One of my first recollections of appreciating the beauty of light was on a family road trip when I excitedly pointed out the play of light and shadow on a grassy ridge to a less-than-impressed audience. I am still on that lifelong quest to replicate the beauty of light that comes out of the shadows—to not just see the light but know the light.
My goal in lighting most portraits, especially sports portraits, is not a 3:1 lighting ratio with detail in the shadows. It’s to create a full range of specular highlights and a long range of midtones graduating into deep, robust shadows that define and provide a backdrop for the details. My reason for lighting this way was summed up well by Sir Francis Bacon: “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”
Renaissance painters, classical portraitists, digital composite artists, and even photo enthusiasts snapping photos with their iPhones need light to share their vision with the world. Without light we cannot illuminate our subjects, and without shadows we cannot define or evoke an emotional response from the viewer.
Light behaves in a very predictable way. Each ray travels in a straight line. Most of us have a bevy of modifiers to focus, bend, and diffuse light rays, as well as the knowledge needed to apply various desired effects. In order to master light it’s important to know light properties such as intensity, color, and contrast. It’s equally important to know that the subject reacts to light by absorption, refraction, reflection, or any combination of these.
HANDLING LIGHT CONTRAST. One of the most important elements of light for portraiture is contrast. If a light source’s rays reach the subject at the same angle, the image has a high contrast. A small parabolic directs light rays this way, producing a quick transition from highlight to midtone and from midtone to shadow, which is recognizable by the hard edge of the shadow. A soft box or similar modifier emits rays at many different angles, which fills in the edges of the shadow and creates a long transition from midtone to shadow. With these properties the soft box and similar modiﬁers are go-to tools for most portrait photographers and also the simplest way to get pleasing results.
SOFTNESS. In addition to the way a modifier is constructed, the size of the modifier relative to its distance from the subject largely determines the softness of light. I can place a small modifier very close to the subject and achieve softness, drama, and feathering for a gradual falloff.
FEATHERING. Feathering is the most underused but effective way of controlling light quality. By moving the light source so that only the desired area of the subject is lit, the light rays fall at different angles and have a chance to work. Feathering changes the size and shape of your modifier relative to the subject, enhances textural lighting of skin and clothing, and changes the angle of incidence.
MAIN LIGHT. When photographing for a sport portrait or composites, I like to get the main light very high, which creates drama. The axis of light hits the feet, and the edge of the light, which is not as intense, hits the head with a very natural falloff of light down the body. With this position I can have the light extremely close to the face, and light falling off naturally down their physique. Sometimes the light is so high—creating drama on their chest, arms, and abs—that I fail to get a catchlight. That’s usually OK, but if I’m not satisfied I add a Westcott Eyelighter reflector to give a little catchlight in the eyes but avoid it becoming a fill light by carefully crafting shadows and evoking the emotion I desire.
ACCENT LIGHTS. I use accent lights to create definition and a visual edge with athletes. In some work you see the accent lights actually become the main light, which can be beautiful. But I prefer to use them as a fine chef uses spices—with subtlety and believability. This is a light that could come from a secondary source.
To master accent lights, remember that a subject reacts to light through absorption, refraction, reflection, or a combination of these.
THE ANGLE OF INCIDENCE = THE ANGLE OF REFLECTANCE. Typically you’ll place an accent light at a greater angle from the camera position than a main light. The greater angle—incidence—is more reﬂective, which has more intensity and is passed back to the camera lens. Controlling accent lights is not only dependent on intensity, size, distance, and the angle of light but also the angle and height changes of your camera as well as the angle of your subject’s body.
Once you begin to know the light and understand its technical aspects and how to control light, you have the ability to create exquisite lighting that brings forth your artistic vision and elevates your work to emotion-provoking portrait art.
Mark Bryant operates a studio with his wife, Sandra, in Missoula, Montana.