About Portrait Photography
Portrait Photography - Description and Lighting Techniques
Portrait photography is the capture by means of photography of the likeness of a person or a small group of people (a group portrait), in which the face and expression is predominant. The objective is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the subject. Like other types of portraiture, the focus of the photograph is the person's face, although the entire body and the background may be included. A portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the camera.
Unlike many other styles of photography, the subjects of portrait photography are often non-professional models. Family portraits commemorating special occasions, such as graduations or weddings, may be professionally produced or may be vernacular and are most often intended for private viewing rather than for public exhibition.
However, many portraits are created for public display ranging from fine art portraiture, to commercial portraiture such as might be used to illustrate a company's annual report, to promotional portraiture such a might be found on a book jacket showing the author of the book.
When portrait photographs are composed and captured in a studio, the professional photographer has control over the lighting of the composition of the subject and can adjust direction and intensity. There are many ways to light a subject's face, but there are several common lighting plans which are easy enough to describe. Of course making them work in a studio or on location is a matter of experimentation and practice.
One of the most basic lighting plans is called three-point lighting. This plan uses three (and sometimes four) lights to fully model (bring out details and the three-dimensionality of) the subject's features. The three main lights used in this light plan are as follows.
The Key light
Also called a main light, the key light is usually placed to one side of the subject's face, between 30 and 60 degrees off centre and a bit higher than eye level. The key light is the brightest light in the lighting plan.
The Fill light
Placed opposite the key light, the fill light fills in or softens the shadows on the opposite side of the face. The brightness of the fill light is usually between 1/3 and 1/4 that of the key light. This is expressed as a ratio as in 3:1 or 4:1. When the ratio is 3:1 this is sometimes called Kodak lighting since this was the ratio suggested by Kodak in the instructional booklets accompanying the company's early cameras.
The purpose of these two lights is to mimic the natural light created by placing a subject in a room near a window. The daylight falling on the subject through the window is the Key light and the Fill light is reflected light coming from the walls of the room. This type of lighting can be found in the works of hundreds of classical painters and early photographers and is often called Rembrandt lighting.
Modern portraitists have chosen to add one or two lights to this lighting plan
The Rim light
Also called a backlight or hair light, the rim light (the third main light in the three-point lighting plan) is placed behind the subject, out of the picture frame, and often rather higher than the Key light or Fill. The point of the rim light is to provide separation from the background by highlighting the subject's shoulders and hair. The rim light should be just bright enough to provide separation from the background, but not as bright as the key light
Butterfly lighting is another common lighting plan and has been very popular over the past decade or so. In this case, only two lights are common. The Key light is placed directly in front of the subject, often above the camera or slightly to one side, and a bit higher than is common for a three-point lighting plan. The second light is a rim light. Often a reflector is placed below the subject's face to provide fill light and soften shadows.
This lighting can be recognised by the strong light falling on the forehead, the bridge of the nose and the upper cheeks, and by the distinct shadow below the nose which often looks rather like a butterfly and thus provides the name for this lighting plan. Butterfly lighting was a favourite of famed Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell which is why this style of lighting is often called Paramount lighting, after the movie studio of the same name.
These lights can be added to basic lighting plans to provide additional highlights or add background definition
A kicker is a small light, often made directional through the use of a snoot. The kicker is designed to add highlights to the off side of the subject's face, usually just enough to establish the jaw line or edge of an ear. The kicker should thus be a bit brighter than the fill light, but not so bright it over fills the off side of the face. Many portraitists choose not to use a kicker and settle for the three main lights of the standard plans
Not so much a part of the portrait lighting plan, but rather designed to provide illumination for the background behind the subject, background lights can pick out details in the background, provide a halo effect by illuminating a portion of a backdrop behind the subject's head, or turn the background pure white by filling it with light
Other lighting equipment
Most lights used in modern photography are a flash of some sort. The lighting for portraiture is typically diffused by bouncing it from the inside of an umbrella, or by using a soft box. A soft box is a fabric box, encasing a photo strobe head, one side of which is made of translucent fabric. This provides a softer lighting for portrait work and is often considered more appealing than the harsh light often cast by open strobes. Hair and background lights are usually not diffused. It is more important to control light spillage to other areas of the subject. Snoots, barn doors and flags or gobos help focus the lights exactly where the photographer wants them. Background lights are sometimes used with color gels placed in front of the light to create coloured backgrounds.
Styles of portraiture
There are many different techniques for portrait photography. Often it is desirable to capture the subject's eyes and face in sharp focus while allowing other less important elements to be rendered in a soft focus. At other times, portraits of individual features might be the focus of a composition such as the hands, eyes or part of the subject's torso.
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