The natural progression for many portrait photographers is to begin lighting their subjects with natural light before moving to flash. They embrace the available light of large windows or the magical hours of natural light when the sun hangs lower in the sky. Both scenarios can provide a softer and more flattering light.
But then (slowly) photographers migrate to the flash photography firmament and the incumbent harsh, unforgiving hard light of flashguns, before the first tentative steps towards studio flash heads.
Then, as soon as they are set up they go straight back to the lovely soft light of softboxes and tend to stay there, forever wary of that less than flattering hard lighting. It is, of course, true that hard light sources like bare reflectors and grids are not as flattering as the softer lighting offered by softboxes - but there are a few key characteristics of hard light that can extremely favourable, if used correctly.
The large light source provided by a softbox envelops its subjects, bathing them in light and filling in any undesirable lines and wrinkles.
But unfortunately this can also reduce the contrast in the image overall, especially on items where a bit more contrast would help to add shape and texture – on clothing and hair, for example.
Conversely, the relatively small light source of our hard light provided by grids will be less flattering on our subject’s skin but perfect for bringing out contrast and allowing features like hair and textured clothing to stand out.
So how do we best capitalise on the qualities of both hard and soft lighting?
It’s achieved by combining them into a single light source and in this lighting set-up I will explain how we can utilise the soft, flattering light of our softbox and the hard, contrasting light of our gridded reflector and combine them into a single light to get the best of both worlds.
Step One: the hard light.
On our first light here we will be using a gridded reflector. This is our hard light - and getting it correctly positioned is probably going to be the trickiest part of this set-up. Using hard lighting on your subject can be incredibly unforgiving, so making sure that we have this initial light correctly set-up will ensure the rest of the lights complement the look, rather than clash with it.
The flash is positioned above the model’s head and angled down at about 45 degrees. The height you set this light is dependent on your subject but you want the light high enough to create shadows under the jawline and eyebrows, but not so high as to eliminate catchlights in the model’s eyes. This light will add considerable sparkle to any jewellery and shine to hair and clothing but may not be very flattering on the model’s skin.
Step Two: the soft light.
The second light to be added to our set-up is the large softbox - placed directly behind the initial gridded light.
The positioning of this light is relatively simple because as long as it is completely covering the hard light it will bathe our subject in a gorgeous soft light and fill in some of those unflattering shadows.
We now have two key lights pointed at our subject; one gridded hard light adding some contrast to hair and clothing and one softbox light adding a more flattering light for the subject’s skin.
The trickiest part about this combined key light is getting the right power combination between the two flash heads. The look you choose is down to personal preference but as a guide I would always start with my soft light at twice the power, or one extra stop brighter than my hard light.
Step Three: the fill light.
Even with the addition of our soft key light there are still some dark shadows beneath the model’s chin and under her arm. By introducing a fill light we can add some much needed detail back into the shadows.
I've used a small softbox on a floor stand and I've angled the light up towards the model.
You could try this with a reflector but it will never be able to provide the same amount of power and control as an independent flash head.
Also, when using a reflector to bounce light back into a shot you have to have it quite close to the model. This is fine for head shots but if you want to zoom out and get more of a half body shot like this then a reflector is going to appear in the frame.
Step Four: the hair light.
When shooting portrait work like this in a studio you will often find that your background falls into darkness and if you're not careful your model can get lost, unless lit appropriately.
With the addition of a hair light we have added real shape to the shot. The model’s right arm and shoulder were going AWOL in the shadows, so by introducing this light from behind, we have made her stand out from the background.
The fourth light in this shot was another gridded reflector positioned behind the model directly opposite our key lights with the subject between them.
The light was raised above the model’s head and angled down to ensure as much coverage as possible on the top and sides of her head.
Step Five: the background light.
This final light is optional and dependent on your environment. For this particular shot I wanted to add a little extra light to the background to make my model stand out even more. So for this fifth and final light I used a large softbox and positioned it in such a way so as to feather the light.
Feathering the light means that you are not using the light pointed directly at the subject but rather you are using the edge of the light to create a softer more even lighting effect. By angling my softbox away from the background like this I am able to light the entire area behind the model without any noticeable hot spot. I also have the added bonus of adding a little extra light to the model’s hair on the right hand side of the frame. But you could choose to flag this out instead.
This five light set-up may seem a little daunting at first but when setting up each light one by one like this it's actually quite simple to get it right.
It's also worth remembering that you can effectively get this look with just three lights. You can substitute the fill light with a reflector and you don't necessarily need the background light. The most important part of this look is the combined hard and soft key light.
If you're going to be doing any hair and beauty work then I urge you to definitely give this set-up a go and adjust the ratios of the hard and soft key light to see what works for you.
The photography in this post, unless otherwise specified, is copyright of the author and may not be used without written permission. Please respect photographer's rights.
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