burn out detail in the highlights.

I'm able to get four lights out of this one power pack. Their faces, hair, her veil, and the background are all being lit with separate lights coming out of a new Photogenic 800 ws PM2 Photomaster power supply. The main light and the hairlight are going through Westcott 24" softboxes.

I've been using Photogenic lights for my portraits as long as I've been doing portraits with strobe. I only recently updated my lights to this new system, because the new light heads are so small and versatile. I can hang two lights in small Westcott softboxes on Westcott boom arms and place them wherever they need to be without having to worry about getting the light stands in the picture. The fill light is a fifth light coming out of an identical Photogenic Photomaster power supply. Actually, I could use anything for the fill, but I choose to use another Photogenic light and power source, so that I can have a back-up, should anything go wrong with my main lighting system.
Michele's studio is located directly on Whitewater Lake. How could we not use the setting for a couple of pictures? The late afternoon light was coming in at an angle that made me select this angle of view. I wanted the sun to be shining on the background, so that I could retain detail there. When I noticed that the light would be hitting them directly from the front (flat lighting both faces) I thought immediately that this is the perfect time to have them looking at each other.

I turned her body so that the light would cross over the bodice of her gown and show all the detail on the top of it. A 28-135mm lens worked perfectly, keeping the couple fairly close to the camera and the background far behind them.

When I noticed the late afternoon sun coming through the weeping willow trees I positioned the couple so that they would again be backlit by direct sunlight. I shot from across the lake, turning their faces toward the open light. There was no way that I could get a flash to light their faces, but I didn't need it, because there was so much light coming from the open lake.
The backlit weeping willow branches gave me another idea. I brought the couple inside a tree with me and looked at the light coming in from the outside. The light was too splattered from the direct sunlight, so I had a couple of people hold up a translucent panel outside of the tree branches to once again turn totally unusable light into beautiful, soft portrait lighting.
To achieve good portrait lighting I turned her face toward the light source, keeping the near side of her face in shadow, the same as I would do by window light. Once I had achieved proper light on her face, I positioned her body to support that view of her face. Then, I placed him behind her, keeping his head going directly toward the camera, rather than turning his head toward her and away from the light.
As you can see, you can't do very much without controlling the light. Everything is easy when you know how!