A Guide to Portrait Photography, Step Eight: Short and Broad Lighting Techniques And When To Use Them

Use "Short" or "Narrow" lighting to make a subject's face appear thinner

Every photographer, amateur or pro, sooner or later encounters someone who’s very conscious of his or her weight. They don’t like to have their pictures taken because they’re, in their opinion, “fat.” I encountered it the first time when I accepted my first wedding assignment. The bride didn’t want to sit for a formal portrait because she thought she had a “fat face.” She wouldn’t come to my studio until I made her an offer that she couldn’t refuse. I told her that if she didn’t think that she looked beautiful in the portrait that I made of her I would shoot her entire wedding for free. Big gamble? Not really because I’m an artist with studio lighting.

There are many techniques that a photographer can use to make a subject look thinner but since I was going to be shooting a head and shoulders shot, I chose to concentrate on lighting. The “Key Light” is your tool for making a subjects face look thinner than it actually is. This lighting technique is called “short and broad lighting.”

In my last installment in the “portrait series,” I introduced you to the single light portrait technique and the 45º Key Light setup https://knoji.com/a-guide-to-portrait-photography-step-seven-in-home-portraits-with-one-light-part-two/. In this installment, we are going to build on that technique. Today we are going to explore two types of 45º Key Light lighting techniques, Short Lighting and Broad Lighting techniques.

Short Lighting and Broad Lighting

Short Lighting is also often referred to as Narrow Lighting. When employing the Short or Narrow Lighting technique we illuminate only a small portion of the subject’s face, thus making it appear thinner than it actually is. As you learned in https://knoji.com/a-guide-to-portrait-photography-step-seven-in-home-portraits-with-one-light-part-two/ the Key Light sets the tone of the portrait, so with the Key Light positioned at 45º to your subject have her turn her face slightly toward the light but not too much. If she turns her face too much toward the light, the light will fall squarely on the front of her face and the thinning effect will be destroyed. If the light fall fully on the face you will have gone from Short or Narrow Lighting to Broad Lighting and the effect is reversed, instead of making the face appear thinner it will make the face appear fuller. In the beginning, until you have learned the subtleties of these two lighting techniques, it’s very easy to go from Narrow to Broad without even realizing it. The key to mastering these two techniques is practice, practice, and practice. Practice them until these lighting setups become second nature to you and you can set them up without having to really think about the steps involved. If your goal is to make her face look more full simply have her turn her face away from the light and toward the camera.

One word of caution is in order here. If you are deliberately setting up to use the Broad Light technique be careful to not let your subject turn her face too far away from the light. If she turns her face too far away from the light, the light will fall on her ear and it will stick out like a sore thumb, giving her elephant years. Yuck!

For the most dramatic portraits when shooting with the Short or Narrow Light technique, shoot with just the Key Light, using no fill light. Barn doors are handy accessories to have for your Key Light when applying the Short or Narrow lighting technique because they allow you to control the width of your light beam.

High Lighting Ratios

Using high light ratios is one of the keys to mastering the Short or Narrow lighting technique. Keep the fill light “dialed down” so that most of the face opposite the key light remains in shadows. These shadows are important because it’s the shadows that tricks our minds into perceiving the face as being thinner than it actually is.

Sounds simple, right? Trust me it isn’t simple to master and until you master these two techniques, you have not earned the right to call yourself a portrait photographer. How do you master these lighting techniques? There’s only one way to master them, practice lots of practice.

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