Precision Lighting

Today's post comes from the book Jeff Smith's Studio Flash Photography: Techniques for Digital Portrait Photographers by Jeff Smith. It is available from and other fine retailers.

When I was learning about portrait lighting, I saw the work of the old masters of lighting like Marty Rickert, Don Blair, and Frank Criccho. Their portraits have so much impact, drawing the viewer’s eye right to the face, even in portraits that were composed to show more of the body. At this time (thirty some years ago), these masters used parabolic lights for the ultimate control over their lighting. Back then, they didn’t have the choices of lighting attachments we do today.

I think of controlled light as precision lighting. It can be used to play up your subject’s best features or attributes and downplay perceived flaws. This can be especially useful when a little extra body weight or the effects of age and gravity make you think a head-and-shoulders shot would be your best bet, but your client really wants a full-length shot.

Precision lighting allows you to bring out the very best in every client while concealing aspacts of their appearance they may be less comfortable with.

Here’s how you can use precision lighting to your advantage: When you look at your client, try to determine what she would like viewers to see—and what she would rather have downplayed in the final portrait. You can use grids, barn doors, or louvers to direct light where you want it. Light-blocking tools can be used to reduce the light falling on heavy hips, short legs, large feet—whatever it is you think your client would rather not see.

Keep in mind that in posing, one part of the body (e.g., a shoulder or the legs) is often much closer to the main light than other areas. To make skin tones look even throughout the frame, you may need to reduce the amount of light that falls on certain areas.

Precision lighting can also be used to fix problems that arise when the subject is posed in different ways. Say your client has bare shoulders and very fair skin. You pose her and she looks great, except that her shoulder is whiter than the rest of her skin and is closer to the main light than the rest of her. If you exposed the image normally, her shoulder would glow. If you exposed for the shoulder, her face would appear too dark. To solve the problem, you can use a gobo to block the light from hitting the shoulder or use barn doors to reduce the light on the area. With this simple fix, you have a balanced portrait that is ready for presentation, right out of the camera.

When you are shooting a full-length image, you might pose your client with her legs closer to the main light than her upper body. This might make her legs look brighter/lighter than her skin tone. No woman wants her legs to appear more pale than her face; society has told women their legs must appear tan! By blocking or reducing the light striking the legs, you can make them appear less pale.

There are a variety of tools you can use to achieve precision lighting:

Barn Doors. Barn doors are an adjustable light modifier that can be attached to your light source to control the width and direction of the beam of light. They can be used to keep light off of a subject’s problem areas without affecting the characteristics of the light.

This parabolic light was fitted with barn doors. The modifier allows for enhanced control over the way the light spreads and produces a directional lighting effect.

Gobos. A gobo is a device that is placed between the light source and the subject to modify the way the light source falls on the subject.

Grids. A grid, sometimes called a honeycomb, makes the light from a flash (or other source) more directional. Grids are rated in degrees (e.g., 10 degrees, 20 degrees, 30 degrees, etc.). The lower the degree rating, the more narrow the beam of light. Grids give a harder look to the light than you will achieve with barn doors.

Louvers. Louvers have slats that keep light rays from spilling out of the side of a softbox. To control light from the top and bottom of the box, you must either feather the light or use a gobo to block the light from hitting areas that you want to keep in shadow. Since louvers are vertical, they only control light in one direction (side to side). I mostly use them on hair and accent lights to keep the light from hitting the lens.

I typically use barn doors or gobos to control my lights. There are times when grids are very effective. Grid attachments on a softbox focus the beam of light to a certain area, which can be very effective. I have a small softbox with a grid attachment that I often use for close-ups. When I pose the subject with her head on her arms or in her hands, I can use this small “grid box” to light just her face, leaving her arms and/or hands in shadow. This helps to frame her face.

When photographing a subject with her head resting in her hands or on her arms—or in a similar position—I often use a grid box to focus the light on her face and throw her arms/hands into shadow. This ensures that the portrait viewer’s attention is directed to the face, as the lightest area of a portrait draws the eye.


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