How do you highlight or play down specific areas of portrait subjects and make sure that dark hair doesn't merge with the background? Jeff Smith explains how to set up and meter separation lights in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Corrective Lighting, Posing, and Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers.
This excerpt from Corrective Lighting, Posing, and Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media website.
Accent and/or separation lights become more important with corrective lighting. Because we use darkness/shadow to our clients' benefit, we must use small, controllable light sources to highlight only the areas we want the viewer to see. We often light a three-quarter or full-length portrait as a head-and-shoulders portrait (with our main light and reflector for fill), then use accent/separation lights to selectively illuminate the rest of the body. This gives us, as photographers, complete control over the outcome of the final image—and gives our clients a final portrait their egos can handle.
In almost all portraits, we use a small strip light overhead as a hair light. Since this light is aimed back toward the camera, it meters one stop less than the main light and yet provides a soft highlight on the top of the subject’s hair and shoulders.
Use separation light to accent only the parts of the client you want to draw attention to. Three variations are shown here, with separation light on the lower body (left), upper body (center), and head and shoulders (right).
For clients with long hair, we use two lights behind the subject. Each is placed at a 45-degree angle to the subject. These lights are set to meter at the same reading as the main light for blond hair or lighter clothing, or to one stop more than the main light reading for black hair and clothing. These accent lights are also fitted with barndoors to keep the light from hitting an area of the subject we don’t want to illuminate.
The idea is that you don’t want to see a perfect outline of the body in a problem area. For very heavy people, you don’t want to see an outline of the body at all. With the background light low and the subject standing in dark clothes against a dark background, you separate the hips and thighs (the same hips and thighs you know your client will worry about looking large). Raising the background light to waist height will separate the waistline and chest, making them more noticeable. Elevate the separation light to the height of the shoulders, and only the head and shoulders will be separated, leaving the body to blend with the background.
The greater the intensity of the background light, the more attention it draws to whatever part of the body it is separating—unless the subject is wearing lighter-colored clothing. Often a client will select a dark background and want to wear lighter-colored clothing with it. In this situation, by increasing the background light to match the brighter tone of the outfit, you will actually lessen the attention drawn to this area. By coordinating the tone of the clothes and the background (whether dark on dark or light on light), you can bring the focus of the portrait away from the person’s body and to his or her face. If, on the other hand, you create contrast between the clothing and background, you will attract attention to the subject’s body.
By coordinating the tone of the clothes and the background, you can bring the focus of the portrait away from the person’s body and to his or her face.
When the client’s clothes contrast with the background, it calls attention to the shape of the body.
Whenever weight is an issue and the subject has long hair, we leave the background as dark as possible and put a light directly behind the subject, facing toward the camera, to give the hair an intense rim light all around the edges. This draws the attention directly to the facial area and keeps the viewer’s eye away from the shoulders, arms, and upper body.
The number-one complaint from clients with dark hair is that in many previous portraits, they seemed to blend into the background. Adding accent lights angled back toward the camera eliminates this problem by creating a rim of highlights around the hair.
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