Best Lights for Portraits
Photography is about light and controlling light. Light creates the mood in photographs. Under good light, any ordinary object can turn into a beautiful photograph. Portrait photography is no exception. You have unlimited ways to control light in studio to create different moods. You can use from simple on camera flash to more high powered studio lights and the popular tungsten balanced photofloods. The question is, which lighting gives the best effect?
On camera flash: This would be my last choice. On camera flash gives flat results and you have very little
control over the light. You also risk red eye with on camera flash and risk loosing
details in the portrait. Controlling the background is another problem unless you use two
flashes: one for the main subject and one for the background. The only advantages of this
method is ease of use and correct color balance for daylight films. Use on camera flash
only as the second light source to fill in shadows.
Off-camera flash: This is the best way to use your flash for portrait photography. This gives much softer result but positioning the flash and direction of light needs extra care. There is no right or wrong way of positioning the flash. It depends which part of the portrait you want to bring out more or how you want to control shadows. If working with a single flash you need to create a balanced exposure to control background. Although off-camera flash creates softer light than on-camera flash, it is still not the best method. It is best to use off-camera flash with some type of reflector and a photoflood.
Reflectors: By placing a reflector and a photoflood, you reduce contrast and remove shadows to bring out details. Since photofloods are tungsten light, your off-camera flash is used to balance the light for daylight film. You can also position your flash to remove shadows or illuminate the background. You can also use the reflector without a photoflood to bounce off the light from your flash to create a soft light without washing out the details. Depending on the placement of the reflector, some shadows can be added to the portrait to bring out the most interesting parts of a person's features.
Photofloods: These are very inexpensive and popular units for portrait and other types of studio photography. Floods are tungsten balanced films and much like regular desk lamps, so make sure to use films with correct color balance. There are unlimited ways you can use floods. I prefer working with floods and reflectors. This combination creates soft light and allows filling in shadow details. You need to carefully place the light depending on the type of result you are after.
- Rim Light: By placing the light behind the subject you create a silhouette with rim lighting on the hair or a star effect.
- Below light: By placing the light in front and below the subject, you can produce an unreal effect not seen in daylight since sun doesn't shine upward. Light illuminates the lower parts of the face with the rest in shadows. I call this ''freak light'' since the persons looks unreal which reminds me of scary characters in old silent movies.
- Side light: More details are revealed by side lighting. You can bring out the details in parts of the face and create deep shadows on other features by placing the light 45 degrees to the camera. At 90 degrees to the camera, all emphasis is placed on one side of the face and hiding the other half. By placing the light at 135 degrees to camera, the face becomes unrecognizable and only a shape dominates the picture.
- Front light: Brings out maximum detail but very flat results. Avoid positioning the light too close or you can wash out details.
- Top light: Lighting the subject from top, produces strong modeling light without washing out details.
- Background light: You can create a silhouette by lighting the background only.
- Two lights: A second light can be used to remove shadows formed by the main light source. The main light (also called key light) is used to illuminate the subject while the second light is used to remove shadows, light the background, or to add emphasis to particular features such as hair or clothes. Take caution not to create double shadows when working with two lights.
The best way to find out which light is best for portraits is to run a test by positioning the light source at different angles and comparing the results. You can buy a set of floods and stands for under $50.