Lighting Techniques 3: How to get that shadow on the face

Day Two Hundred Nine: 365 Graph

This one’s another subtle one because it’s so obvious, but if, like me a few months ago, you’ve only shot with available light, on camera flash, or bounced your light because you were told to – you probably haven’t thought about how light affects your portraits.  And so you have always taken portraits where they came out good enough if the people were photogenic and not so good if they were average.  Well, the key is creating realistic, but soft shadows.  (Although, in fashion photography and other styles you may eliminate all shadows)  The problem with on camera flash is that you end up with super harsh shadows.  (Also, the behind-the-head ugly shadows that make the person look like they grew an afro) What you want to do is to soften up the shadows and move them to the side.  Just remember this thing you learned as a child – shadows appear where light is blocked.

Day Two Hundred Twenty-Three:  Because They Were There

So the first part of this technique is the put the flash to the side of the person you are photographing.  I like the shadows a lot, so I usually put it 90 degrees to the person’s face.  You can angle it depending upon where you want the shadows to be.  Another really good technique is to have the person look slightly towards the flash so that all of the front of the face is lit, but from the cheeks back you get shadow.  It’s up to you.  The second part of this technique is the soften the shadows.  You do this by putting a softbox (or diffusion panel) in front of your flash or bouncing into (or through) an umbrella.  The first time you do this for yourself and see the amazing difference in your photographs you’ll be amazed at the results.  The resulting photograph will look more like what the pros produce than any portrait you’ve shot before.  There’s one final (and semi-optional) step.  You take a reflector (usually gold) and bounce some light back into the shadow area.  (You could also use another flash to do this.)

Day Two Hundred Eleven:  Darn it, it's Monday

As a general rule, you want to leave more shadows for a man and less for a women.  It’s just a general rule – you will find plenty of shots of men with little to know shadow and maybe some of women with lots of shadow.  It mostly has to do with psychology and biology.  Psychologically, there’s something powerful (and other stereo-typical manly traits) about a man being in shadow.  Somehow the almost sinister look (of deep shadows) is awesomely manly.  Conversely, at least in our western culture, there’s something wrong about women being sinister.  Women are supposed to look immaculate and soft and so on.  Biologically, men’s faces tend (TEND!  it’s not a hard/fast rule) to be more angular and we tend to emphasize this in male portraits.  Shadows tend to emphasize this geometry.  Again, with women we want softer, rounder faces so we try and minimize the shadows.  I’ll just say it one more time – this is only a general rule.  You need to experiment and, who knows, your shtick could be to do the opposite and that will make you unique and different from all other photographers.  (Although, you need to have patrons that are ok with portraits that look “wrong”)  And you need to base it on the person you’re photographing.  The deep shadows in a male portrait look awesome as a portraiture study (basically art), but you probably don’t want to do that for a portrait of a CEO.  (If they’re paying for it.  Or if you ever want to be invited back.)

Below is a lighting diagram demonstrating this technique.

Softbox and Reflector Lighting Setup
Softbox and Reflector Lighting Setup

Author: Eric Mesa

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