A Guide to Portrait Photography Step Nine Profile Lighting and Split Lighting

Profile Lighting isn't a commonly used setup but when used it can make for very dynamic portraits.
So far, we have talked about how to use one studio light to make striking portraits using the common 45° setup. We’ve talked about “Short Lighting” techniques to make a subject appear to be slimmer than they actually are and we talked about how to use “Broad Lighting” techniques to make a subjects face appear fuller. Today we are going to learn about two more lighting techniques used by the studio portrait photographer, Profile Lighting, and Split Lighting.

Profile Lighting

Profile lighting is another easy lighting setup that only requires one studio light. Hair lights, background lights, etc can be added if you feel them necessary but all you really need is the Key Light. Profile lighting involves the standard 45° Key Light setup and is easy to setup but it’s one of the least used lighting techniques in the studio portrait photographer’s tool kit. It’s an easy setup but it’s one fraught with pitfalls and dangers so most portrait photographers use it only when they absolutely have to.

Before we talk about the profile lighting setup, I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about when you don’t want to use the profile lighting technique. Profile lighting has a way of drawing attention to a subject’s worse feature. You need to watch out for ears and noses. If a subject has a big or deformed nose, don’t profile light the subject. If the subject has ears that stick out from their head or ears that are out of proportion to their head, don’t profile light them. Profile lighting will cause those noses and ears to look even bigger, even more deformed than they actually appear to the human eye. Profile lighting has a way drawing the viewer’s eyes right to those features because profile lighting makes them stick out like that proverbial “sore thumb.” If your subject has problem ears and you must shoot their portrait using profile lighting, keep the Key Light at 45° to the subject and the hair/ear will be in the shadows. You can also have your subject fix her hair in such a way that it covers her ears if she has long hair. If your subject has a hooked nose don’t even think about shooting her portrait in profile. With those caveats in mind, here’s how to setup the shot.

Pose your subject facing 90° to the camera lens. It doesn’t matter whether your subject faces to the right or left. Whichever position places their best side toward the camera is the best position. Start out by positioning your Key Light at a 45° angle to the side of the subjects face furthest from the camera, you can move the Key Light around between 45° to directly in front of the subjects face. The thing to keep in mind here is that flat lighting produces less dramatic portraits. You can also experiment with the height of the Key Light but you will discover that shoulder height is usually the best.

This technique will produce a good basic profile shot. Add a hair light, a fill light, and/or a background light if you feel them necessary. You can use barn doors, softboxes, and umbrella reflectors, as you feel necessary. Now let’s move on to split lighting.

Split Lighting

Split lighting like profile lighting isn’t a lighting setup that you will use everyday but you need to have it in your lighting bag of tricks. Split lighting is a lighting technique that lights just one side of the subject’s face while leaving the other side in shadows. This lighting technique adds a real sense of drama and mystery to a portrait and adds variety of a portfolio of photographs of the same person.

The Split Lighting Setup

The nice thing about split lighting is that you only need one light to make great portraits. Looking at this diagram you will see that I have three lights showing, the Key Light, a hair light, and a background light but the only light that you really need is the Key Light. You can use a Softbox or umbrella on the Key Light if you want but this is one lighting techniques that works equally well with soft light or hard light.

Position the Key Light at a 90° angle to the subject. With the studio strobes modeling light on, adjust the position of the light until the line dividing the lit side of the face from the side that remains completely in shadows runs straight down the center of the face, right down and over the tip of your subject’s nose. If you want to add a hair light to create some separation between the subject and the background, position it behind the Key Light, closer to the studio backdrop. If you want to add a third light to your lighting setup, add a backdrop light. Position the backdrop light directly behind the subject, pointed at the backdrop. The one thing that you want to keep in mind here is that the more light you add to a split lit portrait the less dramatic, moody, and mysterious the portrait becomes. By adding more light, you lose the effect that you chose the split lighting technique for in the first place.

In the next installment to this series I will introduce you to the 2/3, ¾, and 7/8 face portraits lighting setups but before I leave you today I want to stress the fact that the only way you will ever master these techniques is by practicing them. Like with most areas of photography, practice does make perfect.

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Posted on Apr 19, 2010