Lighting for Senior Portaits

Today's post comes from the book Jeff Smith's Senior Portrait Photography Handbook. This book is available from and other fine retailers.

Ring Lighting. This lighting style is one that I have noticed becoming popular in commercial photography, and even television commercials, six or seven years ago. They used a large ring light, similar to the ring light used for macro-photography but three, four, or five feet in diameter. While these were initially very expensive, Alien Bees eventually released a small model that was around $600. At that point, I bought one. It is smaller than I would have liked it, but it works well for the price.

The ring light, whether it’s a larger model or a smaller one, works on the same principle as the small “around the lens” macro-photography version; you position the camera in the middle of the ring. The lighting effect can be beautiful, but it is not for everyone.

A portrait lighting setup with a ring light and trifold reflector

I call these two styles—butterfly lighting and ring lighting—my “pretty people” lights, because it will make pretty people look stunning. If, on the other hand, you try it on a girl who has a large nose, no cheekbones, or otherwise looks like Ichabod Crane . . . well, things can get ugly fast.

Spotlights. Spotlights have the unique ability to draw the viewer’s eye to the main area of interest in a portrait, normally the face. When using a spotlight for the main-light source, you have to test the amount of fill used so that you soften the harshness of the look but do not void
the effect of the spot.

One of my favorite ways to use this light is simply to pose the subject leaning on a white wall with a single grid spot illuminating the subject and background. Whether this shot is taken as a full-length or head-and-shoulders portrait, the look is striking and yet simple. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a consistent seller.

Spotlights have the unique ability to draw the viewer’s eye to the main area of interest in a portrait, normally the face.

Diamond Light. The desire to accentuate my subjects’ eyes led me to use what I call a diamond light. Because the important points of the facial plain form a diamond shape, I cut out a diamond in a black sheet of paper, put it on a mount for a projection box, and project the diamond-shaped light pattern onto the face at a slightly greater intensity than the standard main-light source. If the projection box is focusable, make sure the diamond pattern is out of focus so there are no distinct lines from the gobo. The effects are beautiful. (Note: A few years later I was watching a show on television and saw a Playboy photographer using the same technique to add a glamorous look to the face of the young lady. So much for my “original
idea.” Photographers have probably been using a variation on this lighting idea since before I was born!)

The diamond light highlights the important planes of the face.

Parabolics. Parabolics, essentially large reflector dishes, have been used in portrait photography for decades. If you can imagine combining the light from a softbox with the light from a spotlight, you would end up with something close to the lighting produced by a parabolic. The light is harder than the light produced by a soft light source, but it’s also more controllable.

I often use this type of lighting when I am going to diffuse an image. Many times, when photographers diffuse an image, they do nothing differently in their lighting and wonder why their images look “mushy.” By increasing the contrast of the image, more of the fine details are preserved when the shot is later diffused.

I also use parabolics for corrective lighting, something I learned by studying the lighting styles of a photographer by the name ofMarty Richert. He used parabolic lighting, combined with barn doors and gobos, to block portions of the main light from hitting areas he didn’t want the viewer
to notice. He used the same technique to tone down lighter areas that were closer to the main light and would record too brightly in the final photographs. This kind of previsualization and control is what it means to be a true professional photographer and a master of your craft. Guys
like this produced results in their original images that many photographers today could only re-create in Photoshop.

When I work with a parabolic as a main-light source, I typically use a flash for fill. With the added contrast of this type of lighting, reflected fill isn’t always sufficient to open up all the little shadows in the nooks and crannies of the face. If you are like me, you will also find that your fill needs to be powered up a little more (producing a lower lighting ratio) than it would be with a softer source. As you test this type of lighting, be very careful about getting proper lighting on the eyes, using your fill light to soften and control the contrast.

While some younger photographers might think this style of lighting has an “old school” look, in this business you quickly find that what was once old becomes new again very quickly. As a result, many of my younger clients find this style of lighting very “classic Hollywood.”


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