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Lighting Your Subject

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The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Peter Hurley’s book, The Headshot.

I developed two separate systems for lighting men and women for headshots. I started with them both the same, and then decided to mix it up with the men a little bit. For women, I like the lighting really flat, similar to the light coming through the window when I started way back when. For men, I like to have an emphasis on their bone structure, giving them a more chiseled look if the structure is there or just making them look a little rough around the edges.

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I don’t mind shadows on men, for the most part, but I’m really not a fan of shadowing women at all. The light just evolved this way as I experimented over the years and now it’s pretty much set. Women come in and I either go for my square or triangle setup, and men come in and I go for a key light, along with my good buddy Phil (the fill light) and a kicker opposite the key light. I really like accentuating the jaw line on men, and I get that done through the use of a shadow on the far cheek and a good kick from the back.

With women, I get some accentuation of the jaw line if I’ve got their hair up. You’ll see a slight highlight around the jaw line if I get a nice bounce off the background. This is one reason I love ponytails or putting women’s hair up in my headshots.

Lighting Women

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Again, I like the center of the lights at the subject’s ear level. I’ll know they’re close enough to the lights by looking at the light. I want the subject positioned right where the lights are going to converge, about 2 feet from the front light. Position­ing is key: if I move them too close to the lights, I’ll miss the light convergence and start to get some shadowing in the inside corner of their eyes; if I move them too far back, the light flattens even more than I might like. So, I keep them in what I consider the sweet spot, where all the lights I have hitting my subject converge.

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Lighting Men

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Okay, so for guys, I’ll remove the top and bottom lights and take one of them and put it in the back on the right side and point it straight toward them, keeping the center of it at their ear level. By positioning it like this, I’ll be using it as a kicker. I always start with it off on the right side and move it depending on which side of the person’s face I’m favoring.

I have two lights in front and I power them differently depending on which side of their face I’m favoring, as well. If somebody’s good on their left side, I’ll begin there and my key light will be camera left of me and set to full power, while my light on camera right will be set to minimal power, with only the closest bulb to myself lit up. I’ll use this light as fill and move it either closer to the face or farther away to adjust the shadowing I’d like to see on the left cheek of my subject. If I want to favor their right side, then I just flip the entire setup around.

I really lean heavily on what I’ve termed “my buddy Phil” (my fill light). We have an incredible relationship, but he needs a ton of attention. I think Phil is incredibly important for whatever image I’m creating and I fine-tune where he is and what output I’m getting from him constantly. I may turn off a couple bulbs on one light and move Phil closer to or farther away from my subject. I might angle him differently to see what that does. My main light is generally set where it is and then I just mess around with Phil. He’s my buddy and I want him to be yours, too.

Remember, we are adding some “Phil” light to fill in the shadows on the side of the face that we are attempting to darken. I watch precisely where the key light falls, because I want to hit the cheekbone and have the shadow begin right there on the far side of that cheek. I’ll watch the shadow density, and that’s how I decide how to position and power up my buddy. So, find your Phil and use him wisely. I’d like you to experiment with him, too. He’s an asset to your work and should never be considered less important than your key light. The key may create the main look you are going for, but the fill will give your shot wings. Please don’t disregard Phil, he really does need a lot of your attention.

Let’s talk about that kicker now for a little bit. I really do love to have that little kick on the cheek for men or have a little wrap around a woman’s jaw line or cheekbones. Using the kicker in the back is great for men, however, if I was shooting a woman with long hair in this setup it would be difficult to see the kick unless we pulled her hair back. This is the reason I usually throw a woman’s hair up at some point during the shoot.

I do have the subject tilt or un-tilt their head on occasion in order to change how the kicker light fills the side of their face. I really don’t like them tilted in the frame, though, but I do want that kicker to run the side of the cheek. In this instance, I will tilt the camera along with the tilt of their head in order to effectively un-tilt the subject with the camera. I only do this on a solid background or something that isn’t too distracting, so use the tilt/un-tilt move sparingly.

So, that’s the kicker and I’ll move it to hit either cheek, placing it at 10:00 or 2:00 (if the person is standing in the middle of a clock and facing 6:00). Then, when I want to create more shadow on that cheek, I’ll just power it down or simply turn it away. I keep the subject’s nose generally pointed toward the main light and watch where the shadow drops off on their far cheek. I keep that kicker light right off whichever shoulder is being shadowed and am really conscious about how much power I’m using at all times. I really am into extremely subtle kicks these days. Also, a little tip: darker skin kicks more than lighter skin, so tone down your kick for darker skin and beef it up when you’ve got someone pale, like me, in there! The light is usually about 10 feet away from my subject, because I don’t want it to get in the way of the strobes hitting the background. I also like to keep a grid on it, so the light doesn’t stray too much.

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That’s about it. Those are the lighting setups I work with on a daily basis and all I really do to tweak it is vary the side that I favor with the key light, depending on the side of my subject’s face that I find most attractive. The key is to find a style you like and stick with it for a while, and then do subtle tweaking from there. I found a style that has worked for me and become timeless, so I continue to use it to this day. I am constantly seeking little tweaks and new looks, but I always seem to come back to my staple day in and day out.

Triangle Lighting

One of the tweaks I did a while back, along with shadowing men and throwing in the kicker, was using a triangle setup for women. I’ve always liked shaping the face with lights and I get a little more shape to a person’s face using the triangle rather than the super-flat light of the square. If you use the four-light setup, it’s like blasting the person to smithereens with light. You’re not going to get any shadow detail in most of the face—even the shadow on the jaw line will be very light. Keeping the lights at a similar distance from your subject and in the form of a square allows you to fill shadows as much as possible.

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So, sometimes I take out one of the lights to make the triangle, and on one side of the face there’s a little bit of a gap, so there will be more shadowing on the jaw line. I’ve found myself wavering back and forth between the two setups year after year, and the main reason why I’ll go to the square is because I may have to shoot two people at the same time. Triangle lighting is a bit tough for that and the square gives me a wider opening and even lighting for whoever I put in there. So, anytime I’m doing couples, families, or business partners, I’ll throw the square back up.

When going to the triangle setup, I keep one of the side lights from the square vertical. (I can’t stand triangles that look like a pyramid.) Keeping the left side vertical is my move because that light is essentially my key light and I like the one on the right to be angled toward it. Then I bring the bottom light in as fill, keeping a slight gap between the light I’m angling and the bottom fill light. This gap is usually on the far side of the face, so it creates a tiny bit more depth to the shadows on the jaw line, but it’s subtle. For me, I just believe it shapes the face a little bit more than the square setup.

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All photography ©Peter Hurley

For more on creating great headshots, check out Peter’s book, The Headshot, and his online classes at KelbyOne.

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