Portrait photographers use a myriad of different lights and lighting styles to achieve the results they desire. I’ve seen great portraits taken with 10 lights, and even bigger portraits taken with just one light. The best photographers can do both and play with the lights like tools in their toolbox to create something unique.
In this article, I’m going to dive down the rabbit hole to try to explain some of the most common lighting functions in portrait photography.
Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this is just my view on light roles and how they should be applied. You don’t have to feel like this is what you need to do to get results, it’s just a way of seeing the roles of light in still photography. A light placed in a kick position can be key, and a light placed in a key position can be filled. How each is applied is up to the creative mind.
It is the most important light in the image and ideally it is the most visibly present light in the image. A good idea is to have your key left to right if you’re shooting for a mostly Western audience or right to left if you’re shooting for a mostly Arab audience.
The key light is usually the brightest and tends to be quite soft in most portrait situations, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to do with a hard key light. Some images, like the one pictured above, only need a main light.
A hair light will bring out the edge detail in the hair and highlight its shape. Naturally, a hair light is often used when you want to separate your subject from the background. Depending on your style of photography, you will either want to make your light hair very shiny and visible, or make it subtle and barely noticeable. If you choose to make it visible it will of course look very contrived and fake, while if you choose a more subtle route you will end up having a much more natural image. The image below uses a very soft and subtle hair light, so much so that it’s barely noticeable without specifically looking for it.
The hair lights are common points or grid/barn door lights as we don’t want to spill over the rest of the subject. A particularly big problem with hair lamps is that they can produce spread which can turn out dazzling in your shot. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a method to reduce the spread of light to the area you really need to cover: the subject’s hair. This can be done in a number of ways, one of which is to place a grid over your light and aim it very specifically at your subject’s hair. If you do this, you will evenly reduce the overall light scatter. If, however, you only want to remove reflections from your image, you can also place a flag between the light and your subject and your camera. This way the light will be much more controlled allowing less spillage which will eliminate glare.
Hair lights can add a lot of drama to the image and are commonly used by directors of horror movies or intense scenes to amplify this feeling for the viewer. Add a dramatic key that produces dark shadows and you have a perfect setup for some dramatic images.
Fill light is used to decrease the contrast on your subject. For example, if your image has shadows that are way too dark, you can introduce a fill to bring out the shadow detail. The fill is often a large light source placed behind the camera and you want the fill light to be as flat as possible as it is meant to brighten the whole image slightly. The fill light should not cast any shadows. In fact, the topic of fill light is so broad that I wrote a separate article about it for you to check out.
Side light is used to create split configurations. It is common for side lighting to be dramatic because it only reveals one side of the subject’s face. A very popular tool for side lighting is a strip light box. You can also create side lighting by photographing your subject next to a natural light source, such as a window. One thing to be careful about and considered a common pitfall with side lighting is not having enough accent light. Remember that filler is always important, regardless of its presence. Try to have some shadow detail at least when working with side lighting.
Kick lights are another way to highlight the face (or whatever your subject is). Many people often confuse a kick light with a hair light. The difference is that while a hair light only illuminates the hair, a kick can do that, as well as illuminate one side of the subject’s face. This will create more separation and add definition to the subject’s face shape. Typically, kickers are 0.75 or 1 stop above other lights hitting the face. It’s important to balance your kicker properly because it can feel off-putting if you do it incorrectly or inconsistently.
If you’re using a kick light, you have to remember that’s technically your key. The other light is a fill and it would be a good choice to have a large soft source to create this light.
It is also possible to use a single light source to create both the kicker and the accent lights with the right accessories. Any large light source placed relatively close to and behind the subject will produce the necessary “kick” to the hair and forehead, while the large size will ensure that the rest of the face is illuminated as well. To make things easier, it’s not a bad idea to put a white foam core or reflector on the other side of the subject to balance things out.
Rim lights are used to highlight the shape of the subject as well as provide additional separation from the background. They are usually banded boxes due to the thin, tall light pattern they form. Rim lights are very common when photographing athletes and fitness professionals, as they accentuate the harsh lines and shape of the subject’s body.
Remember that rim lights can also produce glare if positioned incorrectly. If there is no way to avoid the light in your frame, you can add grids and flags to the strip lightboxes to reduce this effect.
Another way to get peripheral lighting is to place a small light source directly behind the subject. This will create a halo around the subject’s hair and body. It’s even possible to use a single light to create rim and hair lights.
A catchlight is the small white spot that we often see appearing inside the eye of the subject of the photo. The reason I put it on the same level of importance as key or rim lights is simply that very few people pay attention to their catchlights. If you pay attention to people’s eyes in the real world, there will always be a bright spot inside them. For this reason, you cannot overlook the importance of a good catchlight. Assuming the catchlights are a perfect reflection, you won’t need too much power to produce them if you don’t have them due to the setup. A simple way to do catchlights is to place a small light source at your subject’s eye level and set it to a power setting where it would only appear in the eyes and pretty much nowhere else.
Remember that these “definitions” and suggestions are only one way to approach lighting for portraits. The truth is that there is no right Where Wrong way to the light. There is only appropriate and not appropriate for the image you are trying to create. This also applies to the light functions. If the photo calls for it, use a hair lamp and nothing else. I’m just presenting common definitions of light applied to portraiture, not the right way to do light. To be honest, I personally broke a lot of rules and got away with it because it worked for the situation and created a compelling image.
Anyway, I hope these terms cleared up some confusion and helped you find something new for your next portrait session.
Picture credits: Header photo of Depositphotos