Simplify And Clarify; Taking The Mystery Out Of Lighting
Monte Zucker
• Posted Oct 1, 2005

Isn't it time that we simplify and clarify what portrait lighting is about? I think so! Many photographers are afraid to photograph indoors, because they don't know what to do with light. Others go outdoors and take snapshots, because they don't know how to control light.

I was fortunate enough to learn one simple lighting pattern that works for everything I do--whether it's portraits or landscapes. Whatever my source of light might be, I'm always going for light that creates a three-dimensional appearance on my subject matter. For portraits it's a light that comes from slightly above the subject's eyes and just a little to one side. I'm looking for light in the subject's eyes and a shadow on the side of the nose that comes just to the base of the nose.

Here's a typical setup for my classic portraiture that works every time for every subject. My main light creates the lighting pattern. With digital photography I'm exposing for the main light, so that I don't overexpose the highlights. A fill light behind the camera is 2 f/stops less than the main light. When I'm working with a full set of lights (as I'm doing here with my Photogenic lighting setup) I also use a hairlight, being careful that it doesn't spill over onto the face. Another light is opening up detail in the background. I can lighten or darken the background by putting more or less light on the background than on the face.

I'm using the same setup on location with the bride and groom. You can see the main light to my left, crossing over the bride's body for more detail and going toward the groom. (The couple, by the way, is Toby and Charlie, two of my favorite models. They have their own portrait business on the West Coast of Florida.) All of this month's photographs are of them, so that I can illustrate how many different ways I can light them--always going for the same lighting pattern. Sometimes it's more obvious than others, but I always have that pattern in mind when I begin.
Lighting them inside the church was a combination of available light and a Quantum digital flash used bare bulb (without the reflector attached). I posed the couple as far from the background as I could in order to make them the center of interest and keep the background of the church secondary. I used a wide angle lens and stayed within 5 or 6 ft from them with my Canon EOS 20D and a 17-35mm lens.

The exposure was set by letting the camera do its thing. I set the camera on Aperture Priority, allowing the automated sensor to select the shutter speed for the background. I then set the camera manually to the exposure that the camera had selected and let the digital sensor of the flash do the rest. Quantum has a sensor that can be mounted on top of the camera that can set the balance of flash-to-ambient light anywhere from 3 f/stops below the ambient light to 3 f/stops above the ambient light. I've found that for a very natural look I like to have the flash 11/2 stops below. If you look carefully you can see the shadow from my flash on the floor behind Charlie.

To have the color of the flash match the color of the ambient light I create a blank layer on top of the picture by setting the mode to "overlay." Then, I select a color from the background and fill the top layer with that color. Finally, I bring the opacity of the overlay down to around 8 or 10 percent, or to where it looks most natural.

The flash is off to my left side by means of an extension cord between the flash and the camera. I placed the flash to where I would achieve the same exact lighting pattern as I always use on my subjects.
When photographing outside I first look for two basic things: 1) a cover from overhead light and 2) a background with depth. Under cover of the church's front walkway was an ideal location. I placed Toby and Charlie where there was ambient light coming in from their left side and slightly behind them. The exposure was selected for the ambient light on them before I used a flash. In order to achieve the same lighting pattern on their faces I placed my Quantum bare-bulb flash to my right, again achieving the same lighting pattern on them as before. At 11/2 f/stops below the ambient light it's very subtle and does not change the natural look of the ambient light.

The white balance for all the pictures in this series was set by pointing the camera's lens toward the light source with an ExpoDisc covering the lens. Then, I told the camera to set the white balance according to the exposure that I made with the disc covering my lens. It takes only a few seconds to achieve a near-perfect white balance. Worth the effort? I would say so!
Window light (at no surprise to you by now) also cries out for the same lighting pattern. It's best achieved a few feet from the window, rather than right next to it. At a similar distance of light-to-subject as in a studio environment the light wraps around the subject more softly and there is much less contrast than when the subject is closer to the window. In the insert of this photograph you can see how I've used a Westcott silver reflector (Monte's Illuminator) below and to the side of her face to open up the shadows and her eyes from below.

The way I've posed the two of them together by window light is creating a slightly different lighting situation from the previous window light picture. Still, the lighting pattern is very similar. I've posed them so that they both are getting light on the left side of their faces. In order to achieve that I've had to position Charlie slightly ahead of Toby, allowing the light onto his left cheek.

Now, with no light in their eyes and only lighting one side of their faces with the window light, I've placed my silver reflector camera-right. I've turned it toward the window to pick up the light and then angled it much like a mirror from my right side to reflect the same light pattern onto the shadowed side of their faces.
Does the same lighting pattern work outside in bright sunshine? Of course it does!

Here in mid-afternoon direct sunlight I've positioned them similarly to the way I posed them by window light. I have direct sunshine falling on both of their faces. Then, I placed a strong, direct Quantum flash to my right to create the light on the front of their faces. I set the flash to be 1 f/stop over the ambient light this time. The results are totally natural looking. The strong sunlight is still overpowering the flash, but with the flash added you can see detail in their eyes and throughout the shadowed areas of their faces.
As the sun began to get closer to the horizon I was able to place Westcott's translucent panel between them and the direct sunlight.

By turning their faces toward the broad light source I was again able to attain the exact same lighting pattern on their faces as I have been using all along. The sandy beach was my reflector fill. When they were posed by the panel you could see the lighting pattern on both profiles before I snapped the shutter. I still had my camera set for Aperture Priority. With all that white coming into the lens I had to override the camera's setting by 1 or 2 f/stops to keep the faces from going too dark.
When the sun goes still closer to the horizon, the intensity of the direct sunlight becomes so much less than before that I'm able to use the direct light of the sun as my main light.

From an extremely low camera height I was able to place this 2/3 view of Toby against the sky to create a high-key study of her. I simply turned her face to the light and positioned my lens on the shadowed side of her face, looking up toward the sky. It took me one or two exposures to get the proper exposure, much the same as it did when I photographed the two of them together against the translucent background.
Toward the end of the day, the color warms up and the late afternoon sunlight begins to radiate warmth on their faces.

Notice anything different about the light pattern on Toby's face here? Of course not! It's one and the same--all natural light!
There was some forethought in setting up this photograph.

I told Charlie which direction to face, so that I could photograph into the shadowed side of his face. Look, there's that same lighting pattern on him, just as if I had planned it that way. Smiles. Then, I just let them play, and you see the results here! For this picture I used Shutter Priority to stop the movement.

The final double profile of the two of them still shows that same lighting pattern.
So, are you bored with my using only one lighting pattern throughout this whole series? Or, are you getting the point? One doesn't need to learn a whole lot of different lighting patterns to create a variety of pictures. Here, under so many different lighting conditions, I was able to vary the contents of the pictures without having to change the pattern at all.

In a way it's comparable to creating a lot of different sentences, all constructed using a subject and a verb. We all speak the same language, but at the same time we're each able to express our own feelings differently. The sentence structure doesn't change, only the message changes. Are you getting my message? Keeping the lighting similar in all of these pictures is a way of expressing one's feelings. If you aren't worried about the grammar (lighting), you can say just about anything you want in your photographs!
Hey, what the heck happened to the mystery of lighting? There is none. It's always the same for me!

Toby and Charlie, by the way, will be posing for my November class in Hollywood, Florida, and also for my Las Vegas class just before the WPPI convention. Hope to see some of you there.